I was scheduled on the preaching roster at my Episcopal congregation for the Third Sunday of Lent this year, and it so happened that turned out to be the last Sunday we will meet for many weeks. Based on the Lectionary text of Romans 5:1-11, here’s what I said.
I have always had trouble with something Paul says in today’s passage. It’s never made a lot of sense to me.
He writes to the Romans: “…we also boast in our sufferings, knowing 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 that has been given to us.”
That just seems completely backwards from how I’ve seen suffering work. The endurance through suffering? The character? Those rarely come before the hope. From what I’ve seen and experienced, suffering without hope often produces despair rather than endurance.
I’m really not sure how the endurance and character even happen at all in the face of suffering if hope doesn’t come first.
But as I’ve wrestled with this passage, I’m wondering if maybe Paul and I are both right. Maybe hope comes both first and last, at least for those of us who are followers of Jesus.
Earlier in the passage, Paul writes: “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
“This grace in which we stand.” For Paul, here, suffering doesn’t come into a vacuum. We are already standing firm in the grace we’ve received through Christ, then suffering comes and produces endurance, and character, and, finally, hope.
“This grace in which we stand” speaks to us of confidence and trust.
The writer Brennan Manning has said in his book Ruthless Trust that trust is the wedding of faith and hope. “Faith arises from a personal experience of Jesus as Lord,” he writes. “Hope is reliance on the promise of Jesus, accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment. Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.”
That is the hope I believe must come first if suffering is to lead us anywhere other than delusion or fear or despair – “Reliance on the promise of Jesus” – on the grace he has given us access to – “accompanied by the expectation of fulfillment” – that we will share with him in the glory of God. It’s the hope that teaches us trust which comes first. When we trust, we have faith in someone whose love and goodness we have experienced, and we have an expectation – we hope – that love and goodness is taking us somewhere good, even when the journey is difficult.
It’s been quite a week for all of us. As we sat together last Sunday, I don’t think a single one of us had any thought that we were just days away from a pandemic and the need to cancel services and gatherings for the time being. And over this past week, it’s been overwhelming to hear stories from China and Italy, to hear doctors and epidemiologists warm us of how things could go if we are not serious about taking precautions, to have schools closed, events and church services canceled, to see grocery store shelves empty and rush hour traffic all but disappear.
Many people are frightened. Some are panicking, and some are denying there’s anything to be all that concerned about.
I know I’m worried about my folks – my step-father is in his mid-80s and has a genetic lung condition that makes ordinary colds dangerous, much less something like this coronavirus. I’m also struggling with anxiety about my own job security in an uncertain economy. I’m sure each of us has our own worries and concerns for our families and neighbors and ourselves.
Some people are suffering with a scary illness, and some of us are suffering from fear of that illness and its potential impact on our lives.
I learned a long time ago that fear doesn’t have to be rational to be real, and it can be hard if not impossible to reason away. I’ve struggled with anxiety most of my life, and I’ve learned that if I can manage to take a few deep breaths – literally – and keep going through the anxiety, that I learn I was stronger than I thought and the next time the anxiety comes, it’s a little easier to believe there’s something on the other side.
And that’s what has helped me understand what Paul may be getting at. If our trust is in Jesus and the God he reveals to us, when suffering comes, we can take a few deep breaths of that grace in which we stand, and move forward with endurance through difficult times. When we do that, we exercise the muscles of character and our hope is deepened and expanded to ever greater trust in the love of God. That allows us to reach out to others and share out of the hope we’ve both been blessed with through grace and worked to build through endurance.
So as we continue to walk the journey of this particular Lent, with all it’s unique challenges and trials, let us remind each other and ourselves that…
…we have hope that God is doing god things in and through us
…we can trust the Lord we have experienced as loving and good
…we can stand with confidence in God’s grace
…by that grace, we can endure the hardships and suffering we encounter
…we can grow through that endurance and our character will be strengthened
…our hope can grow greater because we see all God is doing in us.
And all of that happens both in our personal life with God and in our life together. May we continue to remind ourselves and each other of where our hope comes from in the days and weeks ahead.