Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and 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, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5).
Realizing Hope Against the Headwinds
Hope: We could always use more of it. Hope lowers its head and plods into headwinds of 24/7 news. Mass shootings in schools, grocery stores, hospitals, and houses of worship among other places. Inflation stoking fears of harder economic times to come. A war in Europe justified only by the outright lies of a dictator facing no checks and balances. Grief over losses suffered in a pandemic that may never completely go away. And perhaps worst of all, a cancer among us of polarizing paranoia and demonization of those who disagree, a cancer that threatens to kill democracy.
And then there is the church. Realizing hope in Christ for the world trudges through the headwinds as well. Clergy sexual abuse coverups in the Roman Catholic Church, Southern Baptist Church, and all denominations to one degree or another. Declining numbers in traditional churches and the increase in people claiming no religious affiliation, most notably among youth. Denominations and congregations divided over sexuality issues that expose deeper differences still. Attitudes and actions that reflect the practical atheism of secular society rather than challenging it.
So much for the litany of today’s bad news. Every year the news offers up fresh tragedies for this litany. Take any year, and a plethora of bad news challenges hope. Realizing hope in the face of it all can feel, well, hopeless.
For the church in Rome whom Paul addressed two millennia ago, the litany likely included the risk of persecution for refusing to worship the emperor down the street. Rejection from families who believed the gods would not protect them if anyone in the household followed a wacky sect that believed that a crucified man now lives, leads, and even loves them. Refusal of fellowship by Jews whose hopes, they believed, Jesus fulfilled, and worry over where God’s original chosen people stood with God. Worse yet, the skies were sometimes blue, other times populated with dark clouds, but they did not yet display the dazzling, fiery theater of the Son of Man’s return to set the world right, to fulfill good news so much better than the so-called good news of another Roman military victory.
Realizing Hope at the Foundational Level
But if we look closer at the nature and source of hope, realizing hope becomes more realistic. Hope shapes itself to meet whatever specific adversity we face. It feeds on adversity, like the longleaf pine that flourishes after fires burn away the brush and shade trees, or like the daphne plant that only shoots out seeds in response to harsh conditions. But the adversity upon which human hope thrives differs from theirs, of course, since they presumably lack our awareness of our mortality, our concern for a meaningful destiny. Hope thrives on the tension between need and uncertainty. As Paul said three chapters after our text: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:24b-25).
Yet, hope for what? Hopes for protection from violence, disease, and economic hardship matter to God as they do to us. When God came in human form, God demonstrated to the world what the ancient Hebrews long knew, that God works and suffers for us and with us in the context of our mortal concerns. But our hopes that violence, disease, and economic hardship will not overcome us amount to nothing more than animal instinct if we lack a more foundational hope, a hope to fully realize in our experience the purpose for which God made us: to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.
In these densely packed verses, Romans 5:1-5, Paul offers the logic of our salvation from everything that obscures that love. Having already established that Christ’s faithful sacrifice made us right with God when we could do nothing to justify ourselves, he declares that we can dispel all worry that God is ever against us. God is for us. Always. We are safe with God.
Realizing Hope in the Face of Suffering
Paul anticipates the questions, “But why then do we still suffer? How can we hope when we know that terrible things can and do happen still?” Those questions strike at the very heart of God’s promise of salvation. For in the common sense of ancient religion, Jewish and pagan, as well as the common sense of 21st century America, suffering suggests divine disapproval and hostility.
Salvation through Christ defies all such common sense. Through suffering, Christ saves us, and Christ converts our suffering from a sign of shame to a signature of salvation. Paul’s words again:
(W)e also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and 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 (Romans 5:3-5).
Paul means much more than the therapeutic consolation that enduring hardship builds grit. He means that in our suffering, should we dedicate our lives with all their joy and suffering to the love of God, we participate in Christ’s suffering love.
That entails participation in the all-powerful but all-too-invisible process by which God saves the whole world through Christ. In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul describes the meaningful Christian life as one patterned after Christ who, though divine, “emptied himself….taking the form of a slave….and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross,” from which he rose to glory (see Philippians 2:5-11).
Knowing we cannot realize this highest hope for our lives on our own, we at least pray for God’s help in loving as Christ loved in our context, with the strengths and limitations, the particular times and places of our lives. God will help those who ask, and, “Hope will not disappoint us.” For we will know in our hearts and bones “God’s love….poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (v.5). That love is both the foretaste of heavenly hopes and the love we pass on as we prepare a broken world for God’s reign unfolding on earth.
The Triune God Helps Us Realize Hope
Romans 5:1-5 is thoroughly Trinitarian: We have peace with the Father through the sacrifice and faith of the Son, and we respond with love the Holy Spirit breathes into us. Very well. So what about gun violence, Ukraine, COVID-19, and inflation?
God does not spoon feed us answers, but we will get nowhere if we lay aside thoughts of God after worship today and think we can solve our problems without God’s help. We are justified by faith because God loves us and knows we cannot overcome sin on our own. Nor can we overcome suffering on our own. We need Christ who suffers with us and for us to convert our suffering into hope that the solutions we find or at least the arduous processes of seeking them will glorify God. And finally, only by “love that overflows with knowledge and full insight” will we discern the will of God (Philippians 1:9-10), and we will not access that love without the prayer of the Holy Spirit.
So if we want a map to find our way out of the messes we have made, God does not demean us by providing that. But if we want the power and perception to move toward healing and peace, we already have God’s love, the foundational resource we need. And if we trust and move forward in love, however uncertain that we move in the right direction, God will realize hopes beyond our imagining.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6).
The above is the sermon for North Broad Baptist Church, Rome, Georgia, on June 12, 2022.