Salvation Through the Church

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope. Our lesson this morning comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome. He has been busy traveling and preaching, spreading the gospel as he goes. This particular church, though, is one he did not start. He is coming to visit them, and wants to establish some kind of connection before his arrival. What he doesn’t yet know is that Rome is the city in which he will die.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

It is also important that we remember where Paul came from. He was a Pharisee who went by the name of Saul and, in the early days of the Christian movement, he was one of its fiercest opponents. He oversaw the martyrdom of Stephen at the hands of a murderous crowd. His dramatic conversion came while he was traveling up to Damascus to continue this cruel work.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

All of this, of course, comes in the shadow of the cross. Jesus, the hope of the world, had been betrayed by those closest to him. He was tried, tortured, sentenced, and executed. And on the cross, he breathed his last before being buried in the tomb.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

The early days of Christianity seem to be most pronounced by their suffering, a reality that continues to shape so much of Christian theology. There are places where this is still true. One need only speak with the families of Ethiopian and Egyptian Christians viciously beheaded by ISIS militants to know that this is true.

At the same time, our situation as 21st century American Christians is about as far removed from these kinds of contexts as possible. Our day-to-day existence is relatively carefree. We may be living in a society that is less and less “churched”, but the truth is that this is something we have to face as a minor inconvenience, not a life-threatening situation. Even so, this history continues to shape how we see the world.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

There are many reasons why I am focused on this question of suffering today. The headlines are part of it – while the world is, in many ways, a far less volatile place to be, the 24-hour news cycle has turned up the temperature to the point that anything – anything – is worth spending hours analyzing. Things are happening halfway around the world feel like they are happening to us. If that drove us to compassion, that would be a good thing; instead, it tends to stoke the flames of our fears.

That’s part of it. But the bulk of it is that I have been spending a lot of time lately with families who are going through their own sufferings. Well-meaning people, in their efforts to provide comfort, offer up their own explanations, things that they would be better off keeping to themselves. And it all seems to swirl around suffering, around this idea that God must have meant for their suffering to happen in order for some greater purpose to bloom and flower.

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t settle well with me. It bothers me when people say, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” It’s not that I don’t believe it; it’s just that I most often hear it when ascribing horrific things to God.

In my estimation, no one has ever put it better than William Sloane Coffin. For ten years, Coffin served as Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. In 1983, his son Alex was killed in a car accident. Ten days later, Coffin delivered the eulogy. In it, he delivered these words that have rung in my ears ever since I first heard them:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with…fingers on triggers…fists around knives…hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

Suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

You see, here is the thing about suffering. I do not believe that God causes suffering. If that were the case, I would have a hard time standing up here with a straight face, suggesting that worship is a worthwhile activity. Instead, I believe that God is more powerful than suffering, and can take suffering, broken heart and all, to transform it for the sake of the good that God desires.

There is an Old Testament story that illustrates this best, I believe, that of Joseph and his brothers. They are jealous of the attention that their father, Jacob, showers on Joseph. Not only that, they are bugged by the fact that Joseph seems to lord it over them. They plan to kill him, but change their mind at the last moment and merely sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, somehow, manages to rise through the ranks to become the Pharaoh’s right-hand man. When famine strikes the land of Canaan, his brothers come to Egypt seeking sustenance and, as luck would have it, Joseph is the one who provides for their well-being. “What you intended for ill,” Joseph says, “God intended for good.” In other words, while is brothers were seeking to punish Joseph for his arrogance, God took what could have been misery and was ultimately able to bring good out of it.

That, I believe, is what is at work in what Paul writes to the Church at Rome. He knows that, as a minority community, they suffer. And while God did not intend nor create that suffering, God is able to take that suffering through a process and transform it into something that is ultimately good. In suffering, we learn how to endure. In that endurance, we cultivate character – a character that is, in the end, steeped in hope. And hope, we believe, has the final word.

The suffering of Christ was transformed into resurrection. The suffering of the early church was transformed into Paul’s conversion. And the suffering of Paul was transformed into the growth of the church. This is our hopeful inheritance! This is what the church exists for! This is the church into which we baptize: a community that lives to make hope alive and real in the world.

Friends, there are many out there who have rarely, or even never, set foot inside a church. To be brutally honest, I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing. There are many churches that have gotten convoluted in their purpose. As the theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it, “The kingdom of God isn’t there for the sake of the church. The church is there for the sake of the kingdom.” In other words, we are not the perfection God desires. Instead, the church is meant to be the vehicle through which the kingdom is built. Sometimes that building is quite literal, as Habitat homes go up. Sometimes, it is built in the subtlest of ways, in prayers that come in moments of desperation. Whatever the case, we are called to be those builders!

There are many out there who need and deserve to hear this word of hope. In the absence of it, we are fumbling in the dark, creating God in our own image and finding meaning in all the wrong places. Without it, we are vulnerable to bad theologies and empty platitudes that may be offered with the best of intentions, but often do more harm than good.

Instead, when we recognize that God has not given up on us yet, and when we share that gift with others, we begin to sketch the outlines of God’s desires for us in a world where suffering still exists. But rather than seeing as suffering existing for its own sake, can we begin to see it as something we might have a hand in transforming?

After all, suffering produces endurance. Endurance produces character. Character produces hope.

Above all, though, let us remember this important point: we are not just the church when we are inside this building. If we are, then we have confused the kingdom with the church. As the children’s song puts it, “I am the church; you are the church; we are the church together.” It is not when we enter this place, but when we leave it that we truly become church, called out and into a world that suffers, a world that hungers and thirsts for hope.

And that hope? It does not disappoint; because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the gift of the Holy Spirit.

May it be so, now and always.