(Romans 5: 1-5)
Well, that was a character builder! You’ve probably heard someone say that in the past, or you’ve probably said it yourself at one time or another. I know I have. Your rocking along, fat, dumb and happy, when all-of-a-sudden, wham, it hits you. An unexpected turn of events, your best laid plans are turned inside-out, for which you had no contingency plans. Some of these incidents are merely minor inconveniences and/or annoyances. Others are more life changing, like the loss of a job, or when you’ve lost everything in a storm, fire, flood or other catastrophic tragedy. You’ve suffered some sort of life-altering experience and now you have to figure out what to do, how to pick up the pieces. You’ve got several options. You can get mad and rage at whomever or whatever you believe has committed this injustice to you. You can focus on finding blame. You can plot your revenge. You can throw a pity party and invite all your friends and relatives. You can curl up and withdraw. Or, you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and ask; “Where do we go from here, God?”
Teresa and I, in the last 45 years, have had many of these character-building experiences to the point where I’ve commented that I have more than enough character. We’ve dusted ourselves off, reflected upon how “interesting” the experience was, and have asked God; “What’s the plan?” And then, we’ve waited on the Spirit to lead us. Kind of like my last election experience. Not exactly what we had expected as we had planned on retiring after one more four-year term and then fading off into the sunset. We waited to see where the Spirit was going to lead us. We had no idea it would be Community United Methodist Church. Talk about building character!
And, building character is where we find ourselves in our scripture reading for this morning. The Apostle Paul is telling first-century believers that there will be trying times ahead for Followers of the Way. He says; 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. This justification Paul talks about is what brings us peace with God, grace for present living, hope for the future, victory in tribulations, and assurance brought by God’s love put in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Paul knows what he is talking about as, when he was formerly known as Saul, he was partially responsible for the fear that was put into the hearts of the early believers. He was their chief tormentor and persecutor before Jesus brought him to his knees and began building his character. He continues by saying; 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. He’s telling us to embrace our sufferings and not run from them. Embrace them in the knowledge that the Holy Spirit that has been sent by God the Father, will give us the endurance to struggle on and, in that endurance, we will develop and strengthen our Christian character, which will produce a hope that will not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts. His readers at the time really needed to hear that, as do we in these present times face our own trials, tribulations and persecutions.
Paul is telling us that we will experience difficulties that will help us grow and that we should rejoice in our suffering not because we like pain or deny its tragedy, but because we know God is using life’s difficulties and Satan’s attacks to build our character. The problems that we run into will develop our perseverance, which in turn will strengthen our character, deepen our trust in God, and give us greater confidence about the future.
This theme is picked up by other Apostles who also write to reassure us in our times of difficulty, distress and doubt. The Apostle James, in James 1: 2-4, says; My brothers and sisters, think of the various tests you encounter as occasions for joy. After all, you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. Let this endurance complete its work so that you may be naturally mature, complete, and lacking in nothing. James sees these instances as opportunities for growth, leaning experiences, a chance to see what it is that God is trying to impart. In 1 Peter 1: 6, 7, the Apostle Peter says; You now rejoice in the hope, even if it’s necessary for you to be distressed for a short time by various trials. This is necessary so that your faith may be found genuine. (Your faith is more valuable than gold, which will be destroyed even though it is itself tested by fire.) Your genuine faith will result in praise, glory, and honor for you when Jesus Christ is revealed. I think what Peter is saying is that anybody can say they are a believer, but it is how the believer reacts to difficulty that separates the fair-weather believer from the true believer, the one whose faith is genuine and withstands the test of adversity. People will look at how you handle your misfortune with grace and humility and will say to themselves that there must be something to this God thing.
This is the two-sided reality of Christian life. On the one hand, we are complete in Christ, our acceptance with him is secure. On the other hand, we are growing in Christ and are becoming more like him. And because of that relationship, we enjoy the peace that comes from being made right with God, all-the-while knowing that we still face those daily problems that often help us grow. If we remember these two sides of the Christian life, we will not grow discouraged as we face temptations and problems. Instead, we will learn to depend on the power available to us from Christ, who lives in us by the Holy Spirit.
Faith, hope, and love are at the heart of the Christians life. Our relationship with God begins with faith, which helps us realize that we are delivered from our past by Christ’s death. Hope grows as we learn all that God has in mind for us; it gives us the promise of the future. And God’s love fills our lives and gives us the ability to reach out to others. As we believers endure tribulation, God works in us to develop certain qualities and virtues that will strengthen us and draw us closer to Him. The result is fortified hope in God and His promises. The hope we have of our future glory with God will not disappoint us by being unfulfilled. We will not be put to shame or humiliated because of our hope.
The reason that we believers can be so confident is that the love of God has been poured out upon us. That moment we trust in Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who constantly encourages us in our hope in God. So, the next time you find your patience tested in some way, thank God for the opportunity to grow, to build your Christian character, and deal with them in his strength.
Please pray with me.
Loving and most compassionate God, we thank you for your tender mercies and how you care deeply for us during those times in which our faith is tested, and our minds are clouded by doubt and fear. We thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit who acts as our counselor and advocate who helps us to our feet and gives us the encouragement and guidance to move forward. As our faith deepens we can face the adversities of this life with the knowledge that we can overcome them and, through our example of grace and humility, bring honor and glory to you. Our strengthening faith gives us the endurance to go on in the face of a world that delights in failure. We are thankful for the building up of our Christian character that reflects your hope for the world and a better life ahead. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.