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 great drama of the Christian year is like a play with two acts. For the first half of the year, we focus on the life of Jesus from Advent to Ascension. Then after Jesus has ascended to the Father, we begin act two in which we focus, for a very long time, on the season of Pentecost, the season of the Holy Spirit of God, until we come again to Advent and begin again on the life of Jesus. So now we are in the season of Pentecost and we will be for a long time.
The first act is preoccupied with testimony about Jesus in his practice of mercy and compassion that contradicts the way of the world that specializes in power, money, and violence against the neighbor. The second act asserts that Jesus called his disciples—the church—to follow him in the way of justice, mercy, and compassion, to contradict the life of the world that trusts in money, power, and violence. It is no wonder that Jesus knew that the world will hate such a community because the world of money, power, and violence does not want itself exposed as hopeless fraud. As he says in our gospel lesson, ” See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Even though Jesus has ascended, we are not left alone. Along comes the Spirit of God to offer guidance and truth about this alternative way of being in the world. What the Spirit attests in this Pentecost season is what Jesus taught and acted out in his life, that giving one’s life for the sake of the neighborhood is the only viable life in the presence of God.
So Paul, in our second reading this Sunday, can speak of “our sufferings,” the sufferings of the people of Jesus. For many people the most difficult part of this passage comes when Paul reminds us that we Christians not only rejoice in the hope of glory, “but we also boast in our sufferings.” This can all sound a bit masochistic if we’re not careful.
Paul is not talking about exhibitionist suffering. This is not about seeking the abuse of dramatic self-sacrifice. This is rather the cost that comes with discipleship, that we notice the neighbor and invest in the well-being of the neighborhood. So Paul can write of such obedient suffering: “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.”
This is subversive gospel logic. Those who suffer for the neighborhood live to persist. Those who persist are shaped in gospel character. And those who are shaped in gospel character have hope. In other words, it is the actual engagement in gospel work of neighborliness that leaves us hope-filled, precisely because we have a sense that we are involved in something very big and very right, and because such engagement permits us to see, from time to time, surprising transformations that are the coming of God’s rule and the work of the Spirit. So the logic of Paul is this: If we want to break out of despair, get engaged.
Then Paul finishes with this flourish: “Hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
Hope—because of God’s love—through the Spirit! This is a gospel affirmation that makes no sense in the world of money, power, and violence. But it is the truth of the Spirit. It is the truth on which the church counts. It is the truth of the Spirit that the church, when it is obedient, has found to be true.