"Character & Hope"

Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31; Romans 5:1-11

Rev. Dr. Lisa Rzepka

Listen     Bulletin

Intro to Sermon. Our next reading is from Paul’s letter to the Romans. This letter is Paul’s most concentrated theological and ethical argument. It’s his longest letter that we have record of, which is why it is positioned first in the New Testament letters. Paul’s concepts are dense, so any attempt to parse all of the concepts you are about to hear are cursory. What is important to know as you hear the Scripture, is that Paul is trying to unify Jewish and Gentile Christians in his letter.

He uses the language of being Justified. Justified not in the sense of arguing one’s position on an action or issue. Being Justified from Paul’s perspective is something God does. Think about justification in word processing terms. Your computer enables you to left justify, right justify, or block justify. It is a way of taking messy margins and making them straight. Paul speaks about the messy relationships we have with God and one another—through the existence of Sin.

Paul contends, God is continuously straightening out those relationships. Which is where faith comes in – faith is required on our part – or God’s efforts are futile.  

Listen again for a word from God.

Romans [3:28-30] 5:1-11: For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and God will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 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, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 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. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Where in your life might you be looking for reconciliation?
With God? Or, with one of God’s beloved children?

Take a moment and think about any grudges you might have held or are holding.

How willing are you to show mercy, especially if it is hard?

The rabbi Edwin Friedman told a remarkable story of mercy and forgiveness that I would find hard to live into. It’s about a good husband and dedicated father who found his wife had chronically been having affairs. Initially upon his discovery, the husband coaxed his wife into marriage counseling. She went once and wouldn’t go again. He hung on to their relationship for two years, desperately trying to get her to see the light. He got angry. He threatened leaving. He tried making her jealous.

He was ready to give up when he heard a conversation at church about how people tend to either hang onto others [as they are], or to withdraw and pull away. What changed his thinking is the notion “that when a relationship is in a skid, one needs to turn the wheel the other way.” Meaning, don’t do what is instinctual. If you have lived and driven in snow and ice country, you learn early to turn into the skid…not away from it.

The next day the husband went home and found his wife predictably on the phone. She hung up quickly. Resisting his urge to berate her, he said, “Listen honey, I know you want some privacy. I’m going to take a walk around the block.”

Unsurprisingly, that was not the end of the affair. The wife’s behavior escalated. Because, Life often gets messier before it gets better. The following week she announced she was going to Florida to visit an old boyfriend. Turning into the skid, her husband went to a travel agency and got her some brochures on places to have fun in southern Florida, adding suggestions based on his own experience. She took them without comment and flew off to Florida. Three days later she returned and announced she had a terrible time. The next week, she returned to marriage counseling with her husband and kept going long after her husband felt it wasn’t necessary any more.[1]

Personally, I’m not sure I have the strength or perseverance, or mercy shown by the husband. And, I’m not suggesting this is sound marriage counseling advice…but I think it helps us imagine the level of commitment God has for us.

I think, Paul is saying that God has that much commitment – even more – in God’s efforts to create right relationships with each and every one of us. And, God wants us to strive for that commitment in our relationships with each other.

Because, the DEFINTION of Grace is that…
For while we were weak, Christ died for us.
While we were sinners, Christ died for us.
While we were enemies, we were being reconciled to God through the life and work of Christ.

Paul’s good news is that rather than revenge or punishment due to our slavery to Sin…which is our instinct to take the easy way out -- God liberates us. Paul reminds the faithful that Christ died for all, even those who were against God -- the ungodly (5:6).

This act of God is so astonishing that Paul ponders it out loud: IT IS possible to imagine someone dying for a good person, but it can only be an act of divine love that would die for sinners. We treat our friends well, we forgive more easily. How do we treat those who we feel have offended us?

Paul addresses his comments to an audience that is resentful. His hearers are mainly Gentile Christians who don’t feel fully included by Jewish Christians. Have you ever resented anyone? Is it hard to imagine that God loves them as much as God loves you? Or, maybe it’s vice versa? None of us are beyond God’s desire and love.

That does not mean God leaves us where God finds us. Sometimes we suffer. Not that it’s God’s intention for us to suffer, Sin brings suffering. Yet, through our suffering, we gain endurance, and character, and hope. Hope is how we thrive. Hope gives us purpose. Most of us would opt to get our Hope without suffering…but that is rarely where hope in sharing the Glory of God comes from.

Because life is hard – Jesus showed us how hard.

Think about Paul’s life before the gospel message took root in his heart.
Relatively, Paul had more comfort before he was a follower of Christ!
He had power in his faith tradition, and he could out argue anybody in rabbinical school. He was recognized as a citizen of the Roman Empire, so he had social status. But he gives it up for the power of the gospel, what he now knows about the way God’s love moves and is shared. As a result, he gets thrown in jail—beaten sometimes. But that does not mean the gospel is not true or Paul gives up. Paul is not preaching a prosperity gospel or that God is going to give us an easy life. Just because one suffers does not mean the gospel is not true.

Paul indicates that justification actually means you will suffer…

BOASTING in Paul’s terms is God centered – not a humble brag.
It is not about how much suffering one endures. It is an affirmation that my suffering does not negate the gospel truth. We boast in our HOPE of sharing the glory of God…meaning we don’t give up! If we don’t believe the Light and Love of God exists, then we have only darkness.

We move toward the Light and Love of God, BELIEVING THERE IS A BETTER WAY, when it might be easier just to let things be – let Sin coexist among us. But that’s not what God is after. God wants our imaginations to live and breathe and move within us. Where Imagination is alive and Possibility is awake – because imagination is the great friend of Possibility and Hope.

Hold on to God’s Hope through faith and believe in the possibility of peace and reconciliation wherever you find the opportunity. Amen.

Prayers of the People

Paul’s message is poignantly received as we commemorate Memorial Day. We honor those who gave their all for the possibilities of our freedom and liberty. Let us pray:

Blessed are you, Reconciling GOD, You give skill to our hands and strengthen all who serve your will. You are our help and our fortress, and we put our trust in you.

On this Memorial Sunday, we acknowledge the fragility of life and commend to you those who have been gathered to you. Bind us to one another beyond time and memory.

We lift up especially those who endured fury that made the mountains smoke, who laid down their lives in warfare,  who returned home living but not whole, or who were caught up in violence they wanted no part of. 

Let peace, at long last, prevail on earth.

We pray for those who seek to be rescued from the deep despair, whose lives are facing the dangers of famine, poverty, war or disaster. Grant refuge to all, and may we open our arms to all in need.

We acknowledge those near to us and those we name silently today who suffer from illness, injury, weariness, or brokenness. In your tender compassion, nurture your beloved children. Come, Holy Spirit, and make all your people whole again, reconciling us one to another, in the name of Christ Jesus, Amen.

[1] Friedman, Edwin H. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Guilford Press, 2011.