I met a young man who was getting his PhD in chemical molecular hydrology engineering… or something like that. I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but rather than let on, I said, “Oh, I see. And how do you hope to use this degree… are you going to teach?” To which the young man said no, but then explained what he was doing in two sentences in plain English. I complemented him on his ability to translate – to which he replied: Most people don’t have a clue as to what I do – so I had to come up with an elevator speech to explain it.
Today is Holy Trinity Sunday. It too is hard to understand. The word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible anywhere. It is simply an attempt – after Jesus came -- to understand how God is working in our world. Before Jesus, most people believed in many gods – there were gods for wind, rain, crops and everything else. But the Jewish people believed in ONE God. That made them distinct. Then came Jesus and Christians said, we have One God – but people had a hard time understanding how God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit = 1. What kind of math is that?
Romans 5:1-5 is Paul’s elevator speech for the Trinity. But it’s not a theological explanation. Instead it explores the three different ways that God is revealed and why that makes a difference for our lives.
Why does it make a difference? One word: Jesus. Paul has already proclaimed that we are justified – that is, made right with God by Jesus through faith. He goes on to tell us that the result of this is peace – peace with God. Jesus has made things right with God for us - for You. Regardless of the wrong turns you have made in the past, mistakes, hurtful things that you have said or done, Jesus has set things right with God – for you.
But Paul knows that we live in a challenging world in which all things are NOT right. It might be all right for a moment, but it’s kind of like the prayer I once heard: “Dear God, I give you thanks that I have not said or done one thing wrong or hurtful all day. But… I’m about to get out of bed – and then I’m going to need some help for the rest of the day.”
Yet rather than be discouraged, Paul encourages his listeners, saying that as followers of Christ we may boast in our Hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we may boast in our suffering.
Paul was from a different time – but I think even for the Roman Christians, boasting in suffering may have sounded like sore comfort.
Suffering. There will be suffering, heart-ache and despair. Being a follower of Jesus does not protect us or shield us from the trials of the world. Sometimes, it makes it harder.
Roman Christians were in a minority – and many were persecuted and suffered for their faith. Unfortunately, those days have returned. Coptic Christians in Egypt have been beheaded, Christian Arabs – some of them Lutheran – living in the Holy Land are being persecuted, and Christians in other places also are in danger.
Our suffering may seem small in comparison. Yet, even if we are not persecuted for our faith, we are not immune to suffering because we are Christian. There were most likely Christians on board the plane that was destroyed over the Mediterranean Sea. Christians are not spared from cancer, heart trouble or any other disease. Followers of Christ face the same challenges from the world – floods and droughts and sickness and hardship - as everyone else.
As Jesus says, God "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” The difference is that, both in joy and in hardships, people of faith are able to respond, “Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
I learned this lesson from my father when I was a little girl. I remember standing in our living room looking out at my father’s fields. The grain had just become ripe, and the golden stalks were being pounded into the ground by a fierce thunderstorm. I prayed for the rain to stop – or for God to skip over my father’s grain and just rain on the corn. I must have just learned about the power of prayer in Sunday school and so I was praying with all my might. My father came into the living room and looked at me with my nose pressed against the glass looking anxiously at the grain. God was NOT answering my prayer. My father said, “What’s wrong?” I responded with a bit of accusation in my voice, “Aren’t you even a little bit worried? The crops are being ruined.” My father smiled and said, “Well… we’ll see. Nothing we can do about it right now. Want to play a game of checkers?”
My father had endurance. He had lived through worse storms than this – and knew that whether the crop was ruined or not, it was not the end of the world. Instead, it was an opportunity for him to take a break from his chores and spend time playing a game of checkers.
If you are anxious and afraid, if you wonder if your actions have caused your suffering then suffering can lead to depression and hopelessness. But, if you are confident that Jesus has already made you right with God, then suffering can be endured because you know that it is not the end of the story. And that kind of endurance, an endurance that is not just surviving and not simply trusting in your own skill, abilities or luck but is linked – often through suffering -- to a confidence that God is with you – despite the challenges that come your way. This is the kind of endurance that leads to character.
No one is born with a good character. But character is learned through practicing good values, being forgiven when we make bad choices and knowing that Christ has made you right with God – so it isn’t up to you to prove your worth. Character is molded and formed by the forgiveness of Christ who made us right with God and through a life that is not squashed by suffering and adversity but instead endures and grows. A person with these gifts of character dares to hope.
We are back to hope.
Hope is sometimes dismissed as naïve or foolish. It’s so much easier to find the reasons something won’t work than cling to hope in the midst of suffering and adversity.
George Fredric Watts painted a remarkable painting named “Hope.” It’s the portrait of a woman, barefoot and blindfolded and dressed in tattered rags sitting on top of a globe. In her arms she is cradling a harp – that has lost all of its strings except for one. And she is playing that one string – undaunted by all of the challenges around her.
This is the painting that inspired President Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright – who saw in it the “Audacity of Hope,” an idea that captivated President Obama so much that he named his second book after it. Regardless of whether or not you like President Obama or his pastor, they captured the “against all odds” quality of hope. Hope doesn’t figure the odds. Hope doesn’t get stuck in probabilities. Hope has a different vision. It’s a vision of possibility.
We dare to hope, because, as Paul writes, “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.”
That is a note to remember – especially for you who are graduating: Some of you will be heading off to new places – schools or places of work. And as you go, there will be many things in the world to challenge you. There may even be some suffering in your life. There may be times when you are tempted to give up. But… in that moment, when all seems dark and hope-less, remember the peace that Jesus gives – who has made things right with God FOR US and remember that there will be suffering and challenges in your life…but remember too that suffering can lead to endurance and endurance to character and character to 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.”
This is why we gather on Sunday mornings to worship rather than do a whole host of other things that seem really important at the time. This is why we bring children like Thea and Anna and Howie to be baptized and this is why we keep coming. We need to be reminded of God’s love for us – and that we are part of the whole community of faith who gather to worship God TOGETHER because then WE as Christ’s body are made whole.