By the Rev. Darren Miner
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, I am compelled to preach on Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans, despite the tempting Gospel reading about being sent out like sheep into the midst of wolves; more specifically, I am compelled to preach on Paul’s provocative teachings on boasting and on suffering.
Elsewhere, Saint Paul soundly condemns people who boast about such things as their knowledge or their wealth or their power. But in today’s reading, he makes two exceptions to his rule against boasting. It is OK to boast “in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” (That makes perfect sense!) And evidently, it is also OK to boast in our sufferings. (This, on the other hand, does not make perfect sense and requires a bit of explanation.)
It helps to know that Saint Paul is not speaking about just any kind of suffering here. He is not encouraging folks to brag about how bad their hip hurts or how painful their arthritis is. He is encouraging people to boast about their suffering for their faith. He is addressing Christians in Rome, and he anticipates quite rightly that at some point they will face persecution and the threat of death. And he is encouraging them to boast about their perseverance.
Even so, it seems an odd thing to encourage. Why is boasting about one’s faithful endurance acceptable? Because we are to boast in what God has done through us, despite our weakness, despite our sinfulness. You see, this boasting that Paul encourages is really boasting about the power of God.
Paul goes on to make another controversial claim: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” It sounds a lot like a saying of that infamous atheist Friedrich Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” But it means something quite different. For while Nietzsche was speaking of the formation of a “superior” form of human being who glories in his power to rule over lesser human beings, Paul is speaking about the formation of Christians who do not seek to rule over anyone and who give glory only to God.
Of course, we all know that suffering can produce results other than endurance or strength; suffering can also produce bitterness, despair, anger, and rage. Watch the news on TV, if you don’t believe me! But that is not to say that Saint Paul has it wrong. Perhaps his teaching will make more sense if I paraphrase it: “With the help of the Holy Spirit and our willing participation, suffering can produce endurance, and endurance can produce good character, and good character can produce Christian hope, and that hope does not disappoint.”
First, note that Paul’s teaching only makes sense if we allow for God’s grace, for the gift of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of our suffering. And it only makes sense if we willing participate with the Holy Spirit. Unlike Nietzsche’s “superior” human being, we Christians need not, and should not, look only to ourselves in times of trouble, but to God. Paradoxically, our very weakness is our strength.
Paul’s point is that God can bring us from suffering to new hope in Christ, if we will only work with him. And such hope is not unfounded. For we know what God has already done for us out of sheer love; he created us in his own image and loved us as his own. We know what his Son endured for our sake, suffering death upon the cross that we might live. And we know what the Holy Spirit is doing for us even now in this time of social distancing, binding us together as a community of faith and reminding us through today’s Epistle that we don’t need to stand on our own, not now, not ever!
Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.
© 2020 by Darren Miner. All rights reserved. Used by permission.