+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When we last left Paul, our intrepid apostle, he was introducing himself to the Christian community at Rome, asking for their support, and trying to talk sense into a church divided by tension between its Jewish and the Gentile members. In short order, Paul undercut the smug superiority of the Gentile Christians, who believed that their remarkable faith had been confirmed by the expulsion of the Jewish people from the city of Rome, as well as the Jewish Christians who believed that their heritage was a guarantee that God loved them more. It only took a few verses for Paul to put the entire community of believers at Rome on a level playing field, reminding both Jews and Gentiles that it was the good news of Jesus that freed them from their old lives to live for him, and that all of them had fallen short of the glory of God and been found guilty of relying on themselves rather than on Christ, whose faithful and obedient death made their renewed relationship with God possible. This is the background as we encounter today’s preaching text from the fifth chapter of Romans.
Paul begins this section by stating clearly that the source of salvation and favor for everyone who believes is the love of God made known to us in Jesus. Because of this truth, we Christians have no grounds for boasting about our own faithfulness or our own goodness. Instead, we are called to recognize that the love of God that has been poured out into our hearts in Jesus is the driving force behind God’s activity in the world, and that we have the potential to be witnesses to that saving love by the way that we live in relationship with one another and with God. As a sort of general statement about the Christian life, that’s all well and good. But then Paul hits a little bit closer to home. He tells his audience (and, by extension, us) that far from boasting in himself, he boasts in suffering, because he recognizes the hardship that he has experienced as an opportunity for his trust in God to be deepened and strengthened.
I think this statement needs a little bit of unpacking, because it’s easy to get the wrong idea about what Paul is trying to say here. These verses are not designed to explain the source or goal of suffering. Paul is not claiming that God looks down on us and makes suffering happen as a means of testing or trying us. Rather, he believes that God can use the brokenness of our world – brokenness that in large part he simply takes as given – to bring us to deeper faith or deeper trust in God. We do well to recall that when Paul writes about his convictions that suffering produces endurance, that endurance produces hope, and that hope does not disappoint us, he doesn’t do write from a position of comfort or ease. Paul’s ministry was carried out in the trenches, in partnership with people who had experienced unbelievable suffering at the hands of the authorities, just as he had. At various times in his life, Paul was bruised, battered, and lashed, arrested and imprisoned, and on at least one occasion was nearly stoned to death for preaching the good news about Jesus. As one who faced many trials for the sake of the gospel, Paul reminds his readers that it is God’s love which makes it possible to overcome the trials that we will undoubtedly face as people who live in a broken world. This love has been poured out into our hearts, bringing the possibility of peace, hope, and joy to all who have been beaten down by their experiences. To be clear, we don’t receive those gifts because of our own striving to move past suffering, and the reception of those gifts doesn’t justify the pie-in-the-sky claim that Christians shouldn’t be upset when suffering happens. Paul’s message here is a profound statement of trust in the one who is able to bring healing and wholeness through even brokenness and messiness – like the lack of unity between Jewish and Gentiles Christians in Rome, or the anger and despair that is a fact of life in many communities around our nation, or the hardship suffered by countless brothers and sisters around the globe who lack access to the most basic necessities of life. Into all the situations of pain and suffering that befall us, God’s love is poured out, and because of that love we have the hope of healing and renewal.
What makes this love so extraordinary is precisely that we don’t do anything to earn it, that it comes to us even before we ask, maybe even before we know that we need it. This is so important, because we are conditioned to look at our lives through the lenses of cause and effect. When things are going well, we imagine that we’re riding high because there’s something remarkable about us as individuals or as a community that makes us worthy of the good things that are coming to us. When suffering does come, we have this tendency to believe that we are suffering because we deserve it, that God brings misfortune on us in order to teach us something about ourselves or our need to amend our lives. The truth is, brothers and sisters, that the love of God that is ours in Christ is a pure and unadulterated gift. It comes to us without our knowing, without our asking, without our striving, and it comes to us precisely so that we can persevere through suffering and shame and loss. This is the love that led Jesus to take on the pain and shame of the cross in order to destroy everything that draws us from God. This is the love that led Christ to endure the grave so that death’s hold on our world might be broken by the power of Christ’s resurrection life. This is the love that comes to strengthen us in our weakness, calm us in our distress, and bind us ever closer to God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, today we rejoice in the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. This week, it is my prayer that you would experience this love being poured out anew in your life, that you would know the peace of God that surpasses all human understanding, and that you would be renewed in hope as you go out to serve God and one another today and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.