The apostle Peter last Sunday provided the latest installment in the biblical story of God with us.
Peter’s fellow Jewish Christians, like him new to faith in Christ, were upset, because Peter was breaking bread with non-Jews, a social and religious taboo of Peter’s day. But Peter calmly shares with his disgruntled contemporaries an amazing reality he’s discovered on the road of evangelism: namely, that God’s umbrella of grace and salvation shelters far more souls than anyone realizes. In Christ, the doors of God’s Kingdom are open to Jews and non-Jews alike.
Peter has been spending plenty of time carefully listening to the Word of his Lord, and what he hears changes his faith perspective on life and launches him on a very specific mission of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to all with ears to listen. But to some folks, like his friends, thinking that way – much less embracing the idea that the Bible teaches us to think a certain way and to see the world and the people in it with the eyes of heaven – is all new territory.
The struggle is real and remains so today: Whether you and I, as the disciples of our day, can and will accept that our “new” reality is of God, that our new reality really does spring from God’s Word, and so really is a new perspective to which no less than the Holy Spirit of God in Christ is leading us.
Our ongoing challenge of understanding and accepting the Lord’s new, often confusing reality continues as our telling of the story of God with us continues in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul in good order lines up a series of events that start with suffering and end with hope.
But Paul’s step-by-step explanation of how God works in the midst of our anguish and woe seems quite of step with the reality of our daily experience. And in a moment, I’ll surely try and unpack what Paul is talking about. But for now, listen with your heart and mind, soul and spirit, to the perspective-changing Word of the Lord at the start of Romans 5. I’m reading to you from the New Living Translation of the Bible.
Therefore, since we have been made right in God’s sight by faith, we have peace with God because of what Jesus Christ our Lord has done for us.
Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of undeserved privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God’s glory.
We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.
When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners.
God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation.
For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God. (Romans 5:1-6, 8-11)
As you probably know, geese fly together in V-formation.
That’s because, when they draft behind each other, they can fly farther as a flock and expend less energy as a group.
But did you know that the lead goose rarely ever honks? The leader is too busy flying, working the hardest against the headwinds that the flock faces, and that lead goose can’t afford to waste energy making noise.
All the loud hooting and tooting you hear when a flock of geese flies overhead is coming from everyone in the rear. Each goose provides honks of encouragement for the leader, and their collective blaring is their way of saying to the leader: “Way to go. Don’t give up. We’re still here, right behind you all the way. Keep the faith, stay the course.”
That’s a mighty helpful way to think about the Church.
One of the reasons we’re here – one of the reasons we gather in worship every Sunday – is to encourage and build up one another. The New Testament is ripe with commands to strengthen the souls of the disciples and encourage them along their journey of faith.
But such encouragement sounds rather backhanded: “Way to go. Don’t give up. We’re still here, right behind you all the way. Keep the faith, stay the course. It is through our many sufferings and persecutions that we enter the kingdom of God.”
I’m sorry, what? You say persecution will lead me to the kingdom of God? You guys are offering me that to build me up and cheer me on? Sounds like a pretty whack-a-mole idea to connect the dots between my salvation and my suffering, but OK!!!???
Let’s spend a little time trying to get our heads around Paul’s odd-sounding, off-handed, chain-reaction of inspiration for the members of flock that he lifts up in Romans 5: “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.”
Paul’s certainly felt his share of suffering and persecution on his far-flung missionary travels.
In experiencing mistreatment, hatred, revulsion, physical and mental abuse, the apostle Paul – the Energizer Bunny of evangelism – experiences firsthand a cold, hard truth of Christian faith:
Yes, the Lord calls us his own, claims us in the waters of baptism, begins fashioning us day by day into new creations in his image, and sends us out to love and serve God and neighbor. But all that grace and blessing does NOT cloak us in bubble wrap. For Christians – for you and for me, there’s absolutely no guarantee that life will be a walk in the park. Our problems don’t disappear just because we’re one with Christ.
On the contrary. Since the life that the Lord calls us to lead flies in the face of the life the world would have us live, the hardships of living often get worse, and the challenges usually become greater. Even though you belong to God, even though you’re living for and with Christ, even though you’ve been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, evil and its minions are still going to attack with a vengeance, bringing suffering and persecution that is uninvited, unearned and undeserved.
Elsewhere, Paul claims it is through all trial and tribulation that we enter the Kingdom of God. But let’s be clear. Having to endure suffering and persecution isn’t our admission ticket into the God’s Kingdom. Wrestling with grief and misery isn’t a rite of passage that you have to endure to enter heaven.
No, suffering and persecution, and grief and misery, and everything else on the spectrum of pain and heartache are what make us realize how much we need God – how much we need the God whose love welcomes us into the oasis of God’s Kingdom – no matter who we are, no matter what we’ve done, no matter how viciously evil attacks.
Much as we think we can make it on our own, do things for ourselves, and solve our own problems, the weight of heavy burdens more often than not is simply too much for us to bear alone, and so, in agony, we finally limp through the Kingdom door using our last bit of strength. That, of course, would be the door that we’re too busy or prideful to notice, much less condescend to enter, even though God has always kept it wide open.
That’s the encouragement that Paul’s offering.
Suffering isn’t a Kingdom requirement, but it is an earthly reality. And it is God’s kingdom that offers a respite – shelter and safe haven from the storms and derechos that blow in our earthly living and create damage and destruction beyond human comprehension.
When we are weak, when we can’t do it any longer, when we are fed up, when it becomes too much, when we have nothing left, when we are empty, when we feel alone, when circumstances far exceed our capabilities of dealing with them, it is in those moments of persecution and suffering when the power and strength of Christ will be revealed. It is in those moments when we can count on the power and strength of God’s resurrection to be made known to us again in fresh, new and surprising ways.
In the midst of your pain and hurt, you can expect God to do something. You probably won’t know precisely when God will act, or exactly what God will do, or specifically how God will do what God will do. But you must know, Paul says, that the Kingdom God of resurrection is always working to heal and restore, fix and redeem, anything and everything that evil throws your way.
Encouraged faith waits with hopeful expectation for God to do what God will do, and encouraged faith lifts up and gives over to God the full brunt and total weight of its pain and suffering. Encouraged faith doesn’t necessarily dance around the house in celebration of its suffering, doesn’t just believe that God can do something to end suffering. Encouraged faith knows that God will do something.
For the Lord already has done something: By the blood of Christ, you and I have been justified – made right in loving, gracious eyes of heaven. And since that is so, that same amazing grace will surely rescue us from the condemnation we deserve for the sin we commit – as much or more as that same grace will rescue and deliver us from our trials and temptations.
Ancient words, ever, true. Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, August 14 , 2022, as part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.”