The Holy Trinity, June 16, 2019, Romans 5:1-5, “Suffering Doesn’t Have the Last Word”

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

According to the liturgical calendar, the Sunday after Pentecost is called “The Holy Trinity.”  It is a day to remember the person and work of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  So, on this day we may pay particular attention to the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed both early creeds of the Christian Church which define in detail Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But today I want us to focus on the Second Reading from Romans chapter 5 where St. Paul wrote about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  To quickly summarize this text, we can say that “God’s love has been poured in to our hearts.” (5:5).  Jesus is the One who makes us right (justified) before God through his suffering, death, and resurrection. (5:1).  And the Holy Spirit is the One who pours God’s love into our hearts.

Reality of Human Suffering

But I want to look a little more closely at verse 3 of Romans 5 where St. Paul boldly wrote that we “rejoice in our sufferings.”  How can St. Paul write something which seems so contradictory to human experience?  Even St. Paul himself suffered from shipwrecks, to beatings to imprisonment.  Could that apostle rejoice in all of those challenging and hurtful moments of life?

Throughout the years I have thought about the meaning of suffering in human existence.  Of course we look at the book of Job and it begs the question, “Why does a righteous man suffer?  The answer is that through suffering Job had a closer relationship with God.

Making Sense of Suffering

Several decades ago Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the popular classic, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  He wrote that book because he and his wife suffered at the sight of their son who had a rare disease and died at the age of 13.  Through it all Rabbi Kushner became more aware that we live in a flawed, broken, and sinful world.  The world as we know it will never be perfect and never be rid of suffering.  But in the end Rabbi Kushner affirmed that God gives us grace in time of suffering so that we may endure and move on in life.

Suffering and Creation

Theologian Douglas John Hall wrote “God and Human Suffering – An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross” some 30 years ago.  In that book Hall wrote the Judeo-Christian tradition does not take human suffering lightly.  He also makes us aware that suffering is part of creation itself, but does not become a burden until after The Fall. (My copy of his book is tucked away in a box in the church basement so I can’t check what I am about to write about suffering as part of creation and as burden.  Nonetheless…)  Before The Fall, Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden.  In that Garden Adam and Eve both worked and faced the circumstances of life without a real struggle.  Work for Adam of tilling the earth was not a burden until after The Fall.  And for Eve, after the Fall, there would be severe pain and suffering in childbirth.

Suffering Which is Not Suppose to Be

Next Hall wrote that human suffering can be suffering which is not suppose to happen.  This is suffering which is evil and senseless.  Think of human trafficking.  Think of slaughter among the tribes in Sudan.  Think of millions of refugees having to flee from their homes due to the ravages of war.  Think of the famous baseball player, David Ortiz, who innocently got shot in a bar in the Dominican Republic and almost lost his life.  These kinds of suffering should not be.  They are grounded in evil and destruction.

Suffering and the Theology of the Cross

But Hall does not leave his readers in an abyss of hopelessness.  He finally talks about suffering which is redemptive and relies on the theology of the cross.  It is Christ’s suffering on the cross which transforms suffering into hope.  It is Christ’s suffering on the cross which makes God’s love a gift and which will never go away.  It is Christ’s suffering on the cross which forgives us, saves us from the destruction of sin and despair, and works hope in our hearts.

Suffering and Hope

I recall an inspiring story about Anglican envoy Terry Waite who was sent to Lebanon in 1987 to negotiate the release of hostages.  But in the midst of his negotiations the Hezbollah accused him of being a spy and took him hostage for the next several years.  While in prison with other hostages he and his fellow companions would not lose hope.  They celebrated Holy Communion with bits of bread (crackers?) from their meager meals.  That celebration gave them hope in the midst of suffering.  That celebration was one way God’s poured hope and love into their hearts through the Holy Spirit so that they could endure until their release.

Rejoice in Suffering

St. Paul wrote that we can rejoice in our sufferings because the Holy Spirit has poured God’s love in our hearts.  So when suffering comes, we don’t deny it, but we can endure.  We can live on.  We can look beyond it.  We can look to hope.  We can look to the Holy Spirit who pours God’s love into our hearts.

Thanks be to God!

Amen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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