Therefore, 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. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about three explorers who were abducted by cannibals. While on an excursion on the Amazon River deep in the jungle, three explorers were surrounded and captured by a tribe of cannibals. They were brought before the tribal leader. He looked at the first explorer and said, “We’re going to dine on your flesh, we’re going to use your bones to make tools, and we’re going to use your skin for our canoes, do you have any last requests?” The first explorer trembled in fear and asked for a knife. His request was answered and he quickly slit his own throat. The chief turned to the second explorer and repeated, “We’re going to dine on your flesh, we’re going to use your bones to make tools, and we’re going to use your skin for our canoes, do you have any last requests?” The second explorer trembled with pee dripping down his leg and also asked for a knife with which he used to end his own life before the suffering. The chief looked at the third explorer, smiling pompously, and restated, “We’re going to dine on your flesh, we’re going to use your bones to make tools, and we’re going to use your skin for our canoes, do you have any last requests?” The third explorer smugly stared down the chief and asked for a fork. The chief nodded and had a fork brought to the explorer. He took the fork and began stabbing his arms, chest, stomach and up and down each leg. He was bleeding all over as he had punctured his skin everywhere he could reach. He stood up, looked at the chief and said, “So much for your stupid canoe.”
And so it is with some people. They look at the suffering that awaits them and boldly stand up and defy its power over them. They know it’s unavoidable. They know it’s uncompromising. They know it’s unshakeable. The suffering is inevitable and yet those people somehow find a way to say, “No, you will NOT have the last laugh!” The first two explorers saw the suffering that awaited them and chose to end their own lives rather than endure the suffering. I suppose that’s always an option, end it before it even begins. In some ways that could be considered the dignified response to suffering. Rather than be torn apart by suffering, a person could presumably leave this life whole and intact. A person could fool themself into believing they are the master of their own destiny. Unfortunately, that is an illusion. No one is really in control of their own lives. We’re all just stumbling through life, utterly reliant on the good graces of our loving and generous God. We’re all just playing the cards that have been dealt to us the best way we can. None of us knows with absolute certainty what awaits in this life. It’s when we think we know what awaits us that we get ourselves into trouble. We take matters into our own hands, we slit our own throats or puncture ourselves with a fork. But at least the one who punctures themself with a fork recognizes the absurdity of life, that we have little to no control over our lives. Might as well have a little fun with it!
For example, it’s a mystery to me why the lectionary composers chose this passage to reflect on on Mother’s Day of all days! As if Paul’s wisdom on suffering is somehow relevant in celebrating motherhood. Well, is motherhood deeply connected to suffering, mothers?! I don’t need to know the answer. I guess it isn’t really that much of a mystery why this passage was chosen after all! But it’s an important passage, a powerful passage worth exploring no matter what day of the year it is. Suffering is one of the great mysteries of life. Why do we suffer? Why do we have to suffer? Why is there suffering? What is its purpose? These are profound questions that I’m neither qualified nor daring enough to answer. I myself have wrestled with them for a long time and haven’t come up with any clear answers. Suffering befuddles me just as much as anyone and I’d be a fool to stand up here and say otherwise. I don’t have answers but I think Paul’s wisdom is good wisdom. So let’s dig right in…
In the past, I’ve visualized this passage from Romans using imagery of keys and locks. Suffering is a process of revelation in which we gradually learn more about ourselves and God. Paul says suffering leads to endurance which then leads to character which then leads to hope. It’s this 4-step process…suffering, endurance, character, hope. Right, so each step has a lock attached to it and we earn keys to unlock each lock along the way. Simplified down, Paul would say that suffering ultimately unlocks hope. We need suffering to have hope. Well, why do we need hope? To endure future suffering? How about we just get rid of suffering all together? Then would we need hope? It’s awfully cyclical thinking! Suffering leads to hope which leads back to suffering! Let’s just end the cycle and get rid of both suffering and hope! Easier said than done! No, unfortunately suffering is an inevitable part of life and I think for more reasons than simply to provide hope. Another reason we have hope is to reveal the love within us. Paul writes, “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.” It’s God’s love undergirding the hope that makes it useful. We need that love more than we need hope. We need God’s love, we need each other’s love, the love we have for each other when we suffer. Few of us like to see others suffer and we share our love when they suffer. Perhaps that’s more important than building hope for future suffering, the sharing of love in our present suffering. Perhaps God saw that we are naturally inclined to hoard our love to ourselves and allowed for suffering to compel us to share it with others.
Maybe, just maybe, suffering is about love. Maybe, just maybe, mothers are about love. I know MY mother is about love! Maybe, just maybe, the mystery of why we’ve been asked to reflect on suffering this morning has been solved! Friends, suffering is an inevitable part of life in this world. But you know what? So is LOVE! God POURED out his love into our hearts through his Son! Love is within all of us! Love is within this world! Just because none of us is a master of our own fates doesn’t mean we live in a hopeless situation. Love is all around us! And for a lot of us, that love was first revealed to us through mothers so we give thanks for those mothers and mother figures in our lives. At the very least, none of us would be here without ‘em! Let us share the love that they first shared with us, in times of joy and in times of suffering. And let us give thanks for the ABUNDANT love God shares with us. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.