“From Suffering to Hope”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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. (NRSV)
Clichés about suffering abound in both biblical and colloquial traditions. You’ve heard the kind of thing:
“All things work together for good for those who love God.”
“Give thanks in all circumstances.”
“God never gives you more than you can handle.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“We’re strong in the broken places.”
Some of us take great comfort in proverbs like these. Indeed, I proclaim the benefit of living gratefully. And while medical science has proven that a bone is not made stronger by having been broken, an experience of suffering can certainly give a community or a person new strength through new perspective. Having said that, I still will never accept the Everything happens for a reason or God never gives you more than you can handle platitudes. In my opinion, those are just denials in sanctimonious clothing.
When Paul encourages the church in Rome to understand that suffering leads them through character-building endurance and all the way to hope, he echoes a strong-in-the-broken-places theology. And he’s trying to do far more than soothe the aches and pains of individual lives while they try to “get to heaven.” That approach to scripture tries to domesticate the holy Mystery of God into something for bumper stickers and greeting cards. Paul’s teaching is part and parcel of his effort to lead the early church community away from both despair and pride.
In the first fifteen verses of Romans, Paul goes through all the niceties of salutation and his prayer of thanksgiving for his readers. With verse sixteen he gets down to the business of altering an ages-old, religious worldview. He challenges the Roman congregation, made up of devoted Jews who are now following Jesus, to accept uncircumcised, Roman Gentiles as equal partners in the body and work of Christ. Paul is calling into question old notions of who’s in and who’s out, of who decides and why. He knows that calling Jews to open the doors of the Church wider than the Temple doors under the Mosaic law is going to bend some of his readers to a breaking point. Moving from a life of law-based rewards and retributions to a life in the open-ended realm of grace may liberate the community, but that liberation comes at a cost. To quote another common but accurate cliché, The truth will set you free; but it’ll kill you first.
Paul’s challenge to the church at Rome wells up from lessons he learned the hard way, namely that following Jesus is not some easy formula for a happy and healthy life. To the contrary, following Jesus means just that:Followinghim. And Jesus leads us into the anguish and the ambiguities of human life. Following Jesus means trusting the path of Jesus’ love, and sharing it with others. It means speakingtruth to the people to whom Jesus spoke it. That includes speaking truth to power – which cannot accept Jesus’ truth as good news, because his truth doesn’t build nations, armies, and stock exchanges. Jesus’ truth proclaims the kingdom of God.
In our faith tradition, the kingdom of God represents the most essential nature of reality, but power and wealth are ambivalent toward the kingdom. If power and wealth can use, the Church, the Christian institution, to manipulate people into killing and dying to protect the supremacy of the strong and privileged, then they will, like the Emperor Constantine, grant the Church favored status. And since the days of Constantine, the Church has, willingly and often, adapted itself to the shielding vocabularies and symbols of many nations. While the Church has avoided much suffering that way, it has also surrendered its identity as truly faith-based institution. By contrast, when the Church really follows Jesus, when it proclaims the kingdom by loving and serving God before all else, and by working non-violently for peace and justice, then wealth and power have always perceived God’s kingdom as a threat to be opposed and, when necessary, oppressed.
Paul knows that communities who proclaim God’s kingdom almost always suffer for it in some way. He’s lived on both sides of that experience. He has caused that suffering and endured it. And he doesn’t want to lose any Christian community to sentimentality, selfishness, or nationalism.
Preacher, you’re gone to meddling, again.
I understand. Sometimes I don’t much want to hear what I think a text is calling me to say, either. But try to imagine how the early church would have heard Paul saying that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Modern, first-world ears tend to hear most things from inside the blinders of individualism. Why should Ihave to do this or that? What’s in it for me? We ask such things when faced with something not of our own choosing, or something potentially unpleasant. And who could blame individual Christians in first-century Rome who said that there was nothing “in it” for them? Nothing but suffering, anyway. Remember, Paul writes his suffering-to-hope letter to a community of Christians for whom faithfulness to Jesus could mean dying as lion-fodder to the bloodthirsty delight of powerful and wealthy Romans.
As fundamentally evil as that is, the faith to which Paul calls Christians is evidenced not by a rise to conquering power, not by securing a lives of privilege, but by intentionally living a life faithful to Jesus, even in the face of worldly threats. And a Jesus-lifeis lived in community as a witness to the power of Resurrection. Now, Resurrection doesn’t end suffering; it redeems the relentless and otherwise purposeless suffering around us and within us.
That’s not to say that everything happens for a reason. It is to say that God is not proven weak or, even dis-proved by the reality of suffering. Love is never overwhelmed by the world’s rampant selfishness, violence, and despair. In following Jesus, we create communities who embody Jesus’ own commitment to feeding and clothing the poor, praying with the sick, weeping with those who grieve, speaking up for those who’ve been told that their lives don’t matter, and to worshiping God and God alone, the one who makes all things new. God makes all things new not, as nations have tried to no avail to do, by coercive force, but by the love that God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – has poured out for us. God’s love makes us one community, one body, and sends us out to live as a blessing in and for all Creation.
Suffering that is endured with love produces within us, individually and collectively, the character of love. And love always lives in hope. I would define hope as the active and determined commitment to love.
We are merely witnesses to that love. So even when we feel defeated and hopeless, love, as Paul tells the Corinthians, abides. Love remains. Love cannot be defeated, because God is love.