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Suffering Produces… Hope Through the Triune God: A Sermon on Romans 5 for Trinity Sunday
May 28, 2013, 8:27 am
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Grace and peace to you, brothers and sisters in Christ.

My heart is heavy this week, as I see photos and videos of the destruction in Oklahoma following the F-5 tornado that ruthlessly cut through homes, businesses, and schools. Even the printed words of the news coverage conjure up vivid images of children huddled in hallways, or trapped under rubble.

Sudden tragedies like this one cause me to pause as I go about my daily routine, and recognize what a gift life is. I stay a little longer, checking in on Laila before I go to sleep at night. I watch her breathing in her crib, and think of parents whose little ones will never raise their arms for an embrace again.

There are times when I find myself wishing I could erase all the images of hurt I’ve seen.  It might be better to turn off the news and focus on life near at hand. Hearing about all who suffer because of violence and poverty, accidents and disasters, injustice and greed, is overwhelming. There is so much pain, and so much wrong in our world.

But I know better than to believe that hurt exists only somewhere out there, distanced from my own life.  Violence, illness, death, broken relationships, and crushed hope are not strangers to me, and I doubt they are to you.

What does it mean to trust God in the face of suffering around us and within us?

Through the letter to the Romans, Paul speaks an answer to us. Paul shares his conviction out of his own experience with Jesus in the midst of the sufferings and triumphs in his life.

The key thing to remember about Paul’s experience and understanding of Jesus is that it is centered in Jesus’ crucifixion. In Paul’s earlier life of faith, he trusted in the one God, who brought creation into being, chose the people of Abraham to be blessed, and set boundaries and an identity for the Hebrew people. He was waiting for a messiah from God who would be powerful and priestly and restore glory and power to Israel and its people.

Later in his life, Paul had an experience of the crucified and risen Jesus. Jesus met him powerfully, still carrying the scars of his crucifixion. Paul emerged from his meeting with Jesus changed and convinced that the one who suffered and died was the one who came from God, the one through whom the world was saved. Jesus, the one who suffered, was also the one who was glorified. God chose to be known in Jesus, especially in Jesus’ suffering and death. Paul knew that the message about Jesus being identified with God would be difficult for many people to accept.

Paul carried the message and ministry of Jesus to people throughout the Roman Empire. Sometimes this work went really well. Paul could see the Spirit working, bringing people to faith. But much of the time, it didn’t go so well. People rejected the gospel, and sometimes Paul suffered for it, ending up in jail, and probably was executed.

Paul writes these verses in 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…” knowing full well what suffering feels like. Even more than knowing suffering, he knows Jesus, who has suffered for our sake, and has risen up out of the death of suffering, so that one day, we would all be raised from death and pain. Paul sees the good God works out of the suffering that happens.

It’s important to realize that Paul does not write, “We boast in the suffering that God has given us.” God does not desire or need you to suffer. God does not delight in our pain. God doesn’t need us to hurt so that we turn to God in faith. It is not God’s plan to make us suffer so that God can work some greater good out of it. God does not send tornadoes or terrorists or cancer or mudslides because God wants to hurt us.

Paul does write, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings.” Paul sees in Jesus both the experience of the glory of God and the experience of the suffering of humanity in a sinful world. In the risen Jesus, Paul sees that God brings life out of death, healing from suffering. We join Paul in looking with hope towards a future when heal all wounds, wipe tears away, and restore life to all. In the meantime, Paul gives us the courage to face our sufferings with trust that God can nurture a seed of hope even in the midst of the greatest despair.

God can work good things out of bad without having chosen to make the bad thing happen just so that the good thing will come. Sometimes people look at a tragedy once they’re through it, and they seek God at work. They’ve learned something or grown, and so they thank God for the experience.

Viktor Frankl is one of my favorite historic psychologists. He was a Jew who was imprisoned in a NAZI concentration camp and later wrote about his experiences and the way they informed his counseling practice. His is a fascinating and horrifying story of suffering experienced by many people. He found that in a situation of utter loss of control, humiliation, and death, some were able to continue their days with more strength than others. The hope that drew people forward came from finding meaning in their days. He wrote, “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on.” (Man’s Search for Meaning) Frankl believed our lives, our suffering, must be met with our creating meaning in them through responsible action. In the midst of the concentration camp, meaning came through the contemplation of the love he had for his wife. In his therapy, meaning after tragedy came through the survivor taking action to help others, such as the mother of a daughter killed by suicide advocating for better access to mental health and speaking to family members of those dealing with depression. Frankl’s practice follows Paul’s thought, that in the best circumstances, suffering can be followed by strengthening, healing, and service, in Paul’s words: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3b-4).

“and Hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:5a). Another way to put it: “Hope does not humiliate us”; “hope does not put us to shame.” Your hope does not make you a fool. You can both acknowledge the hurt in your life, and the brokenness of the world, and rejoice that God is victorious and gives life and healing. To look with certainty towards the glorious future God has promised, even while standing in a suffering present is to be blessed in hope, not to be lost in foolishness. Paul writes elsewhere about the foolishness of the cross, how crazy it is to see God in the one who hangs powerless on the cross. Yet it is precisely in Jesus on the cross that we see our hope and God’s promise: God will bring life out of death, joy out of suffering, welcome out of abandonment.

Today is Trinity Sunday. The Trinity is a mystery. There is much we can’t understand about what it means that, in the words of the Athanasian Creed,  We worship one God in trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the divine being. We accept on faith, in trust, what we see God revealing about Godself. Part of the mystery that is beyond our grasp is the idea that God is one who is uncreated and unlimited

Yet God has taken the experience of limitation into Godself: God has taken humanity into himself     Jesus’ experience of suffering and death is brought into the shared knowledge of the Triune God. Jesus knows what it feels like to walk to the grave of a loved one who has died, Jesus knows what it is to have to entrust family members into the care of another, Jesus knows abandonment, pain, and death. So it is that if there is any suffering in your life, God is able to understand and share that pain.

Jesus also knows the joys of daily life: laughter and a shared meal among friends, the touch of a little one’s hand held in yours, the satisfaction of work well done, and the dedication of sacrifice for a loved one. Both joy and suffering are brought into God’s knowledge, from the vantage not only of the divine, but also of the human. The Trinity is our God-in-relationship reaching out to welcome you into sharing that relationship. God knows your experience, and is working to bring you hope for today and full healing and joy forever.

“…God’s love has been poured into our hearts…” (Romans 5:5). To us who live in a sometimes joyful, sometimes suffering world, God reaches out and enters in. God places in our hearts love that could not otherwise be there, a love that turns us in trust towards God. Turned towards God through the work of the Spirit, we recognize that God also suffers when we do. God gives us the faith to see that God’s plan is not derailed by tragedy. God’s plan was not derailed by Jesus’ death, but even in the finality of death, God worked life. In the presence of suffering, God gifts you with hope and love. That hope and love draw you towards God, and you may find yourself being called into joining God’s work to share hope and love with others: in service and in proclamation. As you look through the mist of the present suffering, may God open your eyes to see the dawn of restoration God is pulling forward.

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