Saturday, June 17, 2017

Year A, Proper 6, Romans 5.1-8, Suffering & Hope

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen
“And not only that,” Paul writes,  “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.” 
In Philippians 3 Paul writes:
“7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
            But this wisdom of Paul didn’t come easy.
Paul had reason to boast.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
In Acts we hear
"I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem) at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.”

The life Paul lived, was an impressive one.  He spent much time and great effort in achieving all that he had achieved. 
He was a man of great passion.
He was well known to the religious leaders in Jerusalem.
He was an up and rising star.
And then, as he pursued his passion, he was knocked off his feet by a blinding light from heaven and heard the words “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”  When he gathered himself together and got up off the ground, he was blind.

Everything he was,
Everything he strived so hard to be,
His very self image,
All of that, died in a moment.
It became rubbish, trash, worthless.
It wasn’t just the physical blindness he suffered, it was also the loss of an entire world view.  He could no longer see the world the way he once did.
Paul had reason to boast in the great accomplishments of his former life, and yet it was not these that changed him, but suffering.
And then in his blindness, he began to see.
His former life now gone, he was to be resurrected, and would live now – in Christ, and Christ in Him.

Richard Rohr calls this experience
            “Falling Upward”.
Apart from some sort of necessary suffering,
Apart from a shaking of the foundation
Apart from a significant uncontrollable loss
Apart from hitting some sort of ‘rock bottom’ in our lives,
            It is difficult, almost impossible for us to let go of the self that WE have fabricated, in order that we might become what God has created us to be.
To put it differently,
We cannot live in Christ, nor can Christ live in us, if we are so full of ourselves that there is no room.

Like Paul, we spend a lot of time and incredible amounts of effort fabricating our lives.
We have a self image rooted in our families of origins. At each stage of our development and growth we add both victories and failures that shape our identity.
We get our degrees.
We learn our skills.
We are passionate about some things, indifferent about others.
We surround ourselves with friends & foes,
            Colleagues and clientele,
            Family, and if we’re fortunate, that one special person that more than any else, shapes our identity.
Into this castle we are building, we load it with things, especially in a materialistic society such as we live in.
My house,
The car I drive,
The boat, the furniture, the tools and the toys-
It’s all stuff that says something about who I am.
We fill our lives with activities.
And whether it is the opera, or the rodeo, or the soccer field,
            Each choice we make is a statement of our very being.
We are creating a “Self”, an “Ego”,
            A person of our own making.

If we do it well, it is quite impressive.
Not only do we impress others, we impress ourselves.

The problem is that it is all a fa├žade. 
It’s like a sandcastle on the beach.  No matter how beautiful, how awesome, no matter how much energy we put into creating it, in a moment it crumbles.
The foundations shake.
Suffering becomes a reality.
We find ourselves loosing the very things that shaped our identity.
Things that seemed like forever are gone in the blink of an eye.
Knocked down, blinded and unable to see, we are left wonder who we actually are. . .
            Who are we meant to be?
And there in that moment, when everything seems lost, when our very life is in shambles,
            There is the voice of God speaking.

One of the most difficult things to accept is that often the very events that threaten to destroy us, are in fact the hand of God nudging us beyond our own little world, into the life for which we have been created, the life “in Christ”.

Our old self must die,
In order that Christ may live in us.

The death of the “old self” is linked to resurrection and new life.  You can’t have one without the other.

 “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

Here I need to say two things:
First, it is not that God produces suffering in our lives in order that we might learn and grow from it, for to do so would be nothing less than cruel.  Suffering is not a tool God uses to produce spiritual maturity.
But, having said that, apart from suffering we will remain spiritually immature, or perhaps it would be better to say, spiritually inexperienced.
Hope, for one who has not suffered, is mere optimism.
Hope that is borne out of suffering, is a confidence that in all things Christ will be victorious, even over death itself.

I don’t know about you,
But I’d much prefer to know Christ and the power of his resurrection,
Without, and I really mean WITHOUT
            The sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.
I liked the “ME” that I had created.
I liked the life that I have been living.
I didn’t want the “self” that I worked so hard on achieving, to crumble like a sandcastle.

Not all of us are knocked to the ground by a heavenly light and encounter with Jesus as Paul was.
For most of us the turning point in our lives may be much more mundane.
It can be the loss of a job that was so much a part of our identity.
Likewise, with the loss of a spouse, or the children moving away, or other significant changes to the relationships that had defined us.
All of us grow old, and part of the aging process is coming to terms with limitations that once were not there, but now begin to define who we are and who we are not.
For the alcoholic, they know this critical point as the “rock bottom”, when the life they had created around alcohol comes apart at the seams, and they find themselves powerless and life is now unmanageable.
And at one point, each of us must confront the reality of our own mortality. 
It is in these moments of pain that God speaks words of hope.

The first word, is that death does not win.
Death, not the death of our “false selves”, not the death of our “Egos”, not the death of our carefully crafted and created self image, nor for that matter, our physical deaths,
Death, however you define it, is not the last word.
We are joined with Christ in a death like his, that we might also be joined with him in a resurrection like his.

And living our lives, now in Christ, our identities are no longer rooted in the things of this world, but in Christ.
The words God spoke to Christ at his baptism,
The words spoken to us in the water and the word are the only words that finally matter.
You are my Son,
            You are my Daughter,
The one I love,
            And with you I am well pleased.
It would be nice if we didn’t need get knocked on our butts to hear these words and to embrace them as our only true identity.
            But, we usually aren’t willing to let go of our old selves without a fight.
But God will win that fight.
And we will one day, sooner or later, come to know the beauty of being a beloved Child of God with whom God is well pleased.
That is who we are.
Nothing less.
Nothing more.
Amen

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