Trinity Sunday – May 29, 2016
I’m preaching on the Romans text today, which feels a little weird, given the joyous embodiment of the gospel in the sermon the children preached together last week. Now here I am, setting out to talk about a passage on justification. Such a heavy word. Still, I hope that the gift the children gave us when they helped us discover those parables anew stays with us, and helps us read other passages with new eyes, too.
Paul writes in Romans that we are justified by faith. Not just any faith, though – not some white-knuckled grip on God, willing ourselves to believe – but specifically, the faith of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ faith. We are justified through him, and because of this, Paul says, we stand in grace.
We stand in grace, because of Jesus’ faith, not our own efforts. To stand in grace, to stand in someone else’s faith, to be justified by that someone else’s faith – I find that both mystifying, and freeing.
Freeing, because we are free from earning grace, but free too from the pressure or temptation to boast in ourselves or our works, our faith. When we stand in grace, says Paul, we boast not in ourselves but in hope – hope of God’s glory. God’s glory, shared with us.
What to make of this other bit though, about boasting in our sufferings? The idea that suffering leads to endurance, which in turn leads to character makes sense, I suppose. Maybe you’ve even heard this sort of thing discussed with some kind of sports analogy at some point in your life. While problematic, it’s an understandable comparison – suffering hill after hill on my bicycle, say (a mild suffering, all told), has produced some athletic endurance, and that endurance certainly contributes to a kind of character I feel glad to have, albeit one that has little to do with justification, or with faith in general. That kind of suffering, endurance, and character do not lead me to hope. They just help me climbs hills a little faster than I used to.
I can’t achieve my way into grace, into hope, by suffering or endurance, in that sense. There’s no Virtue Olympics I need to qualify for. Likewise, instances of actual suffering, rather than the self-inflicted pain of the athletics analogy, are not some moral training ground, some “all things work together for good” plan for turning pain into hope, suffering into grace.
What Paul writes, I’m beginning to think, applies less to individual triumphs over suffering, feats of endurance, than it does to how we stand in God’s grace together, as a community.
I think perhaps the only reason we might really boast in our suffering comes from the way it draws us together. Be it physical suffering, mental or emotional, or some kind of suffering caused by external forces of injustice and pain, persecution or violence, if suffering produces endurance I’d suggest it is only because we have to draw close to one another in order to endure it. Endurance, character, hope – these are not so much a product of suffering as they are simply what we need to survive. Sometimes we suffer, and that is not good – but by God’s grace, we are given what we need to continue onward.
A former seminary classmate of mine sent me a message this week expressing his support for Isaac, our pastor, now that Virginia Mennonite Conference has suspended his credentials. My colleague’s message was very concerned, amid the social media firestorm, about whether the church was looking after Isaac. Would he have the money he needs? What other non-financial needs does he have? Is anyone doing anything about any of these concerns?
I wanted to respond, DUH. Of course we are. No doubt there is always room for improvement, and we will need to continue to look for ways to support Isaac over the next year as VMC carries out their investigation. But I’m also confident that we will do just that, because that’s the character of this congregation as I know it.
If we can boast in anything, it is that we let troubling times draw us together, in simple, mundane ways, as well as bigger public actions and statements. We have, as Isaac and Drake would say, a really big team. And that is why I have hope – even for the struggling Mennonite church of which we are a part.
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.
Given. To us.
Every time I saw or thought of each of you this week, I thought,
We are so lucky, we are so blessed.
Thursday night, I was exhausted the way that I generally am after something I wrote goes live, and I was sitting at Fullsteam scribbling in a notebook, trying to figure out what to say in the next article, which was due in less than 24 hours. I looked up from the page and saw a curly haired silhouette coming toward me, and as my eyes refocused in the bright sunlight, I realized it was Tennyson. She insisted that we play a game of Jenga, and Melissa brought in dumplings from Chirba Chirba, and while we ate and played she helped me find my angle. That was a gift, a grace, when I was spilled out, empty, poured out all over the internet, no words left.
We stand in grace, through faith – a gift of God, poured into our hearts.
You are a gift. We are a gift to each other. Isaac is a gift.
The love of God poured into our hearts overflows. It is spilling out, spilling over, running in little streams to other people and other places who need it, too.
We stand in grace, this grace, a gift we’ve received, a gift we must pass on.