Sermon for Zoom Church, June 14, 2020, St John and St Stephen, Reading.
Rev. Claire Alcock
5Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.
6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
The Harvest Is Great, the Labourers Few
35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. 36When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; 38therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.’
The Twelve Apostles
10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
The Mission of the Twelve
5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” 8Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Recently my husband lent me a book about listening. Now, I don’t quite know what I should make of that – is he trying to tell me something?! I don’t know if you’ve thought much about listening recently? The book is called “You’re not Listening”, subtitled: “what you’re missing and why it matters”.
I wonder if you can think of a time when you had to listen to somebody. There are some relationships, aren’t there, where you always find yourself as the listening one. In other relationships perhaps you’re the talker. In any mutual relationship one might hope for a balance of listening and talking.
People often talk about their troubles to a minister, which is fine; that’s what we’re here for. People talk about the ways in which life has been tough for them. And life is often tough. Sometimes they talk about how suffering has prevented them from believing in a loving God.
How can there be a God in a world where there’s so much suffering? This is often a question put to Christian people.
And it’s a very good question. A lot of Ministers are asking themselves that at the moment (I’m guessing).
Our sense of suffering has without doubt heightened in the global pandemic. I have had to limit my uptake of news stories because they have been so very painful. There’s only so much we can take. We can indeed feel ‘harassed and helpless’, as Jesus says of the crowds in today’s gospel.
No one likes thinking about suffering, but, surprisingly in our reading today, St Paul wants not only to remember his sufferings, but to boast in them.
To boast in his sufferings? It seems like a bizarre concept, doesn’t it? He writes about boasting of the hope we have of sharing in the glory of God (that’s a bit more understandable) but to boast in his sufferings?
I can understand boasting about hope: ‘We’re going to be grandparents!!!!’ (that’s not actually true of us, I hasten to add). ‘I can go on holiday this summer after all!!!’ (I’d like to boast of that hope but I’m not sure if I can yet).
We all boast of our hopes, but why would anyone want to boast of their sufferings? Normally people either hide their sufferings, offload them onto a good listener, or try to forget them. In our society sadly too, we self medicate to numb our sufferings, in addiction to alcohol, or in digital addiction, the late night mindless scrolling to try and forget the present or past suffering.
So in this short passage in Romans we are faced with an unusual concept – boasting in one’s sufferings. It’s not something we have done in this country during the Covid-19 pandemic either. We have reported our sufferings, in endless graphs of outbreaks and deaths; we have cried over our sufferings and the sufferings of others dear to us; we have been ashamed of our sufferings in our high number of deaths, and bemoaned the fact that they could’ve been lower if we’d done things differently.
But we have not boasted of our sufferings. At Church level, we have panicked about the surge in funerals, panicked over the bleak financial outlook, and moaned over the closing of church buildings, and now we’re stressing about their re-opening. But we haven’t boasted about our sufferings.
As far as we know, as a society we hide or repress our sufferings. I don’t know if you watched the programme where Prince William met some men who’d started a special football team for dads who’d lost children at or around the time of birth. It was on the back of statistics about the death of men age 16-45, where the biggest single killer is suicide. When we don’t share our sufferings because we are ashamed, or can’t think of who to turn to, they can drag us right down.
But I still don’t know anyone who boasts of their sufferings.
Why does Paul do this? Is he, as I’ve often suspected, just in a different league to us more banal Christians?
Well, on the plus side, he writes about suffering in a way that is eventually hopeful. Suffering, he says, produces endurance (that’s the first link in the chain). We know this to be true, even if we resist it. I have wanted to strongly resist the idea that the suffering I’ve experienced due to the lockdown will produce endurance. I don’t really want suffering; I don’t want to be told I can’t go to work, or that work re-starting will never feel the same again and will be full of risk and confusion.
I mean I like the sound of endurance, but unfortunately you can’t buy it and stick it on you like a plaster; to get it you have to suffer. Endurance means I become resilient despite suffering. Most days, if I’m honest, I’d just rather not have either, because suffering is hard and everything in me wants to resist it, even if it does bring a gift in its wake.
But Paul ploughs on. Endurance produces character. Deep down, we know this to be true. When you’ve come through something hard, or are learning ways to live with something hard, you are often in a position to become more patient, more grounded, more humble, and more able to receive help from others.
These are all Christ like qualities and tend not to develop when we’re rushing through life from one successful enterprise to another without a backward look. I’ve noticed in church life that it’s often the people who have endured the most suffering that are the most sensitive to others’ suffering and the ones who intercede for others meaningfully. They have a depth and a steadiness about them that is most attractive.
So, suffering produces endurance; endurance produces character; and character, according to Paul, produces hope. It’s less clear to me how this one works: character produces hope. It must be something perhaps to do with how we’re being changed into the likeness of God. If we’re becoming more like God, we are heading towards God, and will be fully united with him eventually. The hope in our hearts is poured in first by God, Paul says, and so we are sustained in our suffering because God has taken the initiative.
God doesn’t just save us from our sins (although he obviously does that) but he saves us for himself. This is the theological concept of theosis, or divinisation. By grace, we human become like God. We are made in God’s image, but we must grow into his likeness. God made us for himself and that’s to do with so much more than saving us from our sin. In fact the NRSV in this Romans passage seems to use ‘sinners’ and ‘weak’ interchangeably which is interesting. ‘While we were still weak at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly’ (verse 6).
I’ve often felt in our liturgy that we beat ourselves up too much about sin. There, I’ve said it now. We are always getting it wrong, of course, but that is often because we are weak, not BAD. Some of us are bad, of course, but in my experience generally, Church people are trying pretty hard to be good.
As salvation and wholeness and healing are the same word in Greek, it seems we are in danger of putting people off when we over stress the sin bit, because it’s just as true that we’re people who need healing. We need forgiveness AND healing! We need saving in order to be made into the likeness of God. That’s a two-fold process.
Whenever people cut it off at the ‘thank God I’m saved, I can do what I like’ side, and don’t progress to the much harder work of becoming holy – the world knows that’s phony. (My mind is drawn to footage of a world leader scowling and brandishing a bible on camera for no apparent reason while behind him police fire rubber bullets into a crowd peacefully protesting about racial injustice). Nobody is going to buy that. It’s about the worst advert for the Christian faith you could possibly imagine.
I don’t know what this last three months of extraordinary living has brought you in the way of suffering. I don’t know if I’ve yet got to boasting about my disturbed nights, general fatigue and occasional anxiety. I don’t know if you could boast about yours either
But as we try and make sense of Paul’s extraordinary thesis about how suffering brings endurance, character and thence hope, I pray we can be strengthened today and have the assurance that we have obtained access to ‘this grace in which we stand’.