For Us and In Us: Romans 5:1–5
“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.”
I have been the undeserving recipient of many gifts: I remember a beautiful ring made from translucent blue butterfly wings my parents gave me when I turned 9 — a lovely Yamaha piano my husband gave me upon completion of my master’s degree, handmade birthday cards from my children with original poetry and artwork — to name a few. In each case, someone did something wonderful for me, for which I am truly thankful. But this morning I want to tell you about a different kind of gift — one that is not so much about something done for me, as it was something done with me and in me. This gift was given to me while I was in the midst of a difficult, painful life transition, while I was not working and not sure when or if I would find meaningful work again, while September days loomed long and lonely and my son was away, far away, at college, and the rest of my family was back in school, and while, to top it all off, I was turning the big 5-0 — yikes! That dreaded marker of middle-aged mortality!
So my two wild and wonderfully wacky sisters, both of whom live in Wichita Kansas and whom I rarely see, cooked up a crazy birthday celebration. They rearranged their busy schedules, bought me a plane ticket, and mapped out an itinerary for a “3 Sisters Road Trip” to travel throughout the Midwest and visit my aging parents, my college-aged son, and my nephew. They even made 3-sisters-road-trip t-shirts to commemorate our journey. This gift involved long hours on the highway with Cony and Meme, talking, laughing, sleeping with a kink in my neck, retelling family stories, singing off key, eating, getting lost, listening to each other’s sorrows and joys, crying, quoting poetry from memory, thinking out loud about how it will be when our parents pass away, praying, hashing through the fears of raising kids, weathering the rain and the wind and the storms, and celebrating the road-weary miles of the trip.
Theirs was a different kind of gift, different from your typical party with neatly wrapped packages, colored balloons, a sugary cake with way too many candles, and picture-perfect Kodak moments. Their gift was kinda messy, it was uncharted, absolutely tiring, at times stinky (have any of you been on a road trip lately?), and often uncomfortable as we sat for hours on end (literally). But this gift formed something in me that any pre-packaged gift, no matter how wonderful, couldn’t: it created a sense of wellness, a sisterhood reshaped which told me that I belong and am loved, that the burden I carry is not only mine, that I am not alone on this road. It wasn’t so much that my sisters did something for me (Okay, I guess the t-shirt was a tangible thing made for me), but by their loving presence they made possible this new reality in me, by the precious time spent in the early mornings and late night hours, driving unknown winding back roads in southern Indiana, charting a course on 8-laned super highways in Chicago-land, they lovingly led me to explore new territories within.
Today’s passage talks about a celebration as well. The first few verses of Romans 5 describe God’s “gift,” are self-interpreting and make sense to us. We have much to rejoice in what God has done FOR us. Eugene Peterson puts it this way:
By entering through faith into what God has always wanted to do for us—set us right with him, make us fit for him—we have it all together with God because of our Master Jesus. And that’s not all: We throw open our doors to God and discover at the same moment that he has already thrown open his door to us. We find ourselves standing where we always hoped we might stand — out in the wide open spaces of God’s grace and glory, standing tall and shouting our praise.
— Romans 5:1–2 The Message
He has given us peace with God, a new place to stand. And this amazing gift called “justification” is possible through the redemptive passion of Jesus, which we relive this Holy Week as we move from Palm Sunday to Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the late night vigil, and, finally, the glory of resurrection morning.
What a splendid gift. We celebrate our loving God’s determination to rescue us, to send His son to die in order to throw open the door and give us this new place to stand. We rejoice in what God has done for us. We shout our praise for the work completed and stand tall in this wide-open space of God’s grace.
But, as we do so, take note: this is not the end of the story! Romans 5:3–5 goes on to describe another kind of celebration — rejoicing not so much in what is done for us, but rather in what God does in us, not so much about the grace where we stand, but rather the grace that propels us forward in our suffering:
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.
— Romans 5: 3–5
Boast in our sufferings? How can this be? Peterson says:
We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged.
— Romans 5:3–5 The Message
What on earth is going on here? This doesn’t make sense. Rejoice in suffering? Never left feeling shortchanged? How possible when we live in this world —
- a world of devastating earthquakes and catastrophic tsunamis,
- a world where the pain of cancer wracks the body of a dear friend and mother of three,
- a world where relationships and families are torn apart by angry, vitriolic attacks and sullen silences,
- a world where the very mechanisms we develop to protect ourselves calcify into habits that harm and alienate us,
- a world of death and destruction, loneliness and fear, chaos and crying children, where, most of the time, most of us end up feeling shortchanged.
If we were to pass around the microphone this morning and honestly share, this list would go on and on. For, despite the title of that popular new book, when we look around it doesn’t seem that “Love Wins.”
Are we to close our eyes to these realities and stand in our cozy huddles singing “Kumbaya,” praying that none of this “broken world” will infect the safety of our “Christian” bubble?
No! Paul is laying out a path for us, not just a new, safe place to stand. It’s a path of rejoicing in suffering. It’s a path that doesn’t fit the Americanized, sanitized, version of Christianity that says, “just give your heart to Jesus and don’t worry, be happy.” Jesus didn’t come to be our superhero or swoop us out of this world — he came to forge a new path right through the midst of painful realities.
He did so by living in the muck and mire of humanity and humbling himself as a servant. He did so by spending time with the sick and the paralyzed, the tax collectors, the lepers no one else would touch. He did so by literally laying down his life, choosing a road of suffering. He did so by carrying a cross. And this Jesus calls us not just to stand rejoicing in what he has done for us, but he calls us to follow him, not a knight in shining armor but a suffering-servant. He calls us on a messy, uncomfortable, and probably even stinky road trip right through the midst of suffering.
The meaning of our lives emerges in the surrender of ourselves to an adventure of becoming who we are not yet.
— Brennan Manning
We find meaning not only as we stand in God’s grace, but as we allow that grace to move us and shape us on this “adventure” of becoming. And Paul lays out the markers on this path: suffering, endurance, character, and hope. It may be an adventure, but it is an arduous adventure ….
This adventure, this journey of grace in us is possible because God (vs. 5).
Because God has done something for us, but also because God’s love is shaping something new within us. Not because God zaps us with His magic wand and makes us into super-Christian types who live somehow above the pain. No, by the Holy Spirit, God walks with us day by day directly through our trials and tribulations.
And because God has poured out His love by the Holy Spirit, as we rejoice, as we trust, as we endure through suffering, something happens….
Something happens ….
We begin to hope — we begin to hope ….
And this hope is not that the suffering will soon be over (because the equation doesn’t work that way: suffering doesn’t end once we get to endurance or character or hope). This hope is not in a Lake Wobegon kind of life (“where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average”). Rather, we begin to hope in what God can do within us, that we can become new. We begin to hope that somehow, on this impossible, impassable, and deeply difficult road of redemption, God can forge a tempered steel of virtue within us. We begin to hope that this world of tsunamis, cancer, broken homes, and starving children can become a place of “soul making,” as the early church fathers called it.
In thinking about how best to end this message, I’ve considered several examples of God’s faithful people suffering, enduring, being shaped by the Holy Spirit. Many of you could tell stories like this. But I’m not choosing to illustrate this message with a super-suffering, super-Christian hero story, because it is too easy to dismiss such illustrations. We’ve heard them and they may be inspiring for the moment, but often nothing changes within us. No doubt God can and does work in miraculous, spectacular ways, but, as John Wesley explained in his “Letter to Philothea Briggs” (23 July 1772),
At many times our advances … are clear and perceptible; at other times they are no more perceptible (at least not to our selves) than the growth of a tree … when you perceive nothing, it does not follow that the work of God stands still in your soul …. He does not leave you to yourself.
So, rather than hear another inspiring story of someone else’s life, I invite you this morning to close your eyes in quiet reflection, and to open your hearts and look upon the suffering within:
- the deep longings of your life not fulfilled,
- the places you feel alone or abandoned,
- the fearful and anxious experiences that have shaped you, and
- pain and brokenness that you may not even want to admit,
I invite you to turn towards this pain…. And in this sacred moment, to ask God by His Holy Spirit to give you eyes to see His love poured out over each of these, to see Him journeying with you through the pain, and by His grace to see your very self gently and lovingly shaped, as hope breaks over you in new ways.
And hope does not disappoint us ….