Grace Presbyterian Church
June 18, 2017, Pentecost 2A
Welcome to Rome
Paul’s epistle to the Romans is widely and consistently regarded as one of the thorniest, most puzzling, most contentious, and most uplifting and joyous books in the New Testament. Yes, all of those at the same time.
It is a letter unlike Paul’s other letters in that the apostle is addressing a fellowship he does not know. By the end of the epistle it is clear he may know a few individual members of the church at Rome, but it is not a church with which he has ever had any involvement. At the time he writes this letter he’s never even been to Rome.
As a result Paul is not addressing specific questions or issues within the Roman church to the same degree as in letters to the churches at Corinth or Galatia, for example. Instead, Paul is writing to the church at Rome for a variety of different reasons, not least of which is to introduce himself to a congregation that doesn’t know him, at the same time hoping (as he says by chapter 15) to enlist their aid for future mission endeavors, including a hoped-for journey to the land we today call Spain (a journey that ultimately never happened).
The Roman assembly may not have met Paul, but they’ve heard of him. Furthermore, not everything they’ve heard about Paul necessarily came from his friends or supporters. As a result, while Paul certainly has friends in Rome, there are also plenty there who are, at minimum, uncertain about this guy whose reputation seems to be equal parts great evangelist/church starter and major troublemaker. Therefore Paul feels the need to provide something of a “theological resume” as part of his appeal to the Roman Christians.
In addition, in writing to the Romans, Paul was (we can guess) reasonably knowledgeable about the makeup of that church even if he had not played any role in its founding. Clearly he knew some people who had been involved in that congregation and had told him about it some. As a result, Paul was able to address the Romans, not from a position of complete unfamiliarity, but with some awareness of the church and its people. One thing he evidently knew was that the Roman “church” (which may have been one group meeting in a home of one of its members, or several such house churches spread around the city) was made up of both believers who had come to be Christians out of a Jewish background and Gentiles who had converted to the faith without first becoming Jews. Paul has by this time had some experience grappling with the questions and disagreements that arose in some churches between such groups. Here, though, instead of rehashing those old disputes, he begins his letter (taking most of the first four chapters) by emphasizing as strongly as possible, the one thing he saw both Jewish and Gentile Christians having in common; the utter futility of each without Christ. Even by 3:9 Paul has made it clear that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin” save for the intervention of Christ.
That intervention is, in short, faith – whether faith in Christ or the faith of Christ is not made completely clear, but faith becomes that through which the power of sin over all (Jews and Greeks, remember) is undone and overthrown. Chapter 4 discusses that faith in the person of Abraham, who had long been revered in Hebrew/Jewish tradition for his deeds – answering God’s call to depart from his home and be the ancestor of a new nation. Paul, though, cites Abraham’s faithfulness as the locus of his righteousness.
Therefore as Chapter 5 opens Paul is actually wrapping up one idea to start a new one; “…since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God…and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”
It’s easy to get hung up on the word “boast,” particularly since Paul has been using it so far in Romans in ways that, frankly, don’t make sense to us modern readers (and I’m not completely sure it made sense to Paul’s contemporary readers, either). The choice of word seems to be influenced by some measure of disagreement among the Roman Christians and the need for Paul to have stressed that both Jews and Greeks were under the same condemnation of sin outside of faith. The law, as Paul argued, gave the Jewish portion of the church no cause to boast, as the law did not prevent sin from prevailing (though it was very effective for pointing out their sin). Therefore, the only thing for a Christian to “boast” in has nothing to do with the Christian him- or herself, but only in the work of God, the redemption enacted in Christ.
And frankly, Paul’s talk about how we “also boast in our sufferings” not only sounds just wrong to anyone who has ever known suffering, but also it is frankly the kind of passage that too often gets twisted into what one writer has called a “clobber verse,” the kind which those with more power or influence or status use to “clobber” those who Jesus might call “the least of these,” in this case by persuading them that their suffering is somehow the will of God when no, it isn’t.
The following sequence sometimes doesn’t help either, with its seeming suggestion that one has to suffer in order ever to get to hope – again, a way of clobbering the unfortunate or the suffering. “You have to suffer if you ever want to build character, or patience, or hope.” You see how it works? This is where it helps to remember Paul’s words from later in this letter.
You’ve probably heard it like this: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” That’s over in Chapter 8. Even that can become a clobber verse until remember that it is not about God wanting bad things to happen to us; it is that in all the things that happen to us, God is working for our good – not because of but despite the bad. Likewise here in chapter 5, we don’t gain hope because we suffer; we gain hope because God works in us despite the suffering to lead us to endurance, to character, or to hope.
But not just any hope. I had a little bit of dialogue with a seminary classmate from those several years ago who is preaching on this same passage today, and on this subject of “hope” and just what kind of hope we’re talking about here. She was making the point that for us, far too often, hope (despite what Paul says in verse 5) really does disappoint us, or at least it sure seems like it.
And the thing is, she’s right. Hope does disappoint, most of the time.
We hope our loved ones will recover and continue to live among us, and they don’t. We hope the institutions of our society will seek justice instead of merely enforcing order, and our daily headlines make it clear they do not. We hope that we ourselves will truly live up to our best dreams, and we do not.
And Paul still says “hope does not disappoint.” And he’s still right too.
The question is, are you hoping for, or are you hoping in?
We know what it is to hope for – whether it’s the child hoping for a new dog for Christmas or me hoping for a clean result every time I go for a cancer screening, we hope for some thing, usually something fairly specific, something good or beneficial or at least not harmful. Sometimes our hopes are fulfilled – sometimes the child gets the bicycle, and my cancer screenings keep being clear so far – but painfully often we are disappointed. The new job doesn’t come, or turns out to be a horror show when it does. We send our child into the world and things don’t go well; maybe they end up back home in disappointment. Our own health fails.
When we hope for, inevitably we will be disappointed. Bodies fail us. Other people fail us.
But we hope in God. And that hope does not disappoint, because God does not disappoint.
God doesn’t promise us a dog or a bicycle or a perfect new job or perfect health. What God promises us is God, God’s own self, the love that is God.
As Paul goes on to point out, we already know that love because God has shown us that love in dying for us – and dying for us when were weren’t even good people. That’s not how we’re accustomed to things working out, as Paul’s little meandering thought in verse 7 reminds us. Hollywood certainly wouldn’t show us a movie in which the hero dies for the villain. That’s just not how it works. And yet while we were still “sinners,” while we were still “ungodly,” while we were still “the bad guys,” Christ died for us.
So we know God’s love, and that does not disappoint. When others around us disappoint and harm and murder and commit gross injustice, God’s love does not disappoint. When our very world spins recklessly off its axis and the very fabric of our basic living together is trashed and torn by purveyors of hatred, God’s love does not disappoint.
You might remember, from Matthew’s gospel many weeks ago, Jesus warned his disciples that his coming to them was no guarantee of peace; he did “not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Mt 10:34; that was way back on March 12, a long time, I know). But here’s the thing; even when the sword has come, even when we are set child against parent, when we are beset by those who mockingly call us brothers and sisters … God’s love does not disappoint.
It may not seem like much; it might not seem like anything more than survival at times, as my pastor friend said, but God’s love is there, holding us up when we don’t even realize it. And that hope, that undying love of God, is where we are not disappointed.
We’re going to be in Romans for a while now, and I would encourage you to hold on to this point. It’s a book with some bleak lows and some incredible heartfelt highs. But whatever comes, whatever other arguments and meanderings and exaltations are to come, this is something to hold on: hope does not disappoint. Christ does not disappoint. God’s love does not disappoint, and that is where our hope – our only real hope – stands.
And for that undying hope, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #10, Sing Glory to the Name of God; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #353, My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less; #832, Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand