Summit Presbyterian Church
May 22, 2016
Live Into Hope
This passage states the core beliefs of our faith in one short, packed paragraph. One: we’re justified — which is another way of saying accepted, or saved — through faith rather than through the things we do. God tells us how to live, but we don’t earn God’s love through moral perfection. We don’t need to be always seeking God’s approval or fearing God’s anger. Two: we have this peace with God through Jesus Christ, who offers the grace, or forgiveness, in which we stand. Jesus Christ who suffered and died, but who also forgave those who persecuted him and rose from the dead. Three: we have hope in sharing in the glory of God, in God’s kingdom of peace, love and joy, that is now at hand and one day will be complete. In the meantime, God pours love into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Peace, faith, hope, and love . . . . through God, Christ and Holy Spirit. The perfect scripture for Trinity Sunday.
But I’m not going to preach on the Trinity — I hope that’s OK with you. (I know some of you wait all year with bated for Trinity Sunday — and for my illuminating sermons on the three in one and one in three!) So I’m not going to preach on the Trinity but I’m going to talk about the most beautiful but also the most dangerous sentence of this scripture. “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 which has been given us.”
It’s a long sentence. It goes from suffering to hope and it leads to a troubling question: — is Paul saying that suffering is a good thing? Something we should seek and boast about because it’s character building? The New International Version, translates it as “we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance” (A different translation doesn’t always help). There’s a stream of Christian tradition and theology that has sought martyrdom and suffering. That’s seen it as a spiritual discipline, even as occasion for boasting or rejoicing. I’m thinking of monks in the Middle Ages who practiced mortification of the flesh by whipping themselves or wearing hair shirts. Worse, the idea that suffering is redemptive has sometimes been taught to people who are suffering as a way to keep them submissive — as when abused women or slaves or the poor have been counseled to “bear their cross” with a promise of heaven to console them. Now, it’s true that God works through suffering, and that we often learn perseverance and build character through it. But Paul’s words are dangerous when they’re used to support injustice, or to accept unnecessary suffering in ourselves or in the world. Jesus opposed both.
But that’s not what these words mean. Paul’s describing how hope is born. That it’s born in suffering and endurance. We may be optimistic without suffering, but optimism is different. To be optimistic is to see a bright future, to look at the glass half full rather than half empty, to believe things are going to work out. Some of us are blessed with a more optimistic temperament than others, but we all find it easier to be optimistic when things are going well. When there’s evidence to support a positive outlook. Hope is what we have when the evidence supports a negative outlook. Hope is born when things are going badly, when we’re suffering or weak or discouraged but still believe things can be different.
Let’s take, as an example, our children. I’m using the first person plural just like Paul, but when I say “our” children I don’t just mean children that we’ve birthed or raised, but nieces and nephews, students, friends — our collective children. We can be optimistic when they’re doing well. Bringing home good report cards. In good health, having fun on the soccer field, bringing home friends, being polite at the dinner table. We have reason to believe their futures will be happy. They’re happy, we’re happy — it’s wonderful when we can be optimistic. But often it’s not like that with children. At least not all of the time. They bring home bad report cards and the principal calls us. They don’t seem to have friends, they withdrawal to their room and spend too much time on the computer, they complain of stomach aches. They start talking back or slamming doors or waking up with nightmares. They may turn to alcohol or drugs, or find other kinds of trouble, ending up in jail or on the street or dangerously depressed. They suffer. We suffer. We have to endure as we learn we don’t have control. But it’s in that suffering we also can receive the gift of hope. The hope that despite evidence to the contrary, despite all the hurt — change and new life is possible. For our children, and for us. We may have to change expectations — they may never have the life that we dreamed for them when they were infants. But we can hope that ultimately, all will be well because of God’s loving care. That hope is a gift. It comes from the love that’s been poured out to us through the the Holy Spirit. The love which sustains us and helps us to keep loving children in trouble. Not necessarily by doing what they want— often love means saying “no.” So we can rejoice, and proclaim if not boast, that in suffering we have hope, hope in the God who raised Christ from the dead.
Or, to step back and think globally, take the issue of climate change. The time for optimism is past: a relaxed and untroubled cheerfulness about the future is no longer reality-based. The signs are that we’re still moving too slowly to avoid catastrophe. We may take heart from the Paris agreement, but that’s only a beginning, and it’s far from certain the nations will follow through. In our Congress the chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee is still harassing scientists. We may soon have a President who snidely tweets about it and denies it for political gain. The suffering has already begun: record breaking temperatures and drought in India and wildfires in Canada are only this month’s news. But as Christians we can dare to hope that hearts and minds will change. Hope that we can turn from wasteful ways and fossil fuels and build a new energy future. We’ll need perseverance and character — but Paul assures us our hope will not disappoint because it’s based on the love of God. Love that is poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Hope based on the peace we have with God through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s reality based.
It may not seem that way to others. And we have to admit that the story of Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, rising from the dead after three days in the tomb may sound like fantasy. But if we live in hope we’ll be making that hope real, for ourselves and others. By loving our children and other people’s children. By working for a more just world. By caring for all creation. By trusting in the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by proclaiming that peace to all.