May 22, 2016 Trinity C
We viewed this clip from The Hunger Games to introduce the sermon.
Just to be clear, even though he may look sweet snipping roses, President Snow of The Hunger Games is a bad guy. He is evil personified. And while his reasoning may be based on false assumptions about what hope actually is, he does make a good point when he says, “Hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” And a lot of hope – that’s a dangerous thing. President Snow likes his hope in small doses. He uses hope to get people to do exactly what he wants them to do. But he doesn’t really understand what hope is.
At least a dozen times in Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, we find him talking about a particular kind of hope, and today’s passage gives us one of them.
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
The thing about Romans is that you have to hold the entire thesis in your head in order to examine a small chunk of it so it makes sense. This passage is a perfect example. Paul starts off with the word, “Therefore,” and that’s a sure sign we’d better go back and read chapter four, so we’ll know what he’s referring to.
Chapter four is all about Abraham, who believed God’s promise, and God credited it to him as righteousness. Paul has just explained how Gentiles who believe in Jesus are true children of Abraham, even though they aren’t Jewish.
Abraham wasn’t even Jewish, Paul points out, because “Jewish” means descended from Judah, and Judah was Abraham’s great-grandson! It was Abraham’s faith in God’s promise that made him the father of many nations, and our faith in Jesus as the fulfillment of that promise is what makes us true heirs of righteousness. In other words, you don’t have to become Jewish to become a Christian. It’s faith that matters. That’s chapter four.
“Therefore,” Paul says, “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We have peace with God. Think about that! Throughout the history of humankind, our relationship with God has been anything but peaceful.
From the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, people have been fighting against God. Even when we try our hardest to stay in God’s will, even when we strive to submit, we mess up. The human condition is not naturally one of peace. It is one of conflict. We see it everyday in the news headlines, and in our own lives. We saw it this week at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Portland, Oregon.
But thanks be to God, we do not have to stay stuck in that life of conflict. We have peace with God, because of his Son Jesus, who gives us access to the grace in which we stand. Christ opens the way for us to be reconciled to God, to be made right with God, to have peace with God.
This brings us to the heart of what Paul is saying in these few verses that are so packed with meaning: “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” (v. 2b NIV). The NRSV says ‘boast,’ but other translations say ‘exult’ or ‘rejoice’ here and in the next verse, and I think rejoice makes more sense to our modern ears. What do we rejoice in? We rejoice in …. hope!
Merriam Webster defines hope as “desire accompanied by expectation of or belief in fulfillment.” In other words, hope is a dream you expect to come true.
In the clip we saw a few minutes ago from The Hunger Games, President Snow uses hope as a tool to manipulate others, because he knows that hope is an even stronger motivator than fear. But hope, real hope, is so powerful that it is difficult to contain. Too much hope is dangerous. It motivates people in unpredictable ways to do amazing things.
And here is where President Snow’s reasoning shows a fatal flaw. He doesn’t know what the Apostle Paul knows about hope. President Snow doesn’t realize what causes hope in the first place. But Paul does. And he shows us the natural progression that leads to a life filled with hope in the glory of God.
Paul says, “we rejoice in hope, yes, but what’s more, we rejoice in suffering. Not because of suffering or through suffering, but in suffering. We rejoice when we are in the middle of suffering because we know where it leads: Suffering leads to perseverance, that patient determination to never give up. Perseverance builds strong character, and strong character gives us hope.
But what do we hope for? What dream do we expect to see come true? As followers of Jesus Christ, we often say that we hope in the resurrection. But why do we hope for that? We hope for resurrection because we know it is the gateway to eternal life with God. Paul tells us that what we hope for is nothing less than the glory of God.
Throughout the Bible the term “glory” identifies a person’s core being as it is exposed to the world. Paul is saying that what we expect to come true is a life lived in close relationship with God, where we can experience God’s glory for all eternity. Our hope is knowing and being known by God so intimately that God completely reveals himself to us.
This kind of hope does not disappoint or shame us, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (v. 5) What God reveals to us in his glory is love. God’s nature is love, and God pours that love into us through the Holy Spirit.
Today is Trinity Sunday, when we celebrate God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This passage from Paul’s letter to Rome names each element of God’s character. But we could name God in other ways:
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Speaker, Word, Breath
Abba, Ben, Ruach
Maker, Savior, Advocate
Love. Love. Love.
The glory of God is love. That is what we hope for. To love and be loved so completely, so fully, that it cannot be contained. This kind of hope is dangerous. It is unpredictable and out of our control. This kind of hope can motivate us to do amazing things, seemingly impossible things. But when we eagerly expect for God to make himself known to us, God shows up to pour love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
This week, as I watched the live stream video of UMC General Conference, I saw evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, pouring God’s love into people despite the conflicts that arose between progressives and conservatives. There was a moment on Tuesday, when it looked like the General Conference had managed to not only contain hope, but to kill it. The murmurs about division and separation grew to a roar. Demonstrations interrupted the proceedings.
For the first time in the history of the denomination, delegates asked the Council of Bishops to meet together and bring some spiritual guidance to the gathered assembly of delegates. They were asked to weigh in on the question of human sexuality and its impact on continued unity in the Connection. The Council came back with a proposal to refer the 110 pieces of legislation on this issue to a yet-to-be-named commission, including representatives from every geographic area and viewpoint. Their hope was that moving these pieces of legislation off the General Conference agenda, to be dealt with separately at a later date, probably a year or two from now, would allow tempers to cool, and the rest of the business of the church could be completed in the time that was left.
The reaction to this proposal was mixed. Some thought the bishops were failing to show leadership on the hot button issues of same sex marriage and ordination of gay clergy. Others were grateful for a breathing space, where prayer could inform the discussion and a middle way might be sought. Some were determined that there could be no middle way, and a split in the denomination was inevitable. Others were trying to find language that would allow opposing views to remain in fellowship with one another, so that the church would not be fractured.
The bishops’ proposal was approved, but by a very slim majority. There were no winners and the questions are still not resolved about how we are to be the church when it comes to issues surrounding human sexuality. On June 1st, I will meet with Bishop Ough and other clergy from the Minnesota Conference to discuss implications for our conference, and I ask that you keep us in prayer.
One of the lay delegates to the General Conference, Sara Swensen, wrote these thoughts following the vote to accept the bishops’ recommendation:
I keep hearing the words “if…. then.” “If we all read the Bible the right way, then…” or “If we all really prayed like we meant it, then…” These sentiments don’t magically dissolve our differences. One glance at the creation narrative shows that if God makes anything, well—it’s diversity. Even an eternal, all-powerful God had to take a break after filling the universe with such an array of plants and animals that scientists are still discovering new life in the depths of the seas and forests. There’s a lot of pride and fear in the words “if…then…” I hear, “If we don’t pass this, then the church will split,” and “If we pass this, our numbers will dwindle.” Who are we to know? The Holy Spirit wedges itself between the “if” and the “then.” Miracles grow between the cracks of our best plans and worst fears. An eternal, timeless God cannot be bound by the fearfully short-term and future-oriented words “if” and “then.”
God surprises. God creates. God challenges. We have a lot to teach each other through the differences that sometimes feel like barriers to progress on the plenary floor. If we open ourselves to the lessons of each others’ experiences, our vision of what God is capable of will expand way beyond our fears of an institutional divide. We must tear down the idol of our anxiety and turn back to the wild and mysterious God of creation, who calls us across all difference and eternity.
In other words, we must hope dangerously in the glory of God. We must allow the Holy Spirit to fill us with God’s love, fill us to overflowing, so that God’s great love for us spills over into other hearts. Those hearts may belong to people who don’t agree with us on how best to interpret scripture. They may belong to people who do not look like us or act like us or think like us.
But hope will not be contained. God’s love will not be contained. So go ahead.
Hope dangerously, in the love of the God who created you and redeemed you and sustains you.
Hope against hope, just as Abraham did, and see what God might do. Amen.
 N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, Part 1, 84.