Preached FCCW May 22, 2016
When Saul the Jewish Pharisee who made a name for himself by persecuting Christians, suddenly converted to being a Christian Apostle, he changed his name to Paul.
Some undetermined time after his death, The Apostle Paul began to be referred to as Saint Paul.
But, in between those times, Paul’s middle name might just as well have been “Trouble.”
Think your life is tough sometimes.
Think about Paul.
From the time he chose to follow Jesus until the day he was executed for his faith he was sentenced to hard labor, numerous beatings, and several prison sentences.
He was publicly whipped on five different occasions. He was stoned.
He was shipwrecked three times, stranded a day and a night in the open ocean, and left for dead.
When Paul spoke about troubles, he knew what he was talking about.
Still… we might question the advice he gives us on how we should respond to the troubles in our own lives.
In the passage we just read from his letter to the Romans, he says that we should “boast in our sufferings.”
Which sounds like the sort of advice you’d get from Eeyore in the Winnie the Pooh stories.
All of us complain about our problems sometimes and maybe indulge ourselves in a pity party now and then.
But the whole idea of that is to let others know how bad off we are.
Boasting about suffering sounds a little self-contradictory.
Boasting is supposed to show off how good we have it. To impress others.
And suffering is not the way we usually measure success, unless you are out to prove that you’re a successful martyr.
But if boasting about our suffering sounds strange to us, it sounded twice as bad to the people to whom Paul wrote these words.
In the ancient world, boasting was not frowned upon the way it is today.
The culture of that time was steeped in the two opposing concepts of honor and shame.
Honor was to be sought at all costs, and shame, particularly public shame, was to be avoided.
Bragging about what brought you honor was socially acceptable and even expected.
But you would never brag about what brought you dishonor and shame.
This was even truer for those of Paul’s audience who were Jewish.
According to what was called the Deuteronomic Law, it was believed that God related to people through rewards and punishments.
If you were faithful and obedient, you were blessed with good health and good fortune.
If you were unfaithful and disobedient, you suffered the consequences, which could come in the form of sickness, financial disaster or other kinds of misfortune.
Suffering indicated God’s disfavor.
Boasting about your suffering amounted to advertising not what bad luck you had, but what a bad character you were.
Paul is saying something totally different here, though, about the relationship between hardships and character.
He says that suffering PRODUCES endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.
There is a certain truth to this.
We see how oysters produce beautiful pearls around an irritating piece of sand, or how unfathomable geologic pressures turn coal into diamonds.
We hear Paul’s logic expressed in our language, in sayings like, “No pain, no gain,” or “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
But even if we acknowledge the role of difficulties in forging character, we don’t enjoy them or go looking for trouble. And we don’t go around telling people to be proud that their life is falling to pieces.
Nor should we. God does not enjoy our suffering.
And nobody should ever be told that God wants them to endure an abusive relationship, for instance… or to accept their disadvantages in life such as poverty or discrimination, because they will come out a better person for it in the long run.
Some things demand to be changed not condoned.
Not all suffering is redemptive.
Sometimes the broken places that heal make us stronger in the end.
But, some people who suffer are broken for good and never recover.
Suffering is not something that is desirable or to be pursued, or to be wished on anyone.
Paul is simply acknowledging that life will be difficult.
It was for him. It was for Jesus. It was for those 1st century Christians in Rome to whom he wrote this letter.
It will be for you and me.
Maybe it already is.
Perhaps your own list of personal sufferings has you feeling hopeless about the future.
Paul talks about a kind of hope that does not disappoint us.
I’ll tell you what kind of hope DOES disappoint us.
Any hope we might have of living of a difficulty-free life is not a realistic hope for anyone, least of all a Christian.
The hope Paul promises will never disappoint us is not dependent on circumstances outside us.
It is firmly rooted in our faith in God’s presence with us through whatever trials we may face.
This hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Notice that Paul says God’s love HAS BEEN poured into our hearts.
He talking about things that have happened already.
Experiencing the love God pours into our hearts is often done in hindsight.
Especially when troubles and suffering are involved.
When things are really bad it doesn’t always feel like God’s love is being poured into our lives.
It may even feel like the opposite is happening.
Like is God is too busy with matters of greater importance than our lives.
Often It is only in looking back that we become aware of how God was present with us.
Only then does the exhortation to “boast in our sufferings” begin to sound like a sane response.
Only then is the true intent of Paul’s words revealed.
Which is that it is only in remembering the sufferings so that we can celebrate God’s delivering us through them (not from them) that we can begin to build up a deep reservoir of hope to draw on when the next round of troubles confront us.
Pastor and writer Frederick Beuchner puts it this way:
Remember what he has done in the lives of each of us;
and beyond that remember what he has done in the life of the world;
remember above all what he has done in Christ—
remember those moments in our own lives when with only the dullest understanding but with the sharpest longing we have glimpsed that Christ’s kind of life is the only life that matters and that all other kinds of life are riddled with death;
remember those moments in our lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, judged us, by the power of Christ alive within them.
All that is the past. All that is what there is to remember. And because that is the past, because we remember, we have this high and holy hope: that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition.
Another public Christian voice by the name of Jim Wallis also sounds a lot like Paul when he says that, “Hope means more than just hanging on.
It is the conscious decision to see the world in a different way than most others see it … to look through the eyes of faith … to know that the present reality will not have the last word … to know that God rules.”
If we insist that the key to experiencing God’s love lies in a problem free existence, the inescapable pain and suffering of life can only lead us to a sense of being abandoned or rejected by God.
But if we live in the certainty of God’s love for us, made visible through Jesus and poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, then that deep sense of God’s love can disarm the power of our problems.
No longer evidences of our failures, or of God’s unreliability, they become opportunities to deepen our trust in God as we daily rely on God’s grace through the tough times in our lives.
And because all three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – have a role in the peace we have with and through God, we know that God is all in and fully invested in us.
That’s why Paul talks about another kind of boasting in this passage, too.
He writes that we can “boast in our hope in sharing the glory of God.”
Sharing in the glory of God means two things here.
First, it means sharing in the glory of God’s original intention for us; being all God created us to be,
an intention that we fail to attain because we make choices to pursue other false glories in life.
It also means sharing in God’s glorious presence for eternity.
The basis for our hope of sharing in God’s glory does not lie with us.
It is ours through our faith in what Jesus has done for us at the cross.
He writes that, “through Christ we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand.”
The meaning of the original language conveys an image of being ushered by Jesus into a room
that requires certain special credentials to enter: the room of God’s presence and God’s grace.
You and I, on our own, don’t possess the credentials required for admittance into the room of God’s glory, but Jesus uses his credentials to get us there.
That is how we find peace with God.
Sometimes the door that leads us into that room, is the doorway of suffering. Either our own, someone else’s or the world’s.
To the degree that we are aware of God’s presence in our past sufferings, the greater our chances of finding peace through God in our present troubles.
And the more certain will be our hope in the face of future problems.
On Trinity Sunday it is worth noting how each person of the Trinity has a unique role to play in giving us this hope to live by.
God has created us to share in God’s glory, not to live in shame.
Jesus gives us peace with God by removing from us that which separates us from God.
And God gives us the Holy Spirit, who pours God’s love into our hearts.
When we live surrounded in this way by God’s love for us, we have a reason to celebrate and rejoice, even in the most difficult times of our lives.
It is not celebrating suffering itself, but rejoicing that the extremities of life provide opportunities to be transformed by God’s love.
So, may you discover a peace in the midst of whatever troubles you are facing.
Not a false peace based on vain hopes.
But a peace that we have THROUGH God, because of the peace we have WITH God.