In this passage from the Letter to the Roman Church, Paul outdoes himself. He’s still wordy but somehow, there is clarity and substance in what he says not only for the community of the faithful in Rome but, for our lives and in our day and age too.
Paul describes human interaction in a way we can all appreciate it and understand it. He speaks of “being justified” by faith, which leads the hearer and reader to wonder what needs to be justified, or in other words, what needs to be “made right and acceptable”. Is there then, something that ordinarily would bring on a sense of shame or some aspect of wrongness to the receiver? With these words, Paul is breaking an age-old preconception, which is the untruth that if someone (or a community of someones) experience tragedy, suffering, or pain they are receiving their just reward. God has in someway been offended by something indefensible that they did and the result for the recipients of such suffering is justifiable pain and suffering. Good fortune falls on the hearts and lives of those with whom God is pleased and by contrast, Grief, sorrow, pain, loss and ultimately shame falls on the lives of those who have, by their actions, offended God in some way.
Common sense tells us this is not how things really work with God; Paul’s words to the Romans confirm it. He is a prisoner of the Roman government but Paul does not see this suffering as a result of some evil he has committed. Instead, he assures his followers that in Christ and by faith, he is justified or acceptable in the eyes of God. Faith and faith alone have brought him God’s ultimate peace and for Paul and for those in any like circumstance, faith guarantees that suffering is not useless or a justifiable punishment. Faith produces endurance. Endurance produces character and character produces hope.
At this point in the history of the early church, the church was not yet under assault. There were some minor skirmishes but ahead, there would be real pain and suffering. Many – true followers of Christ – would face imprisonment and death. So Paul was anticipating what was coming and preparing the Roman church and its members to face their own future. Likely, he might not be there to sustain them, to help them or to remind them of what he had taught them, but God would be and it is this assurance, this all-important truth Paul was striving to convey with his words.
A message we today need to hear in our own lives. Each of us has or has had some struggle, some grief; some sense of loss, some pain and suffering in our lives. We can get swamped by a feeling that “God is out to get us” for a real or imagined flaw or error but that isn’t how God works. What God gives us by grace is faith in him. Through Christ such faith can not only move mountains; it can help us through times of suffering and pain and bring us to a clarity of mind and spirit that will lead to endurance and character and ultimately hope. We can find hope in what seems hopeless.
For those of us who attend some kind of support group for addiction or obsessive behavior or for those of us who attend these support groups because we love someone who has such afflictions, what we are seeking is hope and some sense of peace. Inevitably, when the parting prayer is uttered or the final words of dismissal spoken, what remains, whether spoken nor not, is the thought, is the belief that “we never give up hope.” And when we think about it, that spoken or unspoken thought is what we leave with when we conclude our worship service too…go in peace knowing that God goes with you. Hope. Endurance. Character. Peace. These are the attributes God freely gives to us in and through the most giving action of all…Christ’s life for us and in us.
On this Memorial Day weekend, our thoughts naturally stray to the sacrifices that were made for us by those who served our country. May suffered and died to ensure our peace and not only our peace but world peace. There were many around the world that believed in good over evil and gave what they could to assure the former would win over the latter. So, I share this story about another country, another brave man and what his sacrifice, justified as he was by his faith came to me to him and to those who knew him.
“Having fought for five years in the Polish underground during World War II, and knowing that the war had ended, a man had was captured by the Russian army. He had to stand trial for war crimes accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Fifteen out of the 16 men captured with him broke under the pressure, but he didn’t break, even after being questioned for 69 out of 70 nights. His tormentors examined what he had done or hadn’t done over and over again: his work, his marriage, family, church and community life.
The interrogators advised him to plead guilty so they could lessen his sentence. They assured him that if he refused he would certainly die. But the man refused. He said he hadn’t been a traitor and would not, could not confess to something he hadn’t done. He pleaded “not guilty” at his trial and because of the foreign observers there, he was eventually freed.
Many were impressed with the natural way he witnessed to his Christian faith. He kept his faith alive with prayer, and all other loyalty was secondary to his loyalty to Christ. When his accusers pointed out his weaknesses, he freely admitted them. He daily presented himself to God and his accusers in absolute honesty saying, “When they showed me a coward, I already knew it. When they showed me a reflection of myself with all my inadequacies, I said to them, ‘But gentlemen, I am much worse than that.’ For you see, I had learned it was unnecessary to justify myself. One had already done that for me — Jesus Christ!”
Though the man’s name has long since been lost to history, his story lives on. Justified by faith, assured of Christ’s blessed hope; this man could survive and even thrive in his suffering. In the end, he found peace. Whatever struggles you and I are enduring, whatever pain or suffering, confusion, or illness, by God’s grace, justified in faith, we, like Paul cannot be disappointed. “God’s love has been (and will be) poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” We need never doubt it. Amen.