When my daughter was young, I would often say, “Hmmm…” as I thought about something. “What hmmm?” she would demand, wondering what I was pondering. We have the same reaction to Paul, as the reading begins with “therefore…” “What therefore?” we wonder.
Read the Narrative Lectionary Commentary here.
Read the scripture here.
With his adept use of words like “therefore,” Paul makes us look both back and forward. How did we get here, to this argument he’s making? And where do we go, once we’re following his ideas? In the chapter before this one, Paul builds on the example of Abraham, who held onto hope in God’s promises for decades before they finally came to fruition. Abraham’s story reminds us that hoping in God is a long game, not for anyone who’s looking for quick results.
And, looking to the future, therefore, since we are re-connected with God through the life and example of Jesus, what now? Paul poses this question to the church in Rome, and us. What shall we do with this foundation we have? Jesus has given us the gift of knowing that we are at peace with God, apart from anything we do, built on the gift of our faith. The text from Romans 3, which sets up the gift of justification for us, insists that this gift comes from God regardless of status. The Gentiles are included; there are no separate categories in God’s economy. This gift belongs to all of us. How then shall we include each other, as we love together in faith?
Writing to the early church in Rome, Paul writes to people who are surrounded by the signs of the Roman empire. Military power is on display every day, and the comings and goings of the emperor and the ruling class shape everyday life for the people of Rome. If the church made up of enslaved people and poor people, the power they encounter every day is not the power of Jesus, but the power of empire and wealth. Therefore, how do they take in this gift of peace with God? If suffering is a feature of everyday life for many believers, where is the power of God to be found?
Paul insists that we don’t need to just endure suffering, but we can see that endurance and character grow from it. From those things, our hope also grows. “Hope does not disappoint us,” he says. This is a particular kind of hope. Many hopes disappoint us – the hope of a particular job, the hope for good health, the hope that our children or our young friends will take a given path, the hope for any kind of outcome. Paul is pointing us to a deeper hope, where we find ourselves so deeply rooted in God that the other outcomes don’t matter…so much.
Paul lifts up Abraham as an example of dramatic hope in God. Abraham had faith in God, and his faith also wavered. Several times, he failed to trust God, particularly causing harm to the women in his life. The sermon might look at how our hope naturally comes and goes, and needs to be refreshed at times. How do we maintain a living hope, over time and through adversity?
Or the sermon might look at who suffers when we take matters into our own hands. When we make plans apart from God, who bears the brunt of our impatience, our grasping and our focus on quick results?
Paul insists that suffering produces endurance, then character, then a deeper hope. This can be a gift when we discover it in our own journey, but is dangerous to say to someone else. If we end here, we run the risk of diminishing someone’s current pain, or hurrying them past it. How do we reflect this truth without making someone’s suffering seem unimportant? The sermon might look at how this process works, and how each of us has to discover it for ourselves?
Where are your thoughts taking you this week? We would love to hear, and continue the conversation, in the comments section below.
Rev. Mary Austin is the pastor of Westminster Church of Detroit, a diverse Presbyterian church. She is the author of Meeting God at the Mall.
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