Peace Presbyterian Church
Romans 5:1-8 3rd Sunday of Lent
Elizabeth M. Deibert 19 March 2017
Tonight we have the Peace Forum on Adverse Childhood Experiences and I hope you can come. I’m looking forward to being there because I’m one of those children who had a significantly adverse experience, although I cannot share the details of that. But I can tell you this: for as long as I can remember I have known that life was complicated, and that people are complicated, and that people who want to do what is right and good, still sometimes do not, because sin has a grip on us. But thanks be to God for grace and for the opportunity to grow in Christian discipleship by living into the hope it gives us.
My adverse experience was balanced by so many positive experiences of God’s grace and love that I stand before you today to affirm with every ounce of my being that suffering produces endurance, endurance character, and character, hope, and hope does not disappoint because of God’s love. For me, the very persons who wrongly crossed boundaries with me also taught me about life, love, and Christian faith. So faith in Christ has always for me been about redemption, about good people who do bad things who are reconciled to God and others. Christian life has always been about forgiveness because I cannot remember a time in my life that did not require deep forgiveness of unspoken things. The fact that this adversity made me grow stronger in Christian faith and hope is just a witness to God’s grace.
Paul talks about justification by faith. By justification, he means being made right with God. Then he talks about the grace in which we stand, and the hope we have of sharing the glory of God, but never are we promised a pass on suffering. We are promised that suffering leads to hope, because of God’s love which we see in Christ’s suffering for us and with us. Listen now for God’s word speaking to us through this important letter of Paul.
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. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person-- though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. (NRS)
Paul’s explanation of grace in the book of Romans can be seen as complicated. In large part, Paul is struggling in his letter to the Romans with the difference between the Jewish faith of his background (and Jesus’ by the way) and the new faith of Christianity which was growing out of that. He wants everyone to see that this new covenant depends on faith, not works – that you cannot achieve God’s favor by being good, but that your goodness is a gift from God through trusting in Jesus Christ, who has made us right with God. Yet he affirms that the covenant God established with the Jews is still valid for the gifts of God are irrevocable. This is an important message for our time.
For if we believe that God proved love by Christ death for all of us – while we are sinners, then we believe that the grace and peace that give us hope are offered to all people – not just Christians, not just Jews, but all people, whether they know it or not. But here’s the sticky point and this one divides Christians. Some Christians will say that when Paul says it depends on faith, that this love is conditionally effective. But I say that God’s love is not conditional based whether you believe in it. To me the grace and gift is that the love is there, whether I believe it or not. But by believing it, and putting my trust in it, and living according to it, I grow in saving knowledge of what is already the truth.
My being loved and accepted by God does not depend on my goodness or even my vocalization of faith, but with affirmation of trust, but with faith, I can receive and be blessed by the gift of grace that I do not deserve and cannot earn. As I lean into it, it begins to change my life. So by faith I live into truth of what already is fact – that God has loved me from the start, and that there’s nothing I can do or anyone else can do to me to make God stop loving me. But true love does not ever force itself upon anyone. So my act of receiving, being grateful for is my faithful response to God’s love.
But the next logical question is one that Ed Whitehead and I discussed at the St. Patrick’s Day party. For see, we were doing more than eating corned beef and cabbage, green cupcakes and doing jello shots. “So what about the person who has no faith when they die? What then? Are they saved?” Well, first of all, we do not know what is in every person’s heart, and we do not know what kinds of encounters people have with God as they are moving from this life into the next.
But this we know about God. If we, flawed as we are, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more so does God? Jesus said that. (Luke 11:13) If we are very concerned, understanding and worried about those who do not have faith, how much more is God merciful, understanding, and loving toward them? So this is when someone usually says, “Well, then, why bother to believe? Why teach your children the faith? Why keep praying and holding on to hope that your adult children will grow in Christian faith? Because believing draws you into a life-giving relationship of gratitude with God. Believing is what gives you courage to endure suffering gracefully. Believing is what gives you power to turn endurance into character. Believing is what makes that character-building experience into a hope that cannot and will not be denied, a hope that is constantly renewed by the out-pouring of God’s love through the Holy Spirit living in us. And believing is a powerful witness, especially when you are going through trouble.
And not believing in the love that God has poured out for all of us is kind of like being a bratty kid who never grows up to appreciate what his or her parent has done.
Ingratitude is at the heart of our sin, for look at Adam and Eve, who had a perfect garden of Eden – only there was one fruit forbidden and they were determined to have that. And God does hate sin, because sin separates us from God’s best vision of us. Sin wounds us and those around us. Sin takes the life out of us, while the grace we know in Christ puts it back in us. Sin mars the image of God in us but can never destroy it, because Christ is in us, healing us from within. So we have peace with God through our friend and Savior Jesus Christ.
Christ lived and died for us, so that we might learn love, so we might keep turning away from the hurtful and damaging sin, so that we will be empowered to love, learn to gift others with the same kind of sacrificial love. That’s the way love is. Love inspires more love.
Let’s think about it in terms of an ideal parent-child relationship. A child benefits from a parent’s love and often gives back, but in a way that pleased the child, who cannot see beyond self. Maturity brings the ability to see the love more clearly and to respond to it with gratitude and with sacrificial love in return. So it is with those new to the Christian faith. Initially they are just worried about whether God really loves them and whether God is happy or mad with them. But the mature Christian is confident of God’s love and forgiveness, and is seeking to learn to love others sacrificially – just like God.
Paul is trying to help us see that if we suffer, it is not a moment to be childish and question the love of God or complain like the Israelites in the wilderness. No, suffering invites us into the world of Christ who demonstrates how grow strong in endurance. Enduring means we face the pain of life. We do not try to avoid it by the distractions of entertainment. We do not numb ourselves to it by eating and drinking. We face it with maturity, knowing that when we endure trials bravely with faith, character is being built in us. All of us want to be persons of great character, but funny enough no one wants to go through the endurance of suffering to get there. C.S. Lewis was right when he said, “Hardships often prepare people for an extraordinary destiny.”
Sue Seiter’s friend Terry lost her daughter, then her husband, and now this past week, her 53-year old baby brother (whose has four children), died of a sudden heart attack the day after his wife was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. This is painful. There are no easy answers for this grief – only the hope that comes from knowing that Christ suffers with, and that God loves you and will carry you through the suffering endurance all the way to hope. God does that largely through the gift of loving and supportive people surrounding Terry and her brother’s family with love.
And that brings me back to the place I started…adverse childhood experiences. All of us have some adversity along the path of life, and some have had more than a fair share, at an age when endurance is not yet built. So the healing process can be quite complicated and long, but the love of God has the power to make us whole, despite the sin that has disrupted our lives and caused us pain. If God is for us, who can be against us. Say it with me: Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope.
And hope will never disappoint us. That is our boast, our confidence, our peace – that God is for us, and so we have confident hope of sharing the glory of God. If we suffer with Christ, we will surely be glorified with him. And the suffering cannot compare to the glory. So we have peace, even when we have troubles. I learned this hymn as a child, and as a teen, it was one of the first I learned to play on the piano. Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain. Leave to your God to order and provide, who through all changes faithful will remain. Be still my soul, your best and heavenly Friend, through thorny ways, leads to a joyful end.