31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
June 14, 2020
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
For anyone who has ever mastered a difficult musical piece, for anyone who has ever graduated high school or college, for anyone who has ever done any of those things online during a pandemic, you perhaps have experienced the Apostle Paul’s words about suffering producing endurance, endurance producing character and character producing hope. By now, you probably feel like you have lots of endurance, character, and hope.
That’s not actually the kind of suffering and endurance Paul is talking about though. Yes, we are going through hard times. Yes, being physically separated and learning to use technology in a new way, use technology period, are very challenging. We are grieving the lives we used to live and that grief is real. It can feel like suffering however the suffering Paul is talking about is deeper and longer, a systemic suffering born out of injustice.
The Apostle Paul, although born and raised outside of Israel, was a devout Jew. He was also something many Jews were not. He was a citizen of the Roman Empire, which tells us that either his father was very wealthy or his father had done a huge favor for someone in power.
Being a Roman citizen afforded one special rights and privileges. When Paul was arrested in Philippi without any just cause, he only had to tell the judge he was a Roman citizen to be set free. Versus someone without Roman citizenship who would have been held indefinitely.
Even as Paul took advantage of these privileges, he was also very aware of the injustices of the Roman Empire. Beginning with Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperors established and upheld the Pax Romana. The Roman Peace did indeed provide wealth and security to its citizens however it was a peace built on oppression. It was a peace based on heavy taxation to maintain the Roman military, so that military could enforce compliance and the Roman Peace.
Can peace, real peace, be forced? Can it be achieved through military might and domination? Doesn’t violence and oppression seem the very opposite of peace?
And yet, that is how the Roman Empire achieved this Roman peace, this time of great wealth, technological advancement, and art – by dominating, oppressing, and forcing those they conquered to comply.
Are you familiar with Jesus’ words from the Gospel of Matthew “and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”? (Matthew 5:41) Roman soldiers were allowed to force a non-citizen to carry their heavy backpack of equipment for a mile. If you refused to immediately comply, you would be flogged. Doesn’t sound like peace to me!
And it did not sound like peace to Paul either. After his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul’s life was completely transformed. His heart and mind were completely transformed. Paul now understood that there was a different peace.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul lays out for the Christian community this different justice, this different peace, based on a different Lord and God, “the God of Abraham, the world’s creator, who has now established peace ‘through our Lord Jesus Christ.’” (New Interpreter’s Bible, vol X pg 515)
While not obvious to us, Paul echoes language the Roman Empire used. He does it in an effort to show the contrast between what the Roman Empire called peace and what God calls peace.
God’s peace is not an elusive, hypothetical thing we can only dream and wish for though. It is a real, tangible place. We obtain “access” to God’s grace. We “stand” in God’s peace as if we are standing in a room. And we gain access to this room, this place through Jesus Christ and his unconditional love and grace.
Every week, we pray to stand in God’s peace. In the Lord’s prayer, we pray for God’s will to be done, for God’s kingdom to come, on earth as it is in heaven.
As you pray those words, have you ever thought about what that kingdom looks like? As you pray those words, are you confident that God’s peace, God’s kingdom is possible here on earth?
The Apostle Paul was confident. He had confidence that their sufferings, their tribulations, would transform believers, in much the same way as pressure and heat change carbon into a diamond, like a butterfly needs to struggle against the cocoon for its wings to mature. Struggle, suffering, tribulations are not bad things.
That is a message we need to remember in our world where the terms helicopter, lawnmower, and even Zamboni parent are now part of the vernacular. Struggles, sufferings, tribulations are not bad things. They are not bad when they lead to endurance, resilience, to a mindset, a heart set of patience. Because according to Paul, those struggles, those struggles that develop resilience, they create character in us and not just any character, a character that is tried and tested, tried and tested by experience, a character that has experienced adversity, has walked through the darkness, and knows that God is with us through the journey, God’s love is always with us. And that is a character that always has hope.
Remember though, that this passage belongs to a wider message, a message Paul has been laying out over the course of chapters and not just the five verses we heard this morning. And that message is that God’s kingdom, God’s peace looks different than the Emperor’s kingdom, than the Roman peace. God’s kingdom is built on love, unconditional love. God’s kingdom is built on justice, equality. God does not force compliance. God does not force us to do what God wants or even force us to be in relationship with God. We have free will. God loves us that much.
However, once we choose to be in relationship with God, once we are justified, once we are in line with God and God’s vision for our world, we enter God’s grace; we enter God’s peace; we enter God’s kingdom, and we are transformed, heart and mind.
And transformed not just for our sake, not just so we can go around in the warm glow of God’s unconditional love, rejoicing in our tribulations because we know they lead to resilience and hope. We are also transformed so that we can share with others the contrast between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God.
God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit so that we will have the tools, the boldness, the faith, the endurance, patience, resilience, and hope to create God’s kingdom, God’s peace here on earth.
For the past few weeks, people all over the world have been protesting injustice. Some call is political to speak of justice however to be political means to be diplomatic and polite. Justice is actually Biblical. Justice is Christ-like, and Christians have been called since the beginning to protest injustice, to actively work for justice, to create a just peace, to partner with God in building a world where all people are safe, all people are treated as equal, all people’s lives matter, a world where all people know that God loves them unconditionally.
If you do not believe we are currently living in God’s peace, in God’s world, I remind you who you are and whose you are, you belong to God, the Creator of the world, whose love is beyond measure.
And I remind you that God has and continues to pour God’s love into your heart through the Holy Spirit so that you, You, can be the change, the transformation, that creates this real, this tangible place of God’s peace and justice, here on earth.