Hope seems to be in far shorter supply than despair in the 21st century. In fact, were someone to post a list of endangered “virtue species,” hope might join Christian unity near or at the top of the list. In fact, divisions among Christians sometimes drains some of some of God’s dearly beloved people’s hope.
Despair, in fact, sometimes seems to reign nearly everywhere we look. Despair that we’ll ever be able to put COVID-19 fully behind us. Despair that tension and guilt will always haunt relationships between black, brown and white people. Despair that disagreements over issues involving human sexuality will always shadow Christians’ relationships. Despair that wars will continue to flourish across the world. Despair that our climate will continue to change in a dangerous direction.
Because despair is so powerful and prevalent, citizens of the 21st century turn to all sorts of sources of antidotes for it. We hopefully seek political, economic or military solutions to our problems. Our contemporaries also turn to a whole buffet of spiritual hopes for meeting our most pressing needs.
Not surprisingly, however, people find that those antidotes don’t offer lasting hope. So when we feel hopeless, we naturally try to drown out the despair. We live for weekends and the distractions they offer us — no matter how temporarily. We turn to video and other games that allow us to drown out the noises that despair makes for a time. Or we pressure other people to offer us the hope that we can’t generate for ourselves.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson offers a variety of themes that the Spirit can use to provoke compelling preaching. My colleague Scott Hoezee wrote a very helpful commentary largely centered on Paul’s treatment of suffering in Romans 5:1-11.
However, another “avenue” into this text up which the Spirit might lead preachers and their hearers is Paul’s examination of hope. After all, hope plays a prominent role not just in God’s adopted children’s lives, but also in Romans 5’s first five verses. In fact, the apostle uses some form of the root word elpo (“hope”) three times in just four verses.
In her fine commentary on this text, Sarah Heinrich notes that Paul speaks of all time — past, present and future — in Romans 5’s first two verses. He describes how we have been accepted by God as God’s adopted children (1). All of this happened, celebrates the apostle in verse 2, through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Beginning at the end of verse 2, however, Paul notes what happens now in the lives of Jesus’ friends. “We rejoice” (kauchometha), he says there. He also points his Roman readers forward in time when he writes about “the hope (elpidi) of the glory of God (doxes tou Theou).”
It’s a phrase that’s nearly as pregnant with mystery as it is with meaning. After all, the NIV translation adds a text note that suggests that verse 1, 2 and 3’s “we” may also mean “let us.” So its translators at least suggest that Paul may be summoning his readers to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
What’s more, the Greek word we often translate as “rejoice” can also mean “boast” (cf. The Message, NRSV). It at least suggests an image of Christians who are so thrilled about the hope of God’s glory that it may almost sound like we’re bragging about what God has in store for God’s dearly beloved people. Yet no matter how we are to understand verse 2, it’s a reminder, as Heinrich notes, that we look forward to a future with God that the phrase “hope of glory” implies.
While verses 3 and 4’s assertions are no less hopeful, they’re far more startling. After all, conventional wisdom suggests that hope is grounded in optimism about future improvement. So, for example, my beloved Detroit Tigers baseball team has performed badly over the past few season. However, I hope that they’ll play better and thus have a better record this year.
Such human hope isn’t just conditional. It also has little space for human suffering. People may, for example, hope for better mental or physical health. But any kind of setback in health has the potential to diminish or even eliminate hope for more wellness. Such suffering has, in fact, the potential to mute our rejoicing in or boasting about our future glory.
Yet along comes the apostle Paul in verses 3-4 to say, “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” The Greek words for both verse 2 and 3’s rejoicing or boasting are the same. The root of the Greek words for both verses 2 and 4’s “hope” is also the same. So neither our rejoicing nor our hope change.
But the reasons Paul offers for rejoicing and hope change. On the one hand, verse 2 reminds us that the prospect of living eternally in God’s glorious presence fills us with hope. Yet in verses 3 and 4 the apostle also insists that Jesus’ followers suffering ultimately leads us to hope.
Of course, Paul’s assertion of the Spirit’s movement of God’s people from character isn’t particularly surprising. If you drive west from Montreal on QC-136 and Ontario 401 you can expect to eventually arrive near Toronto. In a similar way Christians aren’t surprised to hear Paul say that the Spirit’s deepening of Christian character eventually leads to hope.
However, the apostle’s departure point for the journey that eventually leads to character and hope is, frankly, shocking. He basically says that our journey to hope begins with suffering. We react to that assertion a bit like Google Maps’ responds to a query about the best route from New York City to Amsterdam: “Can’t find a way there.” Riffing on that, Paul’s readers might respond to verses 3 and 4’s “chain reaction” by insisting that you “can’t find a way” from suffering to hope.
Scott Hoezee’s commentary on this passage (ibid) is helpful. In it he laments how suffering is a sad but common part of human existence on this side of the new creation’s glory. While some of God’s people suffer far more deeply and frequently than others, none of us escape suffering entirely. No matter how much we wish it weren’t so, all of Jesus’ followers know what it’s like to weep, fear and hurt.
But in God’s economy of grace and glory, such suffering does not get the last word for God’s dearly beloved people. God is in the business, as it were, of bringing life from death. As Hoezee writes, “If God could love us when we were yet living as godless people, then he can surely keep holding us close even when we now suffer the cruelties and indignities of this life. If God could turn a cross into a doorway to life, then he can take our sufferings and use them to shore up our hope. In fact, sometimes we suffer more precisely because we hope for a better world.”
Preachers will be wise not to try to explain just how the Spirit uses suffering to produce hope within God’s people. Like so many of the Bible’s most beautiful yet mysterious assertions, “suffering produces … hope” is best left as a profession of faith rather than an equation to be somehow proven or even parsed out.
Paul closes this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s treatment of hope by asserting that “hope (elpis) does not disappoint (ou kataischynei) us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (5). In doing so, he reminds his readers that human hope is no sure thing; it sometimes disappoints us. Paul doesn’t just insist that, by contrast, “the hope of the glory of God” is a sure thing. He also suggests that the gift of God’s love that the Holy Spirit pours into Jesus’ followers’ hearts shores up our hope of glory.
So while despair and suffering seem to run rampant through God’s world, this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson insists that neither will get the last word. Christians can be totally confident that God, as well as God’s plans and purposes will get the last word. In a world on which Satan, sin and death sometimes seem to have an iron grip, the hope God gives God’s adopted children is indeed is not just cause for rejoicing, but also a glorious hope.
Leo is a young man in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Andrew Grossman’s book The One Man. His fellow captive is a famous scientist named Alfred. Alfred tells Leo, ‘We must continue to have hope. Where there is hope, there is life. And where there is life … there is more to learn, isn’t that right?’
‘Well, here’s to hope, then,’ Leo toasts. He lifts his teacup and hands it back to Leo. ‘And here’s to more to learn,’ Alfred responds as he takes a last sip of tea. ‘Where our true hope lies. Are we agreed?’ ‘Why don’t we just leave it at hope, shall we?’ Leo replies.’
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 12, 2023
Romans 5:1-11 Commentary