Sometimes I feel so weak. It doesn’t take much to shift me from trusting God to believing all is lost. I feel so overwhelmed by terrible tragedy and the conditions that keep allowing it to happen that I feel paralyzed by hopelessness. I get so consumed by whatever pressing task is demanding my attention, or whatever persistent irritation is soaking up my attention, that all of this piles up within me and leaks out all messy and harsh and weary.
I can swing swiftly from life-giving connection with others to blame, jealousy, resentment or despair. I so easily slip into desperate grabs to secure my well-being, or over-eager attempts to fix and control others, that I don’t even see it happening.
(Especially when I am too much on social media), from time to time I can almost feel fear’s messages coursing through my veins and feeding my brain.
When I am in this tenuous place, oh how good it feels to let go and rage out; the release! Letting the poison bubble up and spill onto someone who, in the moment, seems so deserving of it! It is a nasty decadence. But I can testify to this truth: immediately afterwards, I feel putrid inside. And I see the injury my words have caused in another person and the harmful disruption in our relationship, and what a moment ago felt like indulgent release ultimately makes me feel worse than I did when I started.
We are moving this summer through Romans and in jumping from chapter one to chapter five, we have skipped the part of the letter where Paul says nobody is righteous – nobody on their own is in right relationship to God, the true orientation of our being; every single one of us is under the power of sin. But God’s faithfulness to us is what frees us from the bondage to sin - that which destroys and tears apart our souls and relationships, destructive, pain-causing inhumanity that threatens to overtake us and that we sometimes, often, choose to succumb to.
Sin says it’s me against you; me for me, and you for you.
Sin looks like bondage to our own wants and needs over and against those of others. Bondage to acting like we’re in it alone or against, when we all belong to each other.
Bondage to a mentality of insufficiency, scarcity, blame and hopelessness; holding onto unforgiveness like a weapon, that eats us from the inside.
In sin we compare and we judge and we give up. We try to earn the approval of God or the world. And we are slaves to fear, and trapped in the need to be right.
Sin is not hypothetical; it shapes how we understand ourselves, how we interact with people, the very way we live in the world.
This impassioned and heady letter that Paul is writing, filled with what he truly, deeply believes, is not just in order to shape what other people believe. Paul’s goal is really, essentially, to change how people live. He wants to help them live in the way of God instead of the Way of Fear. Paul describes the way of God, the Kingdom of God, as “life in the spirit,” “being a slave of Christ” and “true freedom,” and calls the way of fear “life in the flesh,” “slavery to sin,” and “bondage.”
So as we go along, and get into some specifics each week of different chapters in Paul’s letter to the Romans, I want us to remember the big picture: this is about freedom, living free as people who belong to Christ and not to sin. But Paul wants us to know that true life, true freedom, can only paradoxically come through death – death to sin, death to the way of fear, entering into Christ’s death and resurrection to be made alive to our true reason for being: to be in the relationship of trust where our life comes from God and reaches out to each other in love.
But, we can’t get there on our own. On our own we let fear tell us who we are instead of faith. Instead of trusting God’s bond with us that will never let go to tell us who we are, we live like slaves to sin, powerless to stop our participation in destruction.
But, while we were weak, Paul says, while we were unable on our own to choose anything but our own demise, Christ died for us.
Why would God do this? Maybe, rarely, we could understand someone actually choosing to die for an impressively good person, but not so with God- God proves his great love for is in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
While we were enemies, God reconciled us to each other. God didn’t say Get it a little more together first, and get back to me. God said, Now, you, just as you are, in the farthest from me you can be and the most against me you can get, I choose you. I love you. I claim and forgive and welcome you.
So Paul begins this portion of the letter, “Therefore, having been justified” - made right with God and each other and eternity- “by faith,” – by trusting in God’s faithfulness to us through Jesus, “we have peace with God.”
You and I have peace with God. Peace! With God! God is not against us. God is for us. God’s faithfulness, Jesus’ own relationship to God, is what gets to set the terms for our relationship with God. Not our failures. Not our weaknesses and our trappedness and shame and not all the ways we hurt each other or ourselves.
What good news is this?? What gospel promise that keeps on bringing new life is this? That you and I cannot be held captive by our anger or pain or secret destructions, or broken relationships? That hatred and evil and destruction don’t get the last word?! No! The final word is God’s love and God’s faithfulness and God’s redemption!
If this is true, if there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love, then, in fact, the very thing we fear most and spend our whole lives trying to avoid at all cost, suffering and death, cannot separate us from God or God’s intentions for our lives, or the world, even. God is making us part of God’s relentless mission of love to be bearers of hope and truth tellers in a world of lies and false promises, and that will not be swayed or thwarted – even by suffering. The way of God will prevail.
This is not a simplistic formula – “Suffering is good because it makes you strong!” This is an abysmal thing to have said to you when you are suffering. When I was a hospital chaplain, much of what kept people from wanting to be prayed for or visited by anyone “religious” was the fear that this sort of thing would be said to them. Some form of “This is God’s plan. Suffering is good.”
Hear this: Suffering is not good; suffering is terrible. It is suffering. But here this too: that doesn’t stop God for a second. Nothing can stop God’s love and redemption. Not the most terrible thing we can dream up, or do, or experience; nothing has the power to stop God’s love.
What Paul is saying here is not prescriptive – telling them what to think or feel or believe about suffering, it’s descriptive – showing them something true – nothing can stop the mighty love of God.
Suffering is awful, but as many of us can attest to, God can use suffering to create in us a kind of deep and enduring strength, which forms character, which produces hope – and hope does not disappoint, Paul says, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God’s love has been poured into our hearts!
Something has been poured into our hearts that can lead no other place in the end but hope.
This week I listened in heart-breaking wonder to the family members of the slain in Charleston speak out of great suffering of all things, forgiveness, anger and forgiveness, anguish and forgiveness. They stood there in faith and spoke out an unshaken commitment to love, and refusal to let hate win. People can’t do that. We are not capable of that kind of action. Only something poured into their hearts through the Holy Spirit enabled them to stand up there and be defined by God’s love instead of their pain and the evil that has stolen from them. That is sheer grace. And it shows itself to be the most powerful thing on earth when even terrible suffering and utter evil cannot stem the tide of love.
And I want you to see the potent ripples this kind of thing has: trusting in their bond with God in such a powerful way as to step out and speak forgiveness in the face of such horrific evil is a humanizing and redemptive act- for themselves and their own future, but also for the one who became a vessel of evil. Instead of calling him a monster, which carries with it no expectation of anything other than evil, and even accepts violence as the only effective response to violence, their forgiveness calls him a person, and calls him to account as a person. It forces him to face what he has done and its impact on other persons to whom he is bound. It makes him have to reckon with his God. And it exposes the way of fear and hatred for what it is, and calls us all to account in the vast contrast with the Kingdom of God. It reveals that God has another way altogether, than the one we so passively accept.
This kind of forgiveness, that comes from the love God pours into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, frees those who are suffering from eventually becoming entrapped in hatred. It doesn’t end the grieving, oh no – grieving is holy, essential work that honors life and upholds God’s intentions for it, and mourning should never be silenced, quelled, hurried or solved. Grieving joins our hearts to God’s heart. But forgiveness takes human beings out of the God business, out of the life and death and judgment and retribution business, and puts us back in a place where we can receive God’s grace and find true freedom, even in grief and suffering- it keeps us connected to each other and God.
We have peace with God, you and I. We stand in grace. We are defined by the love of God, to be bearers of that reconciliation and love in the world. And when the times come to act from that bond of trust in God, be it in immense suffering and loss, unfathomable forgiveness that sets us free, great conflict and challenge, or small steady steps of consistent obedience – it is the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of God poured into our hearts, that fuels us. It is not our own goodness or strength – God knows we are not inherently able to remember and act out of the truth of who God made us to be, (we can't just fix what we keep on breaking) – we need a savior.
It is the power of the savior, who took on all that separates us from God and bore it in his very being, allowing it to claim and even destroy him, only to overcome death with life- that is the power to forgive, the power to heal, the power to restore what is broken, the power to be vulnerable in our weakness and to come alongside us each other in love and share each other’s suffering.
Faith like Abraham had, Paul says just before our text today, trusts that God can bring life out of death. Do we have that?
When such terrible death happens do we trust that God can bring life from it?
Do we hold up the broken life consumed and used up by evil who would commit such an atrocity and believe that God can bring life out of death?
Do we look at our broken country, so steeped in centuries of lies that allow violence and oppression and poverty and corruption to multiply and thrive within and among us, and believe that God can bring life out of death?
That there is another way and God is bringing that way?
What about our own hearts?
Do we believe God can bring life out of death when we act like slaves to fear and anger and apathy, when we give into self-indulgence and sin, instead of trusting that we belong to love? Can we step into the trust that sets us free and find new life again? Can we let our lives be used by God to bring new life into the places of death and despair around us?
Later on in Romans Paul will say that this kind of trust is most hard for those who already think they are faithful. That’s me. Lord, have mercy.
But today, right now, I choose to live in freedom.
And I already know I will fail. I already know I will slip into believing lies, trusting fear, letting worry or despair tell me what is real and either knowingly or unknowingly participating in destruction. But thanks be to God that it is not my faithfulness but God’s – in Jesus Christ – that saves me and helps me to live free. That it is only through Jesus – who keeps calling me to trust, to faith, that my life is made whole.
So perhaps for me, and maybe for you too, it begins by saying,
Lord, I am weak.
I am incapable of trusting, unable to live in freedom,
and I keep on choosing bondage instead of life.
But I see the power of your love.
I see what forgiveness can do, and what hope opens up;
I have experienced your grace
and I want to be part of it with my whole being.
I want faith to tell me what is real instead of fear.
I want my life to participate – to grieve and forgive and set free and heal and welcome and repent and witness your redemption every single day; Lord, use me.
Help me to trust in your faithfulness.
Help me to believe that you always bring life out of death,
and to trust that you will bring life from the places of death
within and around me right now.
Connect my being again to your own,
that I may know you love me,
and that my life may flow from that truth.