The Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, St. Andrew’s Church, New Johnsonville

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom. 5:3-5).

Last night I threw away the pretty good sermon that I had prepared earlier in the week for this Sunday, feeling in my heart that events had simply overtaken it and that we needed another word. It’s not unusual for what’s happening in the world to impact a sermon, and to be incorporated: in fact, if what’s going around you doesn’t turn up in a sermon, you’re probably not doing what a preacher needs to do. But it is unusual for dramatic events in one’s own community to derail a sermon completely, at the last hour, and to cause the preacher to move to an entirely different place to begin.

But events have been moving quickly in the last couple of weeks. What a Lent this has been. Just two weeks ago, the Coronavirus was the slightest of blips on my radar screen, but now it has moved to center stage. In communities to the east of here, in Davidson, Wilson, and Putnam counties, it has even eclipsed two destructive and deadly tornadoes that moved through these parts of our state. I have a whole list of things that seemed really, really, important just two weeks ago, but which I haven’t heard anything about for days.

St. Paul gives us a series of words, in the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Romans, that are on point this morning. The first one is “suffering.” I don’t think I need to explicate this word much, because each one of us could write our own chapter. We’re experts on this subject, doctors of philosophy in suffering, able to lecture at length. Suffering is relative, in that each of us has our own experience that can’t really be compared to others’ experience. I sometimes wonder how people bear the situations they’re given, but that’s not really fair. We all suffer, in our own way and in our own time.

We wonder, also, about the purpose of it all. Here, Christians get to puzzle over the existence of suffering. How could a good God allow us to suffer? Why the Coronavirus or the Tennessee tornadoes? Just a few verses later in the letter, St. Paul gives a form of the answer: whatever the origin of suffering, God sends his own Son to shed his blood, to die for our sins, to reconcile us to himself. Whatever the origin of suffering, and our own urgent questions about it, God’s response doesn’t stay within the frame of the question. God’s response is to come himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, to take the sins and suffering of the world upon himself. We have a God who is with us in the trench, in the emergency room, in the hospice and hospital bed: in every possible place where suffering occurs.

“Endurance” (which follows next in the sequence) is a great word, because it begins to open up another horizon. Whatever the origin or purpose of suffering, St. Paul says, it does produce endurance, a hard-won fruit of the ordeal. Endurance is more than just bearing the weight, carrying the load, gritting the teeth and carrying on. Not just that, but also finding purpose and meaning in events: turning what happens into something else shaped by our own moral courage and conviction. Endurance is not just being there: it’s choosing to bear the weight instead of just flying apart. Here, the person of Christ on the cross is our model of endurance, of not just being there but bearing there, the weight of the whole world.

In the Thirty-ninth psalm, the Psalmist writes, “I am worn down by the blows of your hand” (Ps. 39:11). I take the Psalmist to mean that the suffering we endure, rather than the suffering we just suffer, is the means by which we are shaped and formed. Keeping with the sculptured nature of the metaphor, it’s as if our true selves are emerging through our endurance, from the rough materials of which we are made.

That moves us on to the next word in the Apostle’s sequence: “character.” This is a rare word in the New Testament, formed from a verb meaning “test.” The purposes of the test are to find out whether what’s tested is worthwhile. So, you test something to see if it will bear the weight put upon it, and when it passes the test, it is approved. It shows its worth and its character as something that can do the job.

Character is not simply self-referential. In other words, we’re not simply left to testify to our own worth, our own ability to bear the load. Here, in St. Paul’s sequence, God is the One who approves. God is the One who turns our patience and our endurance into the character that’s required for faithful discipleship.

Last of all, we have “hope.” The philosopher Aristotle called hope the “dream of a waking man”: that is, the hope that we have at the beginning of a new day, with the horizon ahead opening up for us in fresh ways. Hope, for Christians, is faith focused on the future, on what lies ahead. There is always a future for the People of God. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is our pattern, once again our model for what’s ahead. For each of us, there is the victory of each new day, but also the victory of a greater and more distant day, where life is triumphant. Hope, St. Paul says, “does not disappoint us” (Rom. 5:5).

I said that “hope” was the last word, but not quite, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:5). God has the last word: and the last word is about God’s love shared with us through the Holy Spirit poured into us. That love makes our hearts live again. God’s love is certain and sure: rooted in the death and resurrection of Jesus, shared with us through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It’s shared with us in this Eucharist today, where Jesus’ life, given for us, becomes new life within us. “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee