Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 18, 2023
Romans 5:1-8 Commentary
In the space of just two verses (2b, 3a) Paul twice says that Christians “rejoice” (kauchometha). Few Christians are likely surprised by the first cause of our rejoicing that the apostle identifies in this text. Many of Jesus’ friends, however, may be startled by our rejoicing’s second cause. So those who proclaim not just this text but also “the whole counsel of God” always want to keep in mind both causes for rejoicing.
Romans 5:1-8’s preachers may want to parse out kauchometha’s potential meanings. After all, translations of it vary in this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson. In the first instance, the NRSV and the online resource Bible Hub both translate verse 2 as “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” The NIV and ESV, however, translate that verse as “we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” All three versions translate verse 3’s kauchometha as “rejoice.”
Various other biblical translations also render kauchometha as “rejoice,” “glory,” and “exult.” The Message paraphrases it as “standing tall and shouting our praise.” Those echo English definitions of the word “rejoice” that include feeling or showing great joy or delight. Taken together, they suggest that Paul is stating that Jesus’ friends are glad about both the hope of God’s glory and our suffering for Jesus’ sake.
Yet Romans 5’s preachers might point out that Paul isn’t commanding his readers to rejoice in the hope of God’s glory as well as our suffering. Kauchometha isn’t an imperative; it’s a present indicative. “Rejoice” isn’t, in other words, something Paul insists his readers should do. It is, instead, a statement of what they are already doing.
The apostle’s statement of rejoicing is, in some ways, understandable in verse 2. After all, the hope of sharing in God’s glory gives Jesus’ friends great joy. It is, candidly, far harder to understand why Paul says Christians kauchometha in our sufferings.
After all, few of God’s adopted children are glad about our sufferings. So it might have made more sense to us had Paul demanded that we rejoice in our suffering. The apostle, however, takes rejoicing in our suffering as a given. “We rejoice,” he simply says.
That’s a reason why Romans 5’s preachers should pay close attention to the preposition that we translate as “in” in verses 2 and 3. English translations render Paul as saying that we rejoice “in” both “the hope of the glory of God” and “our sufferings.”
However, the apostle uses two different Greek words that translations render as “in” — en in verse 2 and ep’ in verse 3. While en denotes the hope in which we stand, Bible Hub suggests that one meaning of ep is “against.” So Paul may be hinting that while God’s dearly beloved people rejoice because of the prospect of sharing some of God’s glory, we rejoice in spite of our sufferings.
Christians’ first ground for rejoicing, according to Romans 5:2, is the “hope (elpidi) of the glory (doxes) of God.” This language echoes some of the grief Paul expresses over humanity’s sinful exchange of the glory of the immortal God for images of mortal things (cf. Romans 1:22-23).
However, the apostle seems to be primarily using eschatological imagery when he speaks of “the hope of the glory of God.” The biblical scholar Robert A.J. Gagnon (The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, The Lectionary Commentary, Eerdmans, 2001) refers to it as “the expectation of receiving a resurrected ‘glory-body,’ a material and heavenly existence described in the metaphor of being reclothed with garments of brilliant light.”
In Romans 5:3 Paul adds that Jesus’ friends’ second ground for rejoicing is our “sufferings (thlipsesen).” The word is variously translated as “persecution,” “affliction,” “distress,” and “tribulation.” They suggest that Paul is specifically pointing towards suffering for the sake of following Jesus Christ. Those who thlibo do so for Jesus’ sake.
Of course, Jesus’ friends can only rejoice in our suffering for Jesus’ sake by God’s amazing grace manifested through the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet one of the things that the Spirit uses to stimulate that rejoicing is Christians’ awareness of what we might call verses 3-4’s “chain reaction of grace.”
“We rejoice in our sufferings,” Paul writes there, “because we know that suffering produces (katergazetei) perseverance (hypomonen); perseverance, character (dokimen), and character, hope (elpida).” Suffering, the apostle insists, ultimately produces hope.
This is a counter-cultural and counter-intuitive claim. After all, suffering can be so all-consuming that it’s tempting to assume that it will always get the last word. Yet Paul’s chain reaction of grace defies that assumption. The apostle, in fact, insists that suffering doesn’t even get the second to last word for Jesus’ friends. It’s merely third from the end. Character and hope both come after suffering.
Yet preachers who wish to proclaim this chain reaction of grace should be honest about it. We can admit that not all sufferers land in and on hope. Even some Christians who suffer eventually despair rather than hope. Suffering leads to hope is not some mathematical equation, such as 1+1=2.
In fact, only the Spirit’s gracious and persistent intervention can turn suffering into the hope in God that never disappoints God’s beloved people. The biblical scholar Michael A. King calls suffering “a signal doorway through which the Holy Spirit enters our lives.”
As the Spirit enters suffering Christians’ lives, the Spirit produces the kind of hope the world is dying to have. After all, so much human hope disappoints (kataischynei) us (cf. v.5). Much of that for which people deeply wish never comes to fruition. But, insists Paul, Christian hope never lets us down. It never makes us literally ashamed that we invested so much in it. Jesus’ friends never stop hoping in God and God’s purposes because we know that God always keeps God’s promises.
How can Jesus’ followers know that? Because, as my colleague Scott Hoezee has written, the hope about which Paul writes, “Emerged from the death of God’s own Son. The hope that was forged in the fires of death cannot itself then die when suffering and persecution come because this is a Gospel hope that transcends all suffering on account of having been born out of hell and death and the worst suffering ever.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s Christo-centric ending points to God’s deep love for God’s suffering but hopeful people. Paul, in fact, uses the word we translate as “love” two times in its last four verses. In verse 5 he insists that God’s adopted children can trust that Christian hope won’t disappoint us because “God has poured out (ekkechytai) his love (agape) into our hearts (kardiais).” God’s love so fills our lives that our hearts can remain hopeful – even in the face of suffering for Jesus’ sake.
However, this love, adds Paul, isn’t like human love. Even Christians find it hard to love undeserving people enough to be willing to die for them. But, rejoices the apostle, “God demonstrates (synistesin) his own love (agapen) for us in this: While we were still sinners (eti hamartolon), Christ died for us.” While, as The Message paraphrases this, “we were of no use whatever to him, God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death.”
That’s something in which all of Jesus’ friends can rejoice, both now and always.
In his book Whistling in the Dark, Frederick Buechner quotes a young colleague who’d said, “’There are two kinds of Christians in the world. There are gloomy Christians and there are joyful Christians’.” Buechner adds, “There wasn’t the shadow of a doubt which kind he preferred with his smile as bright as his clerical collar, full of bounce and zip and the gift of gab, and there is little doubt as to which we all prefer.
“And why not? Joy is at the end of it, after all. Astonishment and joy are what our faith finally points to, and even Saint Paul, that in a way gloomiest of Christians, said as much though he was hardly less battered than the Jesus he preached by the time he had come through his forty lashes less one, his stonings and shipwrecks and sleepless nights.
“Yet at the end, licking his wounds in a Roman lockup, he wrote, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice.’ But it is at the end that he wrote it. Rejoice is the last word and can be spoken only after the first word. The sheltering word can be spoken only after the word that leaves us without a roof over our heads, the answering word only after the word it answers.”
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