Romans 5: 1: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”
1. Why were these words necessary?
- To heal division in the church
- To support and to sustain those suffering in the church
- How does God accomplish all that? By sharing his Spirit with us.
- What does the gift of the Spirit accomplish in us?
- He reconciles us to our reconciliation with God;
- He sustains us in suffering with hope
- He reconciles us to each other in love
- Put our hands out; eyes up toward God
- Let us Boast & glory in gratitude for what is already ours….through the Holy Spirit
In the center of the city of Brussels, Belgium is the town square, La Grande Place (which just means, The Big Place). Atop the beautiful old buildings around the Grand Place are statues; I have no idea who they represent. Somebody with a sense of humor must have placed these statues, because each one of them is pointing off toward another statue across the square, who is pointing toward another statue, who is pointing toward another statue, and so it goes, all around the square, until the last one is pointing back at the first one. It’s as if someone had asked, “Who stole my waffle?” or “Who is responsible for Belgium’s high unemployment rate?” and each one is saying, “Not me; Him, over there.” Everyone is trying to justify themselves by pointing the blame at someone else.
Does that sound like our election year rhetoric? It’s a fitting symbol for Belgian politics, too. Every week there’s a major political crisis because so many Dutch-speaking Flemish politicians and civil servants from the north, and so many of their French-speaking Walloon counterparts from the south, are in a perpetual snit against each other. They seem to define themselves first and mostly as not the other, and as victims and adversaries of the other.
Which leads to the first question in the sermon outline: Why were these words of Romans 5: 1-5 necessary? What’s the purpose of these words? Subpoint A is that Paul wrote them to heal division in the Roman church. For divisions there were. Read the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Churches of Rome, where he greets the people who will hear this letter, and you’ll find both Jewish and Gentile names. Throughout the whole letter, relationships between Jewish and Gentile Christians is a topic that Paul returns to over and over.
That’s because in the Jewish communities of the time, there was a temptation to think of oneself as justified before God by virtue of being Jewish, and not Gentile. Because everything that offended Jewish sensibilities of diet, behavior and worship, were matters of celebration in pagan cultures. And had not God chosen Abraham and his descendants out of all the tribes and nations of the earth, to be his unique and blessed people? Yes, but in order to be a blessing to all people.
Greeks and Romans returned the favor. Contempt and hostility against Jews and Judaism were just as bad in the First Century as today and in the last Century. Gentiles tended to look down on Jews as backwards, repressed and unappreciative of all the blessings that their supposedly advanced, superior, cosmopolitan, broad-minded and tolerant pagan civilization offered.
Now imagine putting people of these two different groups into the new society called, “the church.” To the world it looks impossible, because people in each group are so used to identifying themselves and justifying themselves over and against the people in the other group. But Paul believes in a God who specializes in the impossible, who brings life from the dead. To Paul, the church of Jewish and Gentile believers together is God’s primary sign and wonder signaling that we are in the Last Days leading up to the renewal of all things. It is even the first fruit and foretaste of the coming reunion and recreation of heaven and earth. One new people out of such diversity is not just nice if you can achieve it, it’s what Jesus purchased with his blood. So Paul is not about to give up on it.
Paul also wants these mixed Jewish and Gentile churches in Rome to be his partners for missionary work in Spain. But that can’t happen if they’re at each other’s throats. So Paul spends the first three chapters of Romans showing both Jews and Gentiles how they are in the same boat when it comes to sin and their need for salvation. Then he shows Jew and Gentile how they are in the same boat when it comes to the extravagant, magnanimous, unmerited grace of God that rescues both groups from bondage to sin and death. And now in Romans 5 Paul is saying that both Jew and Gentile in Christ share the same Spirit and stand in this same grace and access it by the same faith, by trusting the same God to be and to do what he says he will do.
So that’s one reason why these words were necessary: to counter church conflict and to build church unity, by demolishing our divisive, destructive tendency to identify ourselves and justify ourselves in contrast over and against others. Paul is seeking to replace our trust in our own efforts to justify ourselves, with trust in God’s gracious work to justify us through Jesus Christ.
The second reason these words were necessary, then and now (subpoint B in the outline) is suffering, or as some translations put it, tribulation. “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” Paul told his disciples in Antioch. We experience suffering as a giant question mark over the goodness, faithfulness and power of God. Under its lash we also feel the questioning of ourselves, our value, our worthiness. Under physical or emotional distress, to say that we can “glory in our sufferings” seems so counter-intuitive and illogical, I’ll admit, I keep looking for an escape clause or a footnote to an alternative translation. But I find none. When that terrible diagnosis comes, or the nasty letter or the flaming email from someone you thought you could trust, tears, fears and grief need their due time and expression.
If anyone knew suffering, it was the Apostle Paul. But as I read about Paul’s sufferings in the Bible, most of them seem to be matters of persecution, like when he was whipped in the synagogue, chained in jail, beaten or stoned by mobs, all for his witness. Or they are the hardships he endured for his ministry, like shipwrecks, hunger, cold or thirst. And Paul knew the heartbreak of betrayal, separation, and of irreconcilable differences. How do we square what Paul says about “glorying in our sufferings” with other words of his, like “we despaired of life itself,” or “in addition to all these tribulations, there is my constant anxiety over the churches?”
Paul’s Roman audience also knows what it is to suffer the loss of friendships, family, livelihoods and maybe even life for Jesus and the gospel. When Paul later tells the Romans that they have died to sin, that’s because many of their Jewish relatives have counted these new Christians dead, as far as they were concerned. Gentile believers too would have suffered a social death for their faith: shame, rejection and ostracism for fellowshipping with anyone Jewish, or identifying with anything Jewish. The suffering mentioned here, today, is largely and mostly about persecution for the faith.
Such suffering could also drive both Jewish and Gentile believers apart. But Paul says that our justification before God, and by God, not only helps us relate to each other, it helps us relate to our suffering, especially that suffering which comes as the cost of following Jesus Christ.
“Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope,” Paul says. For centuries, alchemists sought the magical secret of turning things like lead, mud and rocks into gold. We know now that no such secret exists in the material world. But the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and who makes us right with himself, can do even greater miracles, and for real: he can and does use suffering to form in us the first fruits of our coming glorified, resurrected character. The only alternative is to be locked into cycles and prisons of fear and resentment over the sufferings, losses and injustices we all must face. Without God, suffering can make us bitter. With God, suffering can be used to make us better. We are not told that suffering is good, nor that we should seek it, or welcome it. It is the nature of suffering that it most often seems unfair. And it is. But unfair is not the same as fruitless. What the world, the flesh and the devil mean for evil God can use for good. Out of the suffering in the first Roman churches God can bring character and unity.
Which brings me to the second question: How does God accomplish this transformation of division into unity, and suffering into fruitfulness? Ours is not a God who simply stands back and shouts rules, regulations and suggestions at us. The only thing that really changes us is a love so great that it doesn’t need to change us, to love us more. And so, “the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” God is not just a cosmic referee; God has skin in the game. God gives the gift of himself when he shares with us his Holy Spirit. That is the ultimate in love.
For the last four or five decades, American Christian churches have been embroiled in this controversy: Where is the Spirit of God at work? And what is he doing? Does he work first and foremost in the world, in movements of justice, liberation and peace-making? If so, then the church’s job is to see the Spirit at work in the world, testify to it, and join that work in the world. Or does the Spirit of God work only and first of all in the church, through miracles like healing, and gifts of prophecy and speaking in other tongues? If so, then the world is supposed to see such work and join it in the church.
I’m not about to tell the Spirit of God where he can and cannot work. I suspect that the Spirit is working both inside and outside the church. But today’s passage tells us about the works and the presence of the Holy Spirit which we can access and experience, anywhere, in the world, in the church, in our homes and our hearts. These works are addressed in the third question: What does the gift of the Spirit accomplish in us?
Three things, briefly. A: The Spirit reconciles us to God’s reconciliation with us. Then we accept God’s reconciliation with us on faith. For God, through Christ, is already reconciled to us. God is not reconciled to everything we do and want and believe, and nor should we be. But God is reconciled to us, as God’s human creations, and by the purchase price of Christ’s death and resurrection. The question always is: Are we reconciled to God? Are we reconciled to God as God? And are we reconciled to God’s way of achieving and demonstrating his reconciliation with us? Not if we are still clinging in any way to the false promise that we “can be like God….” Not if we are still clinging to any shred or hope of self-sufficiency, or of justifying ourselves. For that would depose us from the thrones of our own hearts, and the human heart is stubbornly and subtly resistant to that. And yet such surrender is what it takes if the Spirit is to give us the faith, or the assurance of God’s love for us.
Sometimes the Spirit might need to break that stubborn self will dramatically, like it did with Paul himself, when Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus, and asked, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” But more often, the Spirit of God seems to woo us, and draw us, gently, patiently, peacefully. If we grew up in church and a Christian home, and cannot remember when Jesus was not our friend, that is as miraculous a sign of the Spirit’s presence and power as is the most dramatic, surprising, tear-jerking conversion of the most riotous, resistant soul.
Either way, it is the Spirit of God who presses the invitation upon us, who nudges and draws and points us toward accepting the acceptance that God has for us; the Spirit of God reconciles us to God’s way of reconciliation with us. The technical term for our reconciliation to God’s reconciliation with us, is “faith.”
- Secondly, the Spirit of God sustains us in suffering with hope (repeat). A hospital chaplain would regularly ask patients, “What is it you are looking forward to most when you get out of the hospital?” That was to gauge their emotional and spiritual condition, especially their level of hope. Those who said, “I don’t know; I hadn’t thought of that,” had a lower recovery rate than those who said things like, “I want to try this different way of getting around the sand trap on the 7th hole of the golf course that I’ve had in mind,” or “I want to attend my nephew’s wedding.”
Those are good things to hope for, but, according to today’s passage, the Christian can “boast in the hope of the glory of God.” Even in the worst loss and suffering, there is something to hope for, beyond it, at least. Not even death can take away a hope like that. That surprising glimmer of hope that breaks into the darkest of circumstances, is also the calling card of the Holy Spirit. So, another thing the Spirit does is he sustains us through suffering with hope.
Thirdly, C in the outline, the Spirit of God reconciles us to each other in love. Love and reconciliation go together, because true and lasting love require the willingness to work at reconciliation with each other, and the constant work of reconciliation one with another. On TV or in the movies, reconciliation is usually a one-and-done event, often, when the villain dies. But in real life, we’re never done with the work of working out hurt feelings, clarifying misunderstandings, or figuring out how to live with differences in belief, temperament or personality. We’re never done slapping down our mental evaluations of people’s appearances, popularity or appropriateness that aren’t really ours to make, nor the comparisons between people that we don’t really need to make. But those are the things that subtly drive people apart.
The willingness to work at even the littlest matters of reconciliation is the difference between love as just a feeling, and love as a virtue. The most heady, bubbly feelings of attraction and excitement that we call “love” will come and go, and mostly go, because of all the normal knocks and tensions and misunderstandings and disappointments of life with one another. We all have rough edges and tender spots which rub against each other, and cause hurt feelings. We learn patterns of avoidance or aggression, to protect ourselves or to control others that only further draw and drive us apart.
If we’re still looking for evidence of God’s Spirit at work inside the church, I would point us toward the marriages and friendships that have long endured and grown through this constant work of reconciliation, to people have come to deep places of understanding, respect and spiritual and emotional intimacy, as well as physical intimacy in the case of marriage. I would also point also to those ministries which work toward the reconciliation of ethnic groups like Bridging Cultures Canby. I would point as well to or our support of mission work around the world, as God continues his ministry of reconciliation through us.
And if we would look for evidence of God’s Spirit at work outside the church, that’s a little harder to gauge. But consider the big effect of a little event that happened in Warsaw, Poland, in 1970, when a man suddenly dropped to his knees before millions of viewers on TV. The man was Willi Brandt, the late Chancellor of the former West Germany. In the course of an official state visit, Brandt came to a monument to all who had died in the Warsaw Uprising against the German Occupation in 1944. There he was just to lay a wreath. Which he did. But then he went off script and fell to his knees, there to remain in silence for several minutes. Where did that sudden inspiration come from? Brandt’s Lutheran upbringing had inspired his opposition to Nazi rule in the 1930’s. It also inspired his life in exile during the Nazi years. Brandt said that, before such a monument to such a history, words failed him. Kneeling in repentance and tribute was the least he could do. The shooting had stopped twenty-five years earlier. But many people would say that Brandt’s fall to his knees was the beginning of peace for them. It inspired many other people in both Poland and Germany to work toward reconciliation between their two countries. I don’t know for certain that the Holy Spirit moved Chancellor Brandt in that moment, but that simple, spontaneous and unscripted act bore the Holy Spirit hallmarks of surrender, repentance and reconciliation. Such reconciling is a sign of the overflowing love that the Spirit of God pours into our hearts.
Faith in God’s reconciliation with us; hope even in suffering, and the love to live toward reconciliation, these are works of the Holy Spirit mentioned in today’s passage. They are also, historically, the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and love. I still don’t have all the answers to where the Spirit is working and what all he is doing today. But today’s passage locates him inside our hearts, planting, prompting and encouraging in us faith, hope and love.
So what do we do in response to the Spirit’s gifts? That’s the last question in the outline, #4. The first thing, subpoint A, is that we do something quite different from what those statues above the Grand Place in Brussels are doing. They’re holding their hands out, palms closed and facing downward, with the index fingers pointing at each other. It looks like a game of round robin recriminations. Let’s take a different stance, spiritually speaking, one of holding our hands out, like those statues, but both of them, with the palms open and facing upward, to receive grace from God, rather than to project and to cast blame and shame on someone else. Instead of just casting our gaze upon the guilty parties around us, like those statues seem to be doing, we turn and keep our gaze upward, toward God. Like they say in AA, “Whenever I’m fixated on you, I should be looking at me; whenever I’m fixated on me, I should be looking at God.” Eyes of the heart upward toward God, hands of the heart, so to speak, open to receive, that is the spiritual stance that draws the reconciling work of the Holy Spirit into our lives and our world. And that is the stance that makes possible the embrace of those in need of reconciliation.
The second thing, subpoint B, that we can do, we’ll do in just a moment, when we sing “O Power of Love.” It’s what Paul said in verse 2: that we “boast in the hope of the glory of God.” That we celebrate the gifts of God’s Spirit which make it possible for us to receive and share God’s reconciliation with us; that we praise the God who shares himself so freely and intimately with us through his Spirit. Let us praise the God who sheds his love abroad in our hearts by sharing his Spirit with us, and thus confess and proclaim the love that his Spirit gives. For “God dwells in the praises of Israel,” says Psalm 22: 6. And gratitude for God’s gift makes our hearts all the more deep and wide to contain them.
But before we do, let’s take a moment to reflect in silence upon the gift of God’s reconciliation with us, the God’s Spirit, and the work of God’s Spirit to cultivate and to grow in us the evidences of God’s Spirit: faith, hope and love. And then I’ll pray what I think I hear Jesus praying for us through these words:
My children, I am already reconciled to you. In my heart, you stand already in my grace. That you might know and live this grace, I graciously and generously share my Spirit with you. Because of Him, you can access this grace through faith, find sustenance in suffering through hope, and experience and share reconciliation with each other through love. So let yourself be reconciled to the God who is reconciled to you. Let yourself be loved by the God who loves you enough to share his Spirit with you.