Hope in the Trinity

Trinity Sunday
Romans 5:1-5 
26 May 2013                                                                    
Elizabeth M. Deibert                                                        

This is one of a few passages in the Bible which name all three persons of the Trinity.   That’s why Romans 5:1-5 is the epistle lesson for today, but it is our sermon text because it happens to be one of my favorites.  In fact, I was shocked to discover that I have never in seven years here, preached from this text.   I am sure I have quoted it in sermons, that we’ve read in Word-Share-Prayer devotionals at Ministry Team meetings.  It has been especially meaningful to me, as I went to a memorial service of a close friend in Alabama, and saw his wife, struggling with Alzheimer’s.   It has been meaningful to me this week, as we have experienced some exhaustion, thinking that the process of securing this potential new property for Peace might take as long as the last one did to figure out.   I have had the privilege of meditating on this short passage all week, and because I assume you haven’t done that and because I believe you need these verses in your souls as much as I need them in my soul, I am going to lead you through a little exercise to help you get this scripture in your head.   You can reinforce this scripture in your soul by putting the insert of your bulletin on your mirror or in your car this week.   If you want to hear the Spirit more accurately, then it is imperative to build into your psyche some of the significant words of scripture – ones like these.

Romans 5:1-5

Therefore, since we are justified by faith,

 we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,

2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand;

and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings,

 knowing that suffering produces endurance,

4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,

5 and hope does not disappoint us,

because God's love has been poured into our hearts

 through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

(NRSV)

And now, pray with me as I sing a hymn, remembering those who are suffering greatly this week in the greater Oklahoma City area and in Manatee County and around the world: 

Through cloud and out of chaos
Your people call Your Name
In darkness, God will hold us,
In Christ, the storms are tamed.

Toward hope our hearts are drawn
Your healing Life abounding,
Your Love, our steadfast song.

Let’s think about Romans 5 from the perspective of grief.   The tragic loss of a child in a collapsed building is devastating, but losing all your possessions is another kind of grief.   Suffering of this depth is something few of us have experienced.   Most of us can only think of smaller losses, and then use our imagination to consider the expanse of grief in such a circumstance.    Suffering produces endurance because suffering is hard work.   Suffering takes every ounce of emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual energy we can muster.   Suffering can produce collapse or resignation.   Suffering can produce bitterness and envy, but it can also produce endurance in those who keep doing the hard work of grief and for those, friends, family members, pastors and priests, Stephen Ministers, who do the hard work with them with compassion.   Those who support help with the endurance.

It is clear in a race that the one who quits running is not building endurance.   No, it is the one who keeps going, perhaps pausing, but never stopping.   It is the one who sticks with the new walking regimen, the new morning or evening devotions, that endures, that builds character.   Those who are caught in profound grief just need to keep getting out of bed every day and whatever.   It is the very practice of enduring suffering that builds character.

Character building is something that we all value, but we’d rather be characters instead of build character.   We’d rather have the character without enduring the suffering.   Like thinking you can get an A on a hard test without studying.   Like thinking you can lose weight without experiencing hunger pangs.   No, the suffering for a while (endurance) is what builds character.   It’s funny that sometimes parents try so hard to protect their children from suffering, that they go rushing to the school to complain when their child suffers a hardship.   I’m not saying we should not protect our children from abuse – sexual, physical, emotional – but they do need some suffering along the way to build character.    So let’s not always rush to their defense, especially if they might have made the bed they are in.

Some sufferings seem trivial, like the adjustment of a three year old to a new baby brother or sister, or the challenge of being patient with situations and people who irritate you.  But I say that tiny problems can build character when endured, rather than avoided.   Sufferings, large and small, are opportunities for either endurance or bitterness or resignation.  

If you learn in all the small ways (being patient with bad drivers on the road, being patient with family members who bothering you, being generous-spirited toward all who irritate) then you are enduring the little stuff and growing the character to handle the larger events of life.

Don’t you see that the ultimate outcome is hope?   We all want to be filled with hope.   But hope comes to those who have built character by enduring hardship.    Later in chapter eight, Paul says, “hope that is seen is not hope.”   Hope is a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.   Why is hope able to sustain us?   Because of the peace that is ours in Christ Jesus, because of the love that God gives us through the Spirit.   Because this Triune God of ours, is coming at us, moving through us, transforming our lives in the dance that is grace.   This grace-filled dance we have with the three persons of the Trinity, gives us ample opportunity to be filled with peace and love.   But we sometimes think that avoidance of suffering is the key to happiness.   No, Paul says, we are content, even glad for our sufferings because we know what an opportunity for growth they provide.   We understand that our sharing in Christ’s glory also means we share in Christ’s suffering.  They go together.

I would never say to a grieving person, “Now you should be thankful for all the ways you can grow in character and build hope by enduring this sadness.”   I would not announce that God sent a tornado to build character in Moore, Oklahoma.   I would not claim that it is God’s will for a child to die buried in rubble, or for a poor teenaged girl to get raped in public in Brazil, or for a British soldier to get hacked to death in broad daylight by those who are against the war in which he fought or for a good teacher to lose her job because of poor district management.   No, but in that circumstance, it is God’s will for that suffering to turn to hope.

I reckon God knows we need character more than miraculous protection sometimes   I believe God wants us to suffer with those who suffer, as did Christ, such that we grow together in love and peace, such that we cannot be completely content when we know others are hurting.   So my response to the suffering of others is not to offer platitudes, answers, reasons, but to be a caring nurturing presence, like the Holy Spirit.   

That’s the heart of Stephen Ministry is learning to listen and asking good questions, not offering shallow comments, which pretend to sound like hope, but are not hope because they arise without the suffering endurance and the character-building stuff from which true hope is born.   You cannot provide hope for someone.  You can only provide loving care, which helps them to endure the trial and grow in character toward hope.

The internet and our continuous stream of news can be helpful in letting us know people are suffering, but because it is operating on the principle of keeping you glued, rather than building your character, you might get so much detail on the suffering that you become bitter or defeated, rather than enduring pain with others and growing toward hope.   Watching suffering like a voyeur without providing care for someone does often lead to despair.

But the God who is with us as one and as three, who live and died for us in Jesus Christ, whose presence is always with us in the Holy Spirit, is pouring out love, filling us with peace, and challenging us to endure suffering in a way that builds character and hope.   When that happens, then and only then do we begin to be the people God calls us to be – people glorified with Christ, even as we suffer with him.