A couple weeks ago, at the inaugural general meeting of the Pacific Mountain Region, Rev. Doug Goodwin preached what a friend of mine would call a barn-burner of a sermon. And in it he mentioned that in 20 years of pastoral ministry he had never preached on the gospel of John; studied and prayed for sure, but never preached because it’s so hard to do John’s gospel justice—there’s just so much going on. I’ve not always been so cautious about preaching from John, but it did make me chicken out for today, and I let the Spirit lead me to think about what St. Paul has to say on this Trinity Sunday.
But goodness. I’m not sure we’re getting off any easier by avoiding John. Today’s passage from Romans pulls us straight into the heart of the gospel as Paul understands it, and I think it’d be hard to stuff more into five verses than we’ve got here. In just a few sentences, Paul has us standing in the thick of the wonder we’re caught up in as people who bear and claim the name of Jesus.
Part of the challenge of this passage is that we enter the conversation part way through. Paul has been talking about Abraham for the last little while to help the Church understand that whatever we are, it doesn’t have much to do with our best will and effort. As far as Paul can tell, Abraham’s principle accomplishment is he managed to show up and trust God to do what God had promised to do. He reminds us that somehow Abraham managed to trust that God really would make him the father of many nations—that he would be the start of a people who would show the world what God is like—which may not have been so outrageous, except he was nearly 100 years old and his wife was not far behind, and they didn’t have any kids. Things didn’t look very promising. Everything about Abraham reminds us that the life of faith, life mixed up in what God is doing in the world, doesn’t begin and end in what we do, but in what God does. And Abraham trusted that.
That’s not to say that what we do is inconsequential, but that a righteous life—life in right relationship with God and neighbor—is not about getting ourselves sorted out so that we’re acceptable to God. Instead, a righteous life flows out of the truth that God has claimed us and this world in love. We don’t live a certain way in the desperate hope that God will notice and love us and bless us. All that produces is anxiety. We live out of the deep-down joyful truth that the One who made the heavens and the earth knows us and loves us and has blessed us just because that’s how God is. It’s what we see in Jesus—God with us—who shows us by his life, death, and resurrection that there is no length to which God won’t go to be with us and for us, because that’s how God is.
Paul knows that if we let that truth get in us, it changes everything; the whole orientation of our life is different. If life rightly lived is mostly based on our capacity to do the right things, then we may live fine, even fairly impressive lives; but it’ll still be life confined to our limitations and our imaginations. Things get awfully narrow by necessity. We have to be completely focused on ourselves and our actions, our accomplishments, our capabilities. (We often get awfully concerned about the actions of others, too.)
We are called to live by faith—which is not simple agreement with the right theological ideas, but a life of intimacy with God (God’s call to Abraham is to get face to face, and learn what it is to trust beyond measure, and so be made whole). When we live by faith we find ourselves in the presence of the One who “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom 4:17) We find ourselves mixed up with the God who can do quite a bit more than we’d come up with. A life of faith isn’t cramped and anxious and obsessed with the right standards. A life of faith is life more and more expansive; it’s life learning to live in the wild height, depth, length, and width of God’s love for us and for this world.
A life of faith, Paul says, is life that begins in peace with God. There’s nothing we can do to make God want us more than God wants us right now. It’s learning to accept God’s invitation to get “face to face” with the One who made us and loves us beyond all measure, and be made whole. It’s learning to cast off the chains of expectation and the impossible weight of self-justification and to receive our true identity as humans holy, chosen, and loved.
What could we let go of if we leaned more and more into that truth? What could we take on?
What would happen if we learned more and more to boast—to take pleasure and delight—not in our best will and effort, but in the hope of sharing in all the glory of God? What would it be like if the things that were worth mentioning about us were not the usual marks of worldly success—what we have and do; stuff that gets rusted and rotted and moth-eaten; stuff that inevitably fades—but that we share extravagantly in the hope and peace and joy and love of God; stuff that never ends, never fades? That would be pretty good, right?
Just listen to this again: Therefore, since we are justified by faith [by trusting that God makes promises and keeps them], we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ [face to face intimacy with God] through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand [not by what we’ve done, but because God just wants it that way]; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.
So good. What more can we ask for?
And I kinda wish Paul would have stopped there. Because then he says this: And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings. And I want to say, “wait just a minute, Paul.” You can hear that record scratch sound, as something goes just not quite right. Paul, that’s just not going to sell. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine the billion dollar industries we’re familiar with, that are concerned specifically and explicitly with keeping us from, or at least distracting us from, anything that comes near suffering.
This is more or less the point where I wish I’d decided to preach on John. This part of Paul makes me uncomfortable. Not just because I’m quite at home in a world where avoiding suffering is one of our highest goals. But also because when I look around, I don’t really think I’ve come very close to suffering in my life. At least Paul did know something about real kinds of things that come to mind when we think of suffering. He speaks with more integrity than I feel like I can.
I also get a little twitchy at the idea that there’s something redemptive about suffering itself. I don’t think that’s what Paul’s saying but we could hear it that way, at which point the church becomes a place of competitive suffering, which is as fun as it sounds. And I also don’t believe that everything happens for a good reason. I think that’s too easy an answer and doesn’t take people very seriously. It’s the sort of well-intentioned thing that we say when we should probably just stay quiet in the face of things that can’t be explained.
But if there’s anything we can say about Paul, we can say for sure that he cares desperately about people, and he’s not one for simplistic answers. So I think there must be a blessing to be wrestled out of this word.
It probably helps to hear it in the context of first century Rome, an honour-shame culture where suffering of any sort or degree was seen as a sign of personal moral failure, and spiritual lack. No self-respecting Roman would acknowledge their hurts and oppressions, their weaknesses of any kind, in polite and respectable company. This would have been ridiculous to the Roman church. And if we can hear Paul’s words with some of the shock that his first audience would have felt, I think we begin to see what he’s getting at.
It’s a disarming thing to say. We can’t help but trip over it. And I think that’s because we don’t really have a hard time hearing it the way the Roman church would have. We may have different social rules and arrangements, but we’re not unfamiliar with the need to keep up appearances. In fact, I think one of the things that can plague us, especially in our time and place, is the tyrannical expectation that we’re fine. Whether we admit it or not, we’re really susceptible to the lie that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. We’re suckers for that kind of formula. We often don’t notice just how susceptible we are to that lie until things go sideways in our own lives. And even when they do, that lie often keeps us doing what we can to hide our hurts and pains out of fear of judgment, and worse: fear that the judgment might be fair. And that weighs heavy. And it’s a deep sort of suffering that feels a long way from standing in the hope of sharing in God’s glory.
I want to insist that it’s a demonic strategy to make us carry our suffering alone—whatever it is, and whenever it arises. St. Peter has a vivid analogy that we should always bear in mind. He says that the devil prowls like a roaring lion, looking for prey to devour. The lion’s tactic is to isolate its prey from the pack, to make it an easy target. The insidious lies (that take all sorts of forms) that keep us hiding the hurt and pain of our lives are a dangerous evil. It can be a matter of life and death.
A couple of times I’ve been on retreats where we’ve been divided into groups of three for the express purpose of confessing our sins to one another. Suffice it to say, this isn’t something that comes naturally. (The organizers very helpfully gave us a list of sins we might consider confessing, in case we couldn’t come up with any.) Opening up to others is weird and hard and nerve racking. We’re not trained for that. But there is a remarkable thing that happens we you do, which is that you realize pretty quickly that most people are in the same basic mess that you are. And it turns out that sin isn’t either that interesting or strong. We remind each other that we are the objects of God’s grace. And suddenly, in the company of other recovering sinners it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to believe that we can throw off the stuff that binds and weighs us down.
Of course, sin is only one kind of suffering (please don’t hear me drawing a link between sin and all suffering), but it is suffering—even if it’s a weight we’ve carried so long we forget it’s there. It’s separation from God who is the source of our lives and our truest identities; it’s shame and division and destruction. And like any form of suffering, it’s not meant to be borne alone. We’re not meant to live in lonely acceptance of the hard stuff. We’re not made that way. As God said way back in the Garden of Eden, it’s not right that humans should be alone.
When Paul tells us that in the light of Jesus we’re going to be a different kind of community—not one that just boasts in our victories, but also one that speaks boldly, with uncomfortable honesty about our brokenness, he invites us to step even more deeply, even more shamelessly into the grace of God. He invites us to remember that there is no depth to which God will not condescend to go for us, and our lives might well be the proof. He invites us to remember that God is not the One who stays at a safe and heavenly distance, but the One who seeks out the broken in the ash heap, amid the rubble. He invites us to lean hard into the promise that ours is the God who gives life to the dead.
Paul doesn’t want us to be pleasantly spiritual at all costs. He wants us to be radically human, because that’s where we really get in on what God is doing: God’s dream, God’s promise and commitment to make all things new. We don’t turn a blind eye to the mess. Sometimes we have to join our voices with the psalmist and demand “how long, O Lord?” Sometimes our prayer is too deep for words and we need the Spirit to pray for us, and someone just to sit with us and shut up. Whatever the case, taking our suffering seriously, bringing it into the presence of God, however meekly, is always an act of boldness. Even when we cry from the depths of pain it is prayer to the One who promises to be with us even in the darkest of valleys, the One whose goodness and mercy will chase after us no matter how far away we get: the One who promises that in life, in death, in life beyond death, we are not alone.
And we’re meant to bear witness to that with and for one another. We’ve got to learn to be about that, more and more. I’ve been thinking about what the late Rachel Held Evans says: “God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if you want in on God’s business, you better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead-on-arrival corners of this world—including those in your own heart—because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens.”
That’s so much easier to preach than to live, or even to trust. But generation after generation of saints confirms that unless we’re prepared to be open and honest and vulnerable about the stuff in our lives that just sucks—the stuff that hurts, the stuff that pushes us to the edge—to actually share in that stuff together, then all that justification and peace and grace stuff that Paul was on about a sentence ago remains obscured and distant and vague. That hope of the glory of God is always just out of reach.
But when we don’t confine God just to the happy places, to the respectable places, to the easy stuff, we put ourselves in a position to learn again that ours is the God who knows what it is to suffer. We don’t have a Saviour who doesn’t get it. And we put ourselves in a position to remember that ours is the God who cares not just about the good stuff, but about our whole selves—every atom and molecule, every joy and pain, every moment of our lives. The truth that we see in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is that all that justification and peace and grace stuff will take shape nowhere else except in the dust and wonder of life. It’s in this life, here and now and come what may, that the love of God will be poured into our hearts, through the Holy Spirit—the same spirit who raised Christ from the dead, and will raise us, too.
May we be bold to trust it.