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May 25, 2016, 9:05 AM

Hope in Hard Times

by Sandy Bach

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we[a] have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access[b] to this grace in which we stand; and we[c] boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we[d] also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 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.  (Romans 5:1-5 NRSV)

Five verses.  Five short verses that are chock-full.  We could spend weeks unpacking it.  Five verses that offer us insight into this community we call the trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So where should we begin?

Perhaps we could talk about justification by faith.

We would begin with Jesus’ time on earth teaching and modeling God’s love.  Because of his death and resurrection, we know and trust that we have been made right with God.  We can depend on that and know that the Spirit is working in and through us to transform our lives.

Perhaps we could talk about peace.

Being made right with God means that we have real peace with God.  Real peace is what happens when God sees us as whole.  Others may scoff, but we don’t care.  Their opinion doesn’t matter.

Real peace is also an action.  It’s what we work at each day of our new lives, actively communicating with God and learning to build and sustain our relationship with God.

Real peace is also an action when we seek to understand and serve our neighbor.  It’s noticing people around us and, in Tony Campolo’s words we, “see Jesus in their eyes.”  It’s serving God by serving those in need.  It’s praying daily.  It’s smelling the roses despite your hectic day.  It’s being a right model for our children.

We have been made right with God; our relationship is intact because of God’s activity on earth.  Being made right grants us real peace to become the authentic man or woman or child that God created us to be.

Perhaps we could talk about grace: freely given, unearned and irresistible.  Grace that flows from the father as a gift.  Grace that enters into our lives unexpectedly to remind us of God’s great love for us.  Grace that surprises us by making the crooked straight; making us right with God.

And so, we boast in our hope.  Not the chest-pounding boast of those too full of themselves.  No, this is rejoicing, giving thanks being joyful at what we have to look forward to.

So far, we've read about God who entered the world as a vulnerable baby, crawled up on that cross and claimed victory in death.  All so that we can be right with God and ourselves.  We accept this offer through the gift of faith.

But, wait, Paul says.  There’s more.  And we sit on the edges of our seats waiting for more.

When “more” arrives, we run for cover.

We also boast in our sufferings, Paul writes.

Really?  We boast in our trials and tribulations and sufferings?  This is the part I’d like to skip, if you don’t mind.  Not the talk of hard times; the hard times, themselves.

What does that boasting look like?

Perhaps it means we can waylay that good friend at the grocery store who makes the mistake of asking you, “How are you doing?”  Then we make sure they know how awful life is, that no one knows the trouble you’ve seen, that nothing is going right in your life.  But, of course, you’re not complaining.  (At that point, your friend rolls her eyes.)

Wrong, says Paul.

So, perhaps when someone asks us how we’re doing, we should have a stiff upper lip.  Through gritted teeth tell them things couldn’t be better, that you’ve never had it so good.

No, that’s not the boasting Paul is talking about.

Then what is it?  What does he mean by boasting?  That’s where we have to look at context.

This letter was written in a part of the world where shame was something society did to disgrace those who didn’t go with the flow.  Christians of that day were a combination of Jews who recognized Jesus as the Messiah and gentiles who left behind their multitude of gods to worship Christ.

People did then what we sometimes do today.  They tried to shame them and guilt them into returning to the common practices.  When guilt and shame failed, oppression and affliction increased.

It was hard being a Christian in first century Rome, especially for those whose living in cultures that kept their communities in line with shame.   If you’ve ever been bullied, you know how it feels.  The bully wins the fight by out-talking you, winning the argument and then shaming you for not agreeing with him or her in the first place.  That’s the kind of shame Paul is writing about.

Paul says that when bad things happen, this isn’t a time for putting on sack cloth and ashes.  This isn’t meant to put one to shame.  Rather, he points out a different response to suffering: Don’t waste it.

Peter L. Steinke wrote in his book, “Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach” says that “We ‘waste’ suffering if we gloss over, deny, avoid, or neglect its message…If, however, we can learn from pain it is not wasted by a source of life and health.”[i]

If anyone knew about suffering and affliction it was Paul.  Beaten countless times, imprisoned, criticized and rebuked, he knew about endurance and character and hope.  He didn’t view suffering as something to be pursued; it wasn’t even something desirable.  Yet, he also believed that to duck and run is a waste of time and energy.

Times of intense struggle are opportunities to seek out and feel on a deeper level the presence of God: a deep sense of God living within you and walking with you.  After all, if you’re going to have to walk through that refiner’s fire, you might as well as get as close to the almighty as you can.

Funny thing is, the closer to the fire of hard times the closer we are to God and the less intense the heat.  God is at work within you.  Don’t waste the opportunity.

Michael Jinkins suggests that a kind of purgatory might exist; not in a place but as a process.  What if God uses this process of purgation in order to make us whole?

When have hard times ended up making you whole?  When have you felt that sense of endurance and character building?  Does it give you hope today?  Are you a better person for what you experienced?

Paul suggested to the Roman church to stand tall when they are suffering.  In the face of shame and guilt, it was a good ploy.  When you smile at your bully, somehow it takes some of the sting out of their hateful words and actions.

I wish I could make this into a formula.  An easy three-step formula of how to endure hard times with little or no angst.  But, that’s not how it works.  Some people don’t make it and are broken forever.  It’s to those we cannot nor should not boast.  They are the ones we walk beside, knowing that it wasn’t easy for them and empathizing in their pain.

Today is Trinity Sunday.  A fitting and appropriate day that follows Pentecost: the day the Holy Spirit burst in on our world to change it forever.  Trinity Sunday celebrates that holy community of Father-Son-Holy Spirit; Creator-Redeemer-Sustainer.

We need this Trinity.  We need what each of them offers in the living God.  We need it in order to see God through the life and the sacrifice of Jesus, His only Son.  We need it so that we can see God through our faith instilled in us by the Holy Spirit.

We need this Trinity.  We need what it offers in order to endure the bad times, to build up our character and know that hope doesn’t disappoint.

We need this Trinity and its promise.  The promise of love poured out when we most need it: an ever-flowing love that has no end.  The promise of peace that we find when we open our eyes and see God at work in our lives.

Suffering – endurance – character – hope.

Paul knew all about these thing.  And the older I get the more I appreciate his daring words on suffering.  I know for a fact that many of you have experienced the same outcome: endurance and character and hope.

You didn’t waste it.  God helped you endure.  You can stand tall.  Walk quietly with others who are suffering.  Allow the Holy Spirit to speak the right words through you.

In the words of Michael Jinkins:  “To claim, as we do, that we are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is to claim no less than this: We are washed, cleansed, in fire and water, and henceforth we drip the holy stuff wherever we go.  We track it into every room of our lives and out into the world.”[ii]

All glory and honor be to God.

Amen.

[i] Peter L. Steinke, “healthey Congregations: A Systems Approach (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 20016) page 52.  As quoted in Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Michale Jinkins, Pastoral Perspective, Feasting on the Word, Year C Volume 3 (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) page 42


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