Sunday, June 14, 2020

Faith Strong Enough To Suffer

June 14, 2020 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6A

© 2020 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon starts around 24:05.)

Today we must confront a division that has been centuries in the making. There may have been moments in the not-too-distant past when that division remained covered up, simmering below the surface, but now it has broken out, boiled over, and burst free from the enforced civility that had been imposed upon it. No matter whom you ask, you’ll likely hear that the world is divided into two groups and that it is hard to imagine anything that could ever bring those groups together. For longer than anyone can remember, those groups have been divided by a deep-seated prejudice, and, because the power to act has historically been concentrated in one side of that division, power plus prejudice produces racism. That racism means more than hateful ethnic slurs. It means legalized segregation and systematic economic disadvantage and deadly judicial discrimination.

Churches have not been immune to that division. In many cases, Christian leaders have weaponized their faith in thinly veiled attempts to justify discrimination. Some leaders in the Christian community have called for unity but without expressing a willingness to confront the sins of the past and the present. Bringing people together without acknowledging the legacy of prejudice and racism upon which the church is built is no better than pretending it never existed in the first place. Any attempt to build a community of faith upon such false pretenses undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ and is certain to collapse under its own unsupported weight. So what are we supposed to do?

It probably sounds like I’ve been speaking about the church of the twenty-first century, and I might as well have been, but actually I was speaking about the church of Rome back when Paul wrote his letter to them. The Christian community in Rome wasn’t founded by Paul, but he had heard a lot about it. Like all first-century churches, it was made up of a mix of Jewish and Gentile believers—in other words by the chosen and the not-chosen, or by the Greeks and the Barbarians, depending on whom you asked.

At first, those who followed the Way of Jesus mixed with the members of other observant Jewish sects, but that quickly led to conflict and in-fighting. Things got so bad that in 49AD Emperor Claudius expelled all of the Jews from Rome. Five years later, when he died, that edict expired, and thousands of Jews, including many Christians, came back into the city. When they returned to the house churches that had been operating under exclusively Gentile leadership in the interim, a lot had changed. Both groups had forgotten how to keep their prejudices in check, and the Greeks were unwilling to share authority with their Jewish counterparts. Tensions flared. Resentments blew up. And Paul knew that he needed to step in and use his authority to resolve their differences. [1]

But Paul couldn’t get to them in person. He hoped to make a visit someday soon, but, for the time being, he was cut off from them and had to send a letter instead. That letter is Paul’s preeminent defense of the gospel as “the power of God’s salvation to everyone who has faith,” both Jews and Greeks (Rom. 1:16).  Starting with Abraham, who by faith had become the father of many nations, Paul lays out his theology of righteousness, which, as he writes, God has revealed “through faith for faith” (Rom. 1:17). For Paul, faith is the key to obtaining a right relationship with God, and sharing a right relationship with God is the key to unity throughout the Christian community. Because of Jesus’ faithfulness even to death on the cross, Paul explains, God has reconciled to Godself those who put their faith in Christ. It does not matter whether they are Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, all who believe in the saving power of Jesus Christ and his resurrection from the dead are made right with God and filled with God’s Spirit.

That is the message we come upon in today’s reading from Romans. In it, we hear Paul telling a broken and conflicted church, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” The peace with God that he calls to mind must have been a painful reminder of the peace that was missing between them. That peace with God is not merely the absence of conflict but the deep shalom of bountiful blessing that God’s people had long understood as a characteristic of upright living. Paul was reminding them that, as followers of Jesus, they had been given that peace—they had been reconciled to God—not because of their ethnicity or their accomplishments but because of Jesus. His faithfulness had made it possible for them to know that peace with God, and their faith in him was the means by which every single one of them had attained it. And, still, they were divided.

How true that is for us as well! We, too, have peace with God because of the faithfulness of Jesus and because of our faith in him. We have the bountiful blessing of a whole and right relationship with God, and, because it has been given to us without regard for who we are or what we have done, we know that it cannot be taken away from us. As Paul writes, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” If Christ would die for us even before we were reconciled to God, what could possibly take that reconciled relationship away from us now? Through Christ, God has poured his love into our hearts until it overflows, yet we live as if God’s love were in limited supply—as if it were a bag of flour or a package of disinfectant wipes on the pandemic shelf—a commodity that, if we can keep it all to ourselves, will become for us a sign of our deservedness, a testament of God’s preference for us.

But that’s not faith; that’s fear. Faith gives us the freedom and power to take our place among the children of God without fear of losing our share. It gives us the courage to take risks without worrying that God’s love could ever be taken from us. As Paul writes, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 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.” Paul writes of a faith that produces such a powerful peace in the hearts of believers that they are willing to suffer and die because they know that God’s love for them will triumph—because they know that nothing can take that peace away. That’s faith. But, just like those Romans, we wouldn’t know it because we are letting the fear of our own suffering tear us apart.

We are afraid of losing our place in society. We are afraid of losing the power that has kept us safe and secure. We are afraid of what happens when the police don’t look like us and when they stop keeping us safe from other people who don’t look like us. We are afraid of losing our jobs and our businesses and our homes and our neighborhoods. We are afraid of riots and looting. We are afraid of angry black women and men. We are afraid. We can hang up banners on the sides of our churches. We can show up at protests and make donations to various causes and share Facebook posts in solidarity with others. But, when the cost of unconditional love—the price of true equality—brings the reality of suffering to our own front door, will we have the faith we need to boast of it instead of running away?

That is the kind of faith that we must seek. We must pursue it at all costs. We must believe that God loves us with an unbreakable love. We must believe that God loves us not because of who we are or what we have done but because it is God’s nature to love—because God is love. We must believe that God loves not only us but all people with that same universal, unconditional, unbreakable love. When we believe that—when we really know that we and the whole world are loved like that—then we will know peace with God. Then we will have the courage we need to risk our own suffering for the sake of others whom God loves just as much as us. Then the peace we have with God will become a peace we share with one another. Then we will have peace.

[1] A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 7.

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