Monday, June 13, 2022

Suffering Cannot Win

June 12, 2022 – The 1st Sunday after Pentecost: Trinity Sunday

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 25:40.

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. But how do we know that? How do we know that Paul’s words are true?

Paul makes a bold claim in his letter to the Romans. He writes these words to Christians who gather not in public places like our church but in underground rooms, where his letter is read aloud, because those who hear it know that arrest and torture and death could come knocking at any minute. They have seen their loved ones hauled off by the authorities. Many have lost their homes and their jobs. Family members have betrayed them. And Paul wants them to remember that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope—a hope that does not disappoint us. How can we know that those words are true—for the Christians in Rome and for us as well?

Paul doesn’t explain how that process works—how hardship and struggle, rather than undermining our faith, actually reinforce it. Instead, he writes as if his readers already know that to be true. This is not a philosophical claim that he makes—one that arises from intellectual inquiry—but an experiential truth lived out by Paul and the Christians in Rome. There is no worldly logic that can explain to us why our suffering is a reason to boast and celebrate, yet Paul encourages his readers with a confidence that transcends the logic of this world.

How can we believe that, too, when every evolutionary principle written into our DNA tells us that suffering is something we are supposed to escape? As the Dread Pirate Roberts said to Princess Buttercup, the Princess Bride, before his true identity was unveiled, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Maybe Paul is just selling something. Plenty of preachers, who fly around the world in fancy jets, tell their congregations that God is calling them to give until it hurts. 

But Paul does not write these words from a place of comfort and security. As Scott Gunn, a friend a colleague wrote this week, “From anyone who hadn’t suffered like Paul had, this might seem shallow and ignorant of people’s pain. But in context it’s a stunningly beautiful message of hope and consolation.” Paul knew suffering. Struggle and hardship were part of his résumé. As he wrote in one of his letters to the Christians in Corinth, “We commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, [and] hunger” (2 Cor 6:4-5). For Paul, suffering was not a sign that he had failed in his mission to be faithful to God but a reminder that in Jesus Christ he had found a peace that not only surpasses any hardship in this world but one that actually overcomes it. 

“Since we are justified by faith,” he writes, “we have peace through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Because of Jesus’ faithfulness—even to death on the cross—and because our faith that that death and his resurrection have secured for us a perfect and complete relationship with God, we have peace—a peace that gives us reason to boast. We boast first in our hope of sharing the glory of God. That’s the easy part. Christians love to boast that one day, because of Jesus, we will wear the starry crown and dwell with him in paradise. And that’s a good thing for us to hope—that, when this life is over, we will live with God in heaven.

But Paul goes further than that because the peace we have in Jesus is more than a promise for the life to come. That peace has power in this life as well. That peace enables us to boast even in our sufferings because we know that, as people of faith—as people into whose hearts God has poured God’s love through the Holy Spirit—those sufferings are not a sign of our failure in God’s eyes but a reminder that what Christ has done for us can never be defeated. Because of Jesus, we know that our suffering teaches us endurance and that endurance builds up character and that character is itself our proof that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

In other words, the right and perfect relationship with God that we have been given through Jesus Christ is more than a ticket to heaven. It is our guarantee that the suffering we endure in this life is not a sign that God has abandoned us but a reminder that God never will. Is that easy to believe? Of course not. It is hard to maintain confidence that, despite all the suffering in the world, God is still God and that God, in ways that surpass our understanding, is already bringing all things to their good and glorious fulfillment. But, if our faith in Jesus will mean anything to us besides an escapist fantasy, we must seek that peace in this life as well. 

We must strive for the truth that Paul knew not only in his mind but in the wounds he bore for the sake of Christ. We must pursue that sense of belonging to God that, because of Jesus, can never be broken. We must dwell in that love that God has poured into our hearts not only when we imagine what awaits us in heaven but also while we endure what we face on the earth. Because of Jesus, we are not only loved and redeemed by God when this life is over but even now. We boast, therefore, not because we suffer but because we know that suffering cannot defeat us. And surely that is something to celebrate.

Sunday, June 5, 2022

Power for Intimacy


June 5, 2022 – The Day of Pentecost, Year C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

 Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 20:30.

Imagine waking up every morning and starting your day by anticipating all of the encounters you expect to have so that you can translate them ahead of time from the language you know best into one that everyone else will understand. If you are not fluent in the language that everyone else around you takes for granted, you have to take that extra step in order to live in their world. Who will you meet? Who will you talk to? Your clients, coworkers, and boss. Your teachers, bus driver, and friends. The person at the Starbucks drive-thru. The cashier at the grocery store. The doctor who evaluates you. The police officer who pulls you over. Everyone and everything outside of your own cultural community requires translation.

Once, at a train station in Catalonia, I spent five minutes trying to recall what I had learned back in high school Spanish so that I could ask the station attendant whether the luggage lockers, which advertised a price for 24 hours of storage, would automatically spring open when the time was up. I was pretty impressed with myself when the question rolled off my tongue without too much trouble. But I was in no way prepared to understand or respond to whatever it was that the attendant said back to me in Spanish. Remembering the vocabulary and grammar of a language is a long way from knowing that language because really knowing a language requires knowing a people.

When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place, waiting and watching and praying for the Holy Spirit. Before Jesus had ascended into heaven, he told them to remain in Jerusalem until they had received the power of the Holy Spirit. He had explained to them that with the Spirit’s might they would become his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and even to the ends of the earth. But none of them could have expected what happened when the Holy Spirit showed up.

Like an untamable wind, the Spirit filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, descended and rested on each one of them. Wind and fire—symbols of God’s awesome presence and power that were as ancient as God’s relationship with Israel—those were the signs that the Spirit had come upon the disciples just as Jesus had promised. But, when the violent rush was over, instead of wielding the power of God to triumph over their enemies or secure their place in the courts of power, the disciples opened their mouths and began to proclaim the mighty acts of God in the language of every nation under heaven. And the crowd that had gathered because of all the commotion was amazed.

“Aren’t all of these men Galileans?” they asked. “How is it, then, that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? How is it that we, who have come from all over, can hear these simple tradesmen proclaiming the stories of God’s power in the languages of our birth?”

You may have noticed that, even though the crowd included individuals from all over the world, everyone who was there that day was Jewish—either by birth or by conversion. After listing all of the places from which the crowd had come, Luke, the author of the Acts of the Apostles, identifies them all as “both Jews and proselytes,” another word for converts, who we are told included both “Cretans and Arabs.” The feast of Pentecost, after all, was a Jewish festival that had brought together faithful Jews from around the world. But it’s easy to forget that anyone who had made that pilgrimage from another land would have expected to hear the stories of their people’s salvation spoken in the language of Israel—in Hebrew with, perhaps, a little Aramaic thrown in from time to time.

Whenever someone from the diaspora who was born somewhere like Pontus or Asia, Egypt or Libya, came to worship God, they would have to translate their prayers from the language of their birth into the language of the temple. And, if they wanted to share fully in the celebration, they would need to reimagine the mighty acts of God, taking them from the Hebrew in which those stories were told back into the language they knew best.

Imagine having come to the capital city of your religion, the center of your people’s spiritual life, prepared to transact your religious business in the language that you’ve been taught is the only one that God will accept, only to discover that a ragtag group of barely-literate men from out in the country are proclaiming the central stories of your people in the same language that your mother used when she sung you to sleep. What would that tell you about the nature of God and what God was trying to do in that moment?

This phenomenon was so unbelievable that some in the crowd could only make sense of it by appealing to the effects of alcohol. “These men must be drunk!” a few exclaimed, “filled with new wine,” though that possibility didn’t really make any sense either. What was God doing in that moment? Peter stood alongside the other disciples and explained what was happening, saying, “This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel, when God declared, ‘In the last days, I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your little ones shall see visions, and your old folks shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, no matter their gender, I shall pour out my Spirit, and all people shall prophesy.’”

A long time ago, centuries before this day of Pentecost, God had promised through the prophet Joel that a time would come when God’s Spirit would be active not only among the official, institutionally appointed prophets, but among all types of people—young and old, male and female, rich and poor, slave and free. In those last days, there would be no limit on whom God would use to proclaim God’s salvation. And Joel promised that those last days would be a sign that the end was near—that all of God’s promises were coming complete, that God was preparing to rescue all of God’s people and bring back together into one those who had been scattered across the nations of the world.

Peter and the other disciples, who had been told by Jesus nothing more than that they should wait for the Holy Spirit, looked around and realized that this was it. This was the moment when those last days were beginning to unfold. This was the sign that God was bringing all things to their completion. This was how the salvation of the world, which had already been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, would take hold among God’s people—by a radical, Spirit-empowered proclamation that had no linguistic or ethnic bounds.

But this was more than mere translation. Instead of God’s people having to work their way back to God, God was prepared to meet them wherever they were—not only by inhabiting the language they knew best but by coming into every aspect of their lives. Every story, every celebration, every joke, every nuance could now be infused with the saving love of God. Nothing was off-limits anymore. That’s the power of the Holy Spirit. No translation or cultural adaptation was needed. God had always promised to bring God’s people back together again, and now God was doing that not by imposing upon a dispersed people a mandated uniformity but by offering them a universal intimacy. And, eventually, that same Spirit would carry the good news of God beyond the people of Israel, including even the Gentiles in the reconstitution of God’s covenant people.

The disciples couldn’t have imagined what sort of power the Holy Spirit would give them, but should it surprise us that the God whose Son died for our sake would seek intimacy with the world even while we are still scattered in our own various ways? Should we be surprised that the way that God brings God’s people back together is by coming to them—to all of them—in order that they might know God’s saving love as intimately as their mama’s voice? The good news of God that we proclaim today is that you don’t have to become someone you’re not in order to find God. In Jesus Christ, by the intimate power of the Holy Spirit, God has already come to you no matter who you are.