SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST — 2020
Good morning, and welcome to Trinity Church online. I am Jim Jelinek and The Rev. Alan Neale and I serve as clergy here for the remainder of this month, when you will welcome The Rev. William Watt as your next Rector. He and his lovely wife Tanya are moving to Newport the end of this month. One thing I can promise you is that he knows much more about filming these videos and doing streaming online than I will ever know and that alone will enrich your worship immeasurably. The gospel passage appointed for this Sunday is the story of Jesus sending out the 70 disciples on their first field education experience. When they returned, they were so excited about all the teaching and preaching they did and the healing that happened through them. I referred to this passage a couple of months ago when we first began these meditations because I think this is a time when Jesus had a big old belly-laugh at all their excitement. So, instead of revisiting this, I am going to play with the epistle lesson today.
A reading from the Letter of Paul to the Romans [5:1-8]:
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. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. The Word of the Lord.
This is a wonderful passage—some of the best of St. Paul’s writings. He is so confident of God’s grace that he says we stand in it like in a bright ray of sunshine in a forest clearing, or in the gentle, warm shower of a summer rain, soaking in all the blessings being shone down or poured down on us. What a lovely image! He goes on to say that we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. This is a man who is convicted of his faith; this is no lightly held optimism, but the confidence of glory suffused by grace. I am sure he preached with as much power as he writes, for he won over countless converts all over the Eastern Mediterranean on his missionary journeys. He planted church after church in city after city. He instilled them with hope and formed them into communities that could thrive without him, growing still more by the gifts of the local leaders he trained and ordained. And he kept all this going by his letters, sometimes chastising and correcting, sometimes praising and thanking these communities for their faith and witness, and always sharing how much he loved them. One of my favorite memories of Paul, was his reminder to each of these faith communities that he thanked God for them. I know what that feels like; because of Paul, I, too, have said that many times in many places.
Paul continues, this time getting deeply serious about what it means to be a disciple, to learn how to suffer, to bear what we have to bear, and he does this progression with such eloquence, I cannot begin to say it any better. Listen again: “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….”
Paul knew suffering. He knew it intimately. He had some kind of affliction that never healed. He was arrested and beaten and whipped more than a few times. He was ship-wrecked twice. Paul was jailed and put in chains and given a starvation diet on numerous occasions. He says he can boast about it because it gave him tenacity, it strengthened his courage, and it led him to hope—not mere “expectations” about preferred outcomes, but hope, that God could use all of this and use him to bring about something wonderful and life-giving and profound. And so many of those who met him were changed by the strength of his faith and witness.
The other day I wrote and spoke about humility, and much of the time when Paul uses the word “boast,” he seems arrogant, but the fact is that Paul is never trying to call attention to himself, the very thing that a candidate for public office seems to have to do in order to win an election. Yet Paul is always pointing beyond himself: to the person of Jesus whom he knew intimately in every fiber of his being, to the power of God to create new things and to make something old new, because that is what God did to and with and in him, to the infusing of the Holy Spirit in any and everyone’s life, and, as in this passage, to the mercy and grace of God in which we stand, totally blessed.
There was a period in the 1970s and 1980s, a time when the western world was waking up to chauvinism and the ways our culture has been very slow to emerge from its male-only bias (God knows, we are still emerging, slowly, but emerging). Paul was pretty roundly trampled on and dismissed by many for his many comments that treated women as second-class citizens. Some clergy would not preach on him; some spoke out loudly and clearly against him. I sometimes got negative comments if I quoted him in a sermon. Yes, this was where Paul was definitely a man of his time and his culture and did not transcend them in his thinking. However, we cannot let this man with all of his visionary thinking, the images he has created for us, particularly the profound image of the church as the body of Christ, and the stunning language of passionate faith that he has left to us in his letters—we cannot let him be put on the back shelf.
How could the Christian faith live without some of the incredible passages of Paul’s writings? Think of the hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, beginning with “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. …. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” That whole chapter is stunning, but this is the heart of it. This passage is probably used at more marriages than any of the other suggested lessons, because of its beauty and its profound meaning.
There are so many passages in Paul’s writings that are both brilliant and spiritually profound, but I think my absolute favorite is found at the end of the eighth chapter of Romans. Earlier in that chapter Paul is again on this theme of suffering: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” [vv. 18-19] He tells us “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”  And then Paul launches the question that at one time or another has been in the doubting minds of each of us, and he is bold enough to answer it:
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced, that neither death, no life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” [35, 37-39]
This sermon went in a direction that is different from where I thought it might go when I decided to preach from today’s epistle. For me, everything in Paul connects to everything else in Paul and that is what happened as I sat down to this. I pray that it may be helpful to you in this time of communal suffering, this time when we are needing endurance, wanting to grow character (and not be one), and looking for hope. Paul is always about hope and he stirs it up in me. I hope he stirs up your hope or instills new hope in you. Amen.
Have a good Sunday, a wonderful week, and join us the next two Sundays for a live sermon. I shall preach my last one here on the 21st and Alan will preach on the 28th. Stay safe! Be well! God bless you all. +JLJ