Grace to you and Peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It has been a long time, my friends, since I have spoken to you in a homily and the first ever that I have spoken in this format. Please know how grateful I am to be with you today sharing my thoughts on the Epistle of the week, the beginning of the fifth Chapter of Romans. I have been told that attention spans are shorter on line so I will ask you to hold onto four words from this passage. The first three are Grace, Peace and Hope. I will save the fourth for a bit later. Grace, Peace and Hope.
At the time this letter was written to the church in Rome, Paul was at the height of his ministry. He had traveled throughout Asia and Greece, spreading the gospel and founding many churches. His reputation was well established as a strong believer in Christ and a mature theological thinker. While the Roman church had been started by others, Paul knew of their struggles and successes through communication with their leaders. The main purpose of this letter was to communicate Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Christ’s life and resurrection, and its application.
Today’s passage is a transition from Paul’s first points of showing the world’s need of redemption and giving an understanding of God’s Grace, to later points of how this brings new life. Paul stresses that Grace is the unearned and unlimited love of God to human beings. This love is not something to be gained by what humans do or don’t do. Grace is love coming from God, poured out from God on us. We are reconciled to God through God’s action, not by our efforts. When we accept and rely on that Grace we then live in peace and harmony with God. Hence Paul’s greeting of Grace and Peace in all of his letters. When we learn to rely on God’s love and presence with us, we have peace.
Today’s passage begins with just that statement, summarizing all that Paul has said before in the letter. He then turns to hope. Paul is using hope as a theological word, not in the common use of wish or would like, such as I hope it will not rain today. Hope is a much stronger concept in that we can be confidant that what God has promised will happen because of what God has done in the past. Hope is not some fleeting desire; it is a deep assurance of God’s continuing presence with us because of the depth of God’s love for us. Our hope is grounded in God’s faithfulness to us.
Grace, Peace, Hope…
Suffering is a fact of the human condition. Each of us has some experience of suffering. Many, in fact most of us, have had a personal time of suffering and loss in this pandemic time. For some, it has been a physical suffering of pain and illness and even death. For others it has been a loss of normalcy and being unable to make choices as we would like. For some it has been a loss of income and financial stability and for most a loss of human contact. Life moments such as weddings and graduations and funerals have been put on hold. And now that we are beginning to regather there is some level of fear or apprehension. There are all types of loss and grief associated with this time. Suffering has hit each of us in some way. And most likely over the past few months we have reflected on what our individual suffering has meant.
Paul tells us that we are to rejoice in our suffering as suffering produces patience and character and eventually hope. And while I do know to what he refers, on this one I beg to differ with Paul. Suffering does not always produce patience or if it eventually does there are other steps in the process. Sometimes suffering produces anger or bitterness, resentment and mental instability. It is important that we reflect on what past suffering has meant to us. Maybe our individual suffering has deepened our compassion for the suffering of others.
Or maybe our individual suffering has brought a new appreciation and gratitude for the many gifts we have. Perhaps we have found a new understanding of our reliance on others. And for some it may have brought a deepened inner strength of our beliefs. Considering how our grief has affected us is important. Maybe we will find we have grown in patience and character. The human condition includes suffering; no one will leave life without it.
Most likely, the suffering of which Paul speaks though is a social suffering, in this case the suffering that Christians experienced at the hands of those who were not believers. Social suffering is when groups of people are caused pain, emotional and physical, because of who they are. Counter intuitively, this is what Paul says to rejoice about, not because of the suffering itself but because of what can come through it. Suffering brings strength and assurance of the promises of God. And that is a truth. For example, if you look at the historically African American churches in our country, there is strength in their beliefs expressed in song and prayer that is amazingly deep and confident. However, understanding that there can be benefit gained through suffering does not mean to legitimize such social suffering.
Systemic oppression of all sorts brought about by people in power is a source of suffering that continues in our society today. The last two weeks have brought this type of social suffering to the front of our minds. We can no longer avoid it; we seek for it to end. For much of social suffering there comes a time of action, rather than seeking patience, to see it come to an end. What that action looks like will vary person to person; alleviating suffering at the hands of others is the common goal.
I agree with Paul, God speaks to us in our sorrows. Quite honestly God speaks to us all the time, it’s just that we are better able to listen in times of sorrow, I think. And when we listen to God we not only are filled with peace and hope but we also can see our way a little better. We can see what it is that we can do to follow Christ’s way, of loving him and all others.
So, my brothers and sisters, acknowledging suffering, may God grant us grace and peace and hope this day and may we see each other’s faces soon.