Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5 6.16.19
“Come on, you can do it!” I was running as fast as I could. My legs were burning and my heart was pumping fast. It was raining and the course had gotten muddy. My dad had come to cheer me on at my cross country meet in high school. “Go, Deborah, Go!” he shouted as I rounded the turn. Then he found his way to another part of the course and was standing there as I passed by, encouraging me on, holding his umbrella and cheering as loud as he could. I remain grateful for his presence and his commitment to support me then and now.
“Come on, you can do it!” Those are the best words of a father to the son or daughter trying something new or difficult, whether it is riding a two-wheeler or casting a fishing rod or changing the oil on the car or learning to play an instrument or jumping into a pool or baking a cake. An important fatherly role is encouragement of his children. Not everyone experiences encouraging words from their fathers, however. Sometimes he is not around to offer those words for a variety of reasons. Sometimes he is not capable of being an encourager because of his own background. Sometimes we find words of encouragement from fathers, and sometimes from others, words to keep us going, to give us energy and hope.
The apostle Paul was not a biological father, but in a sense he was a father to multiple congregations, to gatherings of believers spread out across the nations surrounding the Mediterranean Sea who looked to him for words of encouragement for the living of their lives. His words offer encouragement to us today as well. They can be helpful to fill our cup as a reservoir for when we go through difficult times in our lives, for indeed, none of us can escape times of trouble. Paul offers not so much a “you can do it”, but instead a “we can do it through Christ” message. It is important to pay attention to the plural nature of Paul’s words. He is writing to a community of believers who can support one another, encourage one another, walk with one another in times of trouble. You can read his words and find encouragement for you as an individual, surely, but perhaps we get a better understanding when we recognize that it is when we suffer with another, when we offer care and concern for another, that we are together building endurance for the long haul, we are building character, we are being filled with hope that will not disappoint our entire community, not just us as individuals.
Let me suggest several nuggets to take home with you from this portion of Paul’s letter. We are justified by faith. When using the Greek word for justified, you can also understand that as being made righteous. We have already been made righteous, or made right with God, not by anything we do, but by what Christ has done for us. That is number one. It is through Christ that we have access to this grace from God, this open invitation to be in relation with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, also known as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is important that we understand that access has been granted, not denied. We are not blocked from connecting with God, but the door is wide open, and we are welcomed into that relationship because of Jesus Christ. For Paul, this is cause for celebration. He uses a word that can be translated boast or exult or rejoice. I am going to say it is cause for celebration. Because we have been granted access through Christ, we can dance! We can sing! We can paint! We can run! We can garden! We can find any number of ways to express our joy at this good news. Trusting that God has opened the door for us in Christ, we can live with a sense of freedom and peace and hope!
In addition to being Father’s Day, today is identified by the church at large as Trinity Sunday, observed every year on the week after Pentecost. Paul mentions all three members of the Trinity in this passage, not necessarily developing a complete doctrine of the Trinity, which always remains a mystery to us—how can God really be present in three forms? What Paul does is clearly show how the members of the Trinity are connected to one another. It is Jesus who grants us access to God. And it is the Holy Spirit who pours the love of God into our hearts. The Trinity is God at work in community. When we hear that the love of God is poured into our hearts, scholars debate over whether that is God’s love for us—the love of God, or whether it is our love for God—the love of God. Some have come down to say it is very likely both meanings. This love is both God’s love for us, and the love we have for God in response, poured out by the Holy Spirit. It is not the mushy, sentimental kind of love. It is the kind of love a parent has when he or she is determined to rescue a child from trouble. A fierce kind of love, a love that does not give up, a love that keeps the door open always.
Another nugget from this passage is Paul’s familiar chain of reasoning: Rejoice (or boast, or exult) in your sufferings because: suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope that does not disappoint, hope that God’s love is poured into our hearts. It all starts with trouble, suffering, distress, pain. We do not tend to think of troubles or suffering as something to exult over or boast about it. Rejoicing over suffering? That is not my modus operandi—is it yours? We must understand that Paul is not saying that we rejoice or exult or boast because of our suffering– “Oh, I am so glad I got the news about that health diagnosis.” But instead that we rejoice or exult or boast in the midst of our suffering. Not because suffering is easy but because living through suffering makes us stronger. Because living through suffering enables us to be more empathetic to others who suffer. Because living through suffering gives us a different perspective on life, enabling us to appreciate the times without suffering even more. Because living through suffering forces us to endure, to have patience, to trust that there is more. Paul seems to focus on the outcome of an experience of trouble more than the trouble itself. When you face troubles, you learn ways to climb over them or around them or wait them out or simply refuse to let them define you. Troubles require endurance, or patience, or stick- to-it-iveness.
Suffering creates endurance and endurance builds character. Character is made up of our point of view on the world, our connection to God and our way of operating. Character is much more than personality. Your character is a myriad of traits that form your persona, your presence in the world, your sense of self, informing the way you live in the world. Stop for a moment right now and list three character traits that you would use to describe yourself. Find room on your bulletin somewhere. You can write it like this: I am….respectful, honest, hard-working, lazy, selfish, generous, inspiring, withdrawn. Some traits we would list as positive and some we would not. Be real. Would other people identify those same traits in you? Would they see other traits that you do not list here?
The kind of character Paul is describing stems from going through sufferings—either your own or walking with others in their suffering. Forged in times of trouble, it helps us to make it through difficult times in our lives. It enables us to live in hope, hope that does not disappoint. Hope for something new, something different. Hope for a deeper relationship with God through the times of difficulty. It could be grief, it could be health crises, it could be children moving out of the home, it could be the general stresses of a job, a family, and church responsibilities. As we face these things together, we build character and open ourselves to hope, knowing that that the love of God—our love for God and God’s love for us—is poured out into our hearts again and again. Thanks be to God, not for suffering, but for the growth and the power that is ours through suffering. Amen.