Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hope Filled

Hope Filled

Trinity Sunday, May 30, 2010

©copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder

Romans 5:1-5

Since we are justified by faith

we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ...

and hope does not disappoint us,

because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

In these computerized times, when what was once called typing has become a potentially error-free sort of thing we refer to now as “word processing,” I remember the old days when writing term papers and graduate theses meant dealing with typewriters with ribbons, and those maddening little bits of white, chalky paper which could be found in any office, and which could blanch out mistyped letters and words. I remember spending a good deal of my time while seeking higher education also seeking well-used little slips of correcting paper for blank spots to eradicate those term paper typos. One task I never even tried to master, though I knew secretaries who were very adept at it, was justifying the right hand margin of a typescript page.

Now justifying the left hand margin is no big trick. Unless you accidentally hit the tab key, the old typewriter carriage would always return to the same spot on the left hand side of the page. But the right hand side is a different matter. For those extra-special documents that some people wanted to look as crisp and finished as possible, secretaries had to master the multiple tasks of typing out a rough draft with a ragged right edge, counting spaces on lines of typescript, then retyping while adding enough additional spaces to make the right hand margin look as even as the left. These were no small tasks, and one little misspelled word could ruin a whole page, along with an entire afternoon’s work.

Now, with computers, justifying margins, right or left, even centering – which was for me the most thankless of all tasks on a typewriter – is no big trick. It can be done automatically, accomplished with the click of a button. So I’ve often thought it was strange that computer word processing programs include fonts by which documents can be printed in an undetectable imitation of a typewriter, including the option for the old ragged, non-justified right hand margin of typewriter days. Why this deliberate regression? Actually, though I use a computer every day, I have gone back to using the ragged right hand margin, I just kind of like it. I have supposed that those who send us clever solicitations in the mail with a typewriter-type font probably do this to try and make us think that their letter was hand-typed especially for us. I wonder if anyone is really fooled by this any more? If a company actually wanted to send out hand-typed letters today, where would they go to find such a machine? Or people who could operate them?

Anyway, in the old days, justification in the printing business had to do with lining words up in a right relationship with the page on which they are printed and with each other. Frederick Buechner once reminded his readers that the religious sense of the word “justification” is very close to this old print-shop jargon. Being justified means being brought into a relationship which can best be described as “right,” correctly lined up.

When Paul was still a Pharisee named Saul, and still believed that the rumor about Jesus rising from the dead was just that – a rumor, he was knocked down one day while on his way to see about locking up some of these new Christians. And though the voice that spoke to him that day belonged to the One whose resurrection he had disbelieved, the One whose church he had taken up wrecking, the One who had every reason to fry him on the spot, what he heard the voice saying to him was not “And now you’re going to get what’s coming to you, you wretch!” but, instead, “Now I need you as a witness.”

Paul never got over it, the sheer gift of it, the way in which it arrived totally unannounced and clearly without any meritorious acts on his part. This told Paul a lot of things about the person of Jesus Christ, among them was the fact that Christ could use even those who at one time had scorned him, that he was quite willing to put his finger on those who had done nothing to deserve being chosen. It’s more than a little unsettling when we think about it, isn’t it? From Paul’s experience we learn that we are not safe from the call of God even we are deep in a self-declared apostasy, that Jesus will not even disdain those who have made a profession out of disdaining him.

Apparently there is nothing we can do or be to merit this attention from God. It’s on the house. It is justification freely given to those who only need to receive it in order to have it. God has justified us, lined us up, made us right. It’s even a bigger miracle than computers.

Well, this is a great thing to know, but where does it lead us? Paul says being justified by faith leads to peace with God. Now that’s not some little personal, prayer-closet peace which stands for a lack of conflict, but the old Hebrew “shalom,” a peace, a serenity which stands for a life so in relationship with God that no matter what suffering or tragedy, or hoplessness or violence life might bring, there still exists a deep assurance of God’s love undergirding all of life.

The mid-twentieth century theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr, is often credited1 with having written what has become one of the world’s most famous prayers. The first part of the prayer is the part that is familiar as the “Serenity Prayer” to 12 step folks, indeed, to people the world over:

God grant us the grace to accept with serenity the things which cannot be changed,

courage to change the things that should be changed,

and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Whether Niebuhr originated that little prayer or not, it is less well-known that Niebuhr finished the prayer with the following, seldom-quoted lines:

Living one day at a time, enjoying one moment at a time, accepting hardship as the pathway to peace; taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it; trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His will. That I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next.

Today is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar, so here is some trinitarian thinking to stand alongside that prayer. Ending with only the first sentence of the prayer, serenity or peace could be understood as a sort of indirect affirmation of the power of positive thinking. The second part of Niebuhr’s version of the prayer is so key to understanding that the person who authors the peace that passes understanding is God himself through Jesus Christ. And here we can see the wisdom of thinking of God as Trinity: Father, Son, and Spirit, faith, love, and hope. For the person of God the Father reminds us that we may have faith because God has proven faithful from the very first dawn of creation and the experiences of the people Israel in the whole of the Old and New Testaments; the person of God the Son has expressed the ultimate nature of the love of God by going to the cross for our sakes; the person of God the Spirit expresses the hope that fills us, knowing the God of faith and love will also be the God of hope who moves with us into the future.

Later on in his letter to the Romans, Paul declared that those who live in the relationship of peace and serenity which God has granted can be assured of the love of Christ in any and every circumstance. Such peace can turn the suffering we may know back on itself. Instead of bringing the horrors we may expect suffering to bring, the gift of the shalom of God’s justification means any suffering we may come to know can bring something quite unexpected:

  • Instead of causing us to live with a perpetually short fuse... unexpectedly, suffering redeemed by God’s shalom could even bring us patience, serenity, and endurance!
  • Instead of making us into small, mean little people... suffering, infused with God’s shalom, can actually produce good character!
  • Instead of the despondency and depression we might expect, suffering in light of God’s shalom can actually, serendipitously, bring hope!

None of these possibilities in a life justified by the peace of God are spoken prescriptively. That is, Paul is not unloading a container of guilt on those who in suffering have occasionally felt short-tempered, mean, and despondent. Rather, he is saying that while those may seem like the only possible fruits of suffering, the peace of God can produce a new thing, an unexpected thing. The accent is not on our work but on God’s gift. If Christ can save even someone like Paul, a thug who once persecuted the church, imagine what he might do for us!

As we look into our lives, what is the good news we least expect to hear ever again? Could it be that the gift of God’s life-transforming peace means that that might be just the news that is coming our way? That, rather than despair, our lives might be hope-filled?

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 Justice and Mercy: Reinhold Niebuhr, Ursula M. Niebuhr, ed., Harper & Row, 1974, title pages.