And nothing else matters…

Posted: June 1, 2010 in Uncategorized

This past year, in some ways has been very good for me, but it’s also been extremely stressful.

One of the biggest challenges was the ongoing paperwork and interviews to move on toward becoming an elder in the SC Annual Conference of the church.  It’s about 40 pages of paperwork, a sermon and a three hour-interview for the chance to go before Annual Conference in June and be commissioned.

I’ve had some recurring medical issues that have included a lot of steroids and antibiotics.  And I feel so wiped out from them.

As a church, we’ve had a lot of folks who are sick or in the hospital. We’re remembering them in prayer.

And there are some other things that have me thinking too when it comes to Lupo.  A few weeks ago we did a pledge to pray for the church and to support it with our gifts, service, presence and witness. And in that time, giving has dropped and so has attendance

And so honestly, there are days when I’m frustrated and down.  At times I feel disconnected as a pastor and as a person.

My prayer life isn’t always what it could be. There have been some moments when I’ve been more than a little angry at God and I’ve been asking a lot of questions.

And woe is me.

Some of you have it much worse than I do and you’re asking your own questions and struggling in your own ways.

And then the lectionary, the list of suggested scripture passages, brings me to Romans 5:1-5.

This passage reminds me that all of the other stuff that can sometimes seize my thoughts doesn’t matter in the bigger picture of the God who loves me and desires for us to be connected.

I needed a Paul pep talk this week because Paul usually doesn’t hold anything back.  In fact, these words are so complete and so inclusive that they absolutely sum up Christian life.  Nothing else really matters.

And it starts at a point where we find ourselves sometimes.  We’re asking, “Why?” and we’re concerned about, “Why God could love someone like me and use them in ministry and service in his church?”

And Paul reminds us of something that it’s easy to forget in the busy-ness of our lives.

Things are good between us and God. It’s made right through Jesus.  Big fancy word – But it’s called justified.

Through our faith and trust and belief in Jesus Christ, we are, in the words of Paul, living in peace with God. In other words, we’re not at war with God anymore. We’re not rebelling against him and fighting against him.  We have reached a truce, a peace treaty if you will. We’ve laid down our weapons and we join the family of God.

It is through Jesus that we receive our introduction to the kindness of God.  We call that Grace and Mercy.

  • Grace means that we receive something we don’t deserve.  Grace is a gift and we do absolutely nothing to earn it.
  • Mercy, on the hand, is not getting the punishment that we do deserve.

Romans 6:23 reminds us that the earnings, the wages of our sin, is death.  But in God’s grace and mercy, and through our belief and faith in Jesus, that debt has already been paid.  In other words, things are cool between us and God.  It’s all good.

And by entering into grace and mercy, we have a chance to experience the glory and the power of God. And up to this point, most of us would probably nod our heads in agreement and think that this sounds pretty good.

But things are going to get much more difficult in the next few verses.

SUFFERING

Most of us like the idea of believing in Jesus and being connected to God, but it gets really difficult when we start to think about what that belief in God can mean.

It means that there’s the distinct possibility that we are going to face some bad stuff in this world. We’re going to suffer because we believe in God.

If you haven’t experienced it yet, this world is pretty harsh when it comes to the things of God.  In this country, we do have some freedoms and protections to practice our religious beliefs.  Somewhat.

And in other places in the world, it’s much worse.

But, in the words of Paul, when we are faced by a culture that runs counter to what we believe, we “gladly suffer.”

I have trouble with Paul on that one.  There’s nothing glad to me about suffering. I hate suffering. I hate conflict. I hate it when people are mad at one another. I want to step in and help to make peace.  I hate it when things are out of whack and beyond my control.  I hate it. Period.

And yet, Paul reminds me – and well all of us — to be joyful about our suffering.

And what do you know, Paul, about suffering?

Paul suffered just about every indignity we can think of for his belief in Christ and for his willingness to share the Gospel with a world that didn’t know Jesus.  In fact, most believe that it is this desire that led to the end of Paul’s life via an execution at the hands of Emperor Nero.

And Paul’s not alone in this view of suffering.

In James 1:2-3, the author writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

And then, sometimes we have a revelation of our own when we stop to think about these guys and what they went through in their lives.

  • In the day in which they lived, people were cut off from their families and the synagogue for believing in Jesus.
  • People were thrown out on the street and shunned.
  • Believers were whipped and beaten and stoned to death.  They were hung on crosses and tortured for being a part of this Christian movement.
  • And when we think of our ultimate example, Jesus, we realize just how much suffering he had to do to get to the cross.

And Paul and James and others in the Bible tell us to rejoice, to find joy, in suffering. They tell us to consider it an honor to walk beside Jesus in this way.

Why?

WE DEVELOP PESERVERANCE

Because whatever we’re going through in that particular moment in our life leads us to something called perseverance.

Have you ever had someone in your life tell you that you couldn’t do something?  That you’d never be able to finish it?  That you had no chance?  And something inside you just kicked in and you set out to prove that person wrong?

That’s kind of what Paul is writing about here.  When we’re facing those tough times, there should be a reaction inside us as Christians.  Our response should be – bring it on!

We know that what we face is only temporary. We know that something much better is on the other end.  Even if whatever I’m facing in this world, in the present, hurts me or even takes my life, I’m still going to win. My suffering can not defeat me!

In the words of the Bible, perseverance means holding fast.  It means having endurance to finish the race – notice I didn’t say WIN the race.  Perseverance means that when we as a believer approach a task we are not going to be deterred from completing it.  And to see our ultimate example of perseverance, of following through to the end, we look at Jesus who completes the task of going to the cross and dying on our behalf.

Why is it so important for us to stick to the task and to see it through?  Because, according to Paul, it leads us to the next step.

CHARACTER

Through our perseverance, we build something that the Bible refers to as experience or character.  This is a hard word for us to take from the Greek and bring into English because we struggle to find a comparable word.  Some of the various translations use these words:  character, experience, proven character or just proof.  It seems to try to express the idea that what we get as a result of perseverance is that we are tested and proven worthy of serving God.

In fact, the most important proof of God’s existence in this world is that proof that another person sees of God in us.  It’s what really matters.

So, there’s a tie here between our faith in God, the suffering that we go through, the endurance that we build in that suffering, and the proof, the character, the experiences that we form as a result of that endurance.

It is through this experience and through the way in which it makes us ready that we are able to truly experience God.

But all of this leads us somewhere important.

HOPE

It leads us to the idea of hope.

Hope is a strange word in the Bible. When we talk about hope today, we generally think of it as an expectation of something good.  In the time in which Paul is writing Romans, and in the Greek language, Hope is a neutral word.  In other words, hope is just an expectation – an expectation of good or an expectation of evil.  That’s why Paul, for us, might seem to be repeating himself when he says, “this is hope that never disappoints.”

What Paul is really saying is this. You might have experienced the world’s version of hope and you were probably disappointed. It wasn’t what you thought.  But this Hope, this hope from God, is the real deal. It’s authentic.  It’s hope that lifts you up and makes you stronger.

In the middle of our worst years or months or weeks or days or minutes, we have, through God, a hope, an expectation, that never disappoints.

Paul has created for us a cycle.  Hope gives us the ability to handle suffering.  Suffering gives us the endurance to complete the task.  Endurance builds up our character and proves us worthy.  And our character leads us to more hope in God.

Then Paul says what might be the most important statement in this entire passage.

All of this happens because God has given us the gift of the Holy Spirit and it is the Holy Spirit which fills our hearts with love.

For just a moment, I want to talk about the “heart.”  Our understanding of the heart today is not the same as what Paul would have thought about the heart.

We can see the heart in basically two ways.

  • There’s a physical organ we call the heart that pumps life-giving blood throughout our body.
  • Generally, we equate heart and mind.  The heart then is the center of our reasoning and emotions.
  • That’s not the way that Paul, as a former Pharisee would have viewed “heart.”

For Jewish believers, the heart is the spiritual center of the body and it was most often equated with the stomach.  That’s why there are so many laws about the holy and unholy things that you can eat.  If you eat something that is unclean, that unholiness spreads throughout your body.

The heart then for Paul is that part that nourishes the body, that spreads life-giving nourishment throughout.  So if the Holy Spirit is in your heart and it is filling you with God’s love, then your entire body is being essentially nourished or fed by the love of God.

In other words, if the Holy Spirit is truly in you, then you are filled with the love of God. It’s undeniable. It has to show up.

AND SO WHAT?

Why does this matter to us today, sitting in our seats at Lupo Memorial UMC?

It’s this simple.  If you haven’t experienced the Holy Spirit in your life, you haven’t really experienced God.  But there’s an invitation there for you to do so.

  • You don’t have to go through the bad days alone.
  • You don’t have to try to endure these things alone.
  • You don’t have to try to build experience alone.
  • You don’t have to have an empty hope in a God who might or might not show up.

If you have the Holy Spirit, you have the love of God in you – moving and flowing through you.  And wherever you go and whatever you do, God is with you through the Holy Spirit.

We are only completed and perfected as people through the power of faith in Jesus, the hope available in God and the love and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Where do you stand today?  Have you felt a heart that has been “strangely warmed” as John Wesley liked to put it?  Has the Holy Spirit moved and flowed through you? Can you look at your life and say, yes, the Holy Spirit has been there with me?

Or are you unsure?

There’s only one way I know that we can change that — pray…

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