Sermon :: June 18, 2017
1Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.
6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
“…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…”
In my ears, this rings out like one of those great lines from an action packed movie, when the hero of the story begins to doubt the mission or their abilities, and someone unexpected appears with a word of wisdom. I, for one, think of the Lord of the Rings when one of the main characters sees a frightened child before a battle, listens to his fears, and then places his hands on his shoulders, stares into his eyes, and simply says, “There is always hope.” Hope does not disappoint us.
Hope, like faith and peace, is a cornerstone of our Christian tradition, but often it seems to be mistaken as some form of blind optimism. I see it frequently, when people come into church with a huge smile on their face despite their struggles because we often feel bad about feeling bad at church. Often, it gets talked about when everything seems lost and people begin to offer clichés like, “Just have faith” or “Don’t stop hoping.” But if you’ve ever received words like that before, you know that hope and faith are not something that we can just reach out and grab. We cannot simply wish ourselves out of a difficult situation or have enough optimism to make everything better. What Paul writes is still true, though; we are justified by faith and hope does not disappoint us.
It’s true because there is a big difference between hope and optimism or faith and blind trust. Faith and hope always have an object, something that you place your hope and faith in or on. That’s the difference. If we have faith, we have to put it somewhere. We don’t hold onto it; we give it away. Hope is like that, too; we have to have hope in something.
So, with that in mind, we reread the words of Paul, which were written to a group of Christians who he’d never met but had heard about. These were people who were just starting to feel the fear and terror of being jailed, beaten, or worse for their faith. You see, when Rome invaded and occupied a nation, they didn’t change everything about their newly conquered peoples – you could hold onto your religion, so long as your religion did not get in the way of declaring that “Caesar is lord.” The Hebrew community of faith, for instance, was spared because it was ancient and it did not get in the way. When Christianity began to take root, however, it did not take long for the authorities to feel threatened and for them to retaliate. Why? Because this was a new religious identity and it declared that Jesus was Lord, not Caesar. Their suffering as a church was just beginning. Yet, Paul wrote that this suffering would lead to hope.
And I’ve seen this true in my life, too. Some of the most hopeful people I’ve met are also the ones who had suffered the most. In the throes of cancer or addiction or abuse, when they knew they could not rely on themselves for their own wellbeing, hope began to grow. Hope, not optimism, was how they saw the world. And that’s important, because, while some of us are optimists, I don’t think the same is true of all of us (I suppose the fact that I doubted that everyone was an optimist means that I may not always be one of them). Instead of optimism, hope does not ignore the pain and suffering, but instead recognizes it and declares that it has an end, that beauty can be experienced even in pain and life can come from death. That’s the promise of our baptism.
This hope is inspired by the Holy Spirit and, for Christians, is placed in the death and resurrection of Christ. This is where our hope and faith are found. I want us to understand something, though, or maybe think about things a little differently than normal. We are indeed justified by faith, but I believe that it is the faith of God, God’s faithfulness, which saves us. God’s faith in God’s Kingdom, in God’s Son, and in God’s creation. God’s faith in us, God’s love for us, is what justifies us. And we return that faith back to God. Luther said that it is never by our own understanding that we have faith, but by the power and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It’s not our faith; it’s God’s.
This, I believe, is a key to understanding the depth of God’s love for us. In faith, God has loved and justified you despite a host of reasons not to. Justification, which here a fancy legalese word used to declare that someone is innocent, is done by no act of yours and still it is yours. God’s love is yours, God’s hope is yours, God’s peace is yours, and God’s faith is yours. Yours – given freely and without hesitation. Yours – priceless and unable to be paid or earned. The grace and love of God are for you, even before you could think to repay or respond to it.
And this is why we go. This is why we respond to Christ’s sacrifice and Christ’s commission. In our gospel reading (Matthew 9:35-10:23), we see Jesus sending out his disciples. It might seem a little odd, and I’m sure we could examine this reading for several weeks and get new glimpses of God through it, but the story is the story of being sent out. These disciples, flawed and yet loved and justified by faith, just like us, are sent out into the world as ambassadors of God and servants of all. They do not preach fire and brimstone, but instead proclaim that the kingdom of God is near. And, I believe, it was near because they were near. They went, blessed and called by God, and by doing so brought with them the Kingdom.
These specific people, each with their own personality and skills and passions, went out. They would have found their own ways to follow Christ’s lessons and examples. They, like you, were justified by faith (God’s faith for them) and now you, like they, are called to proclaim the kingdom of God, the good news of Christ.
And make no doubt, there will be times when it’s scary or feels impossible. There will be times of doubt and fear. We may not be thrown any the lion’s den anymore, but there are times when we feel the suffering that all humanity suffers. But there is always, always hope. You are called in the name of Christ, justified by faith, and you are united with Christ beyond time, language, and life itself. Nothing you have done can earn this and nothing you will ever do can unearn it. You are loved. You are justified. You are a child of God. “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” because we hope not in ourselves, but in the God who loves us beyond ourselves. Amen.