Perseverance, Character, and Hope

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 11, 2017)

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5, TNIV)

I’ve had the great joy of being in Oxford two times in my life.

Growing up reading C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, Oxford has always been a place of wonder in my imagination. As early as 1096 teaching was occurring in Oxford, accelerating rapidly in 1167 when King Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris. Tensions erupted in the 13th century between those who lived in the town of Oxford and the students who came to study, actual fighting and killing between “town and gown”. For students’ protection, residence halls were quickly built that then evolved into the separate colleges which still make up the entirety of Oxford University today, colleges with walls around quadrangles, enclaves of safety.

I had read that, but when you are actually there and walk cobblestone streets with walls keeping you from the towering spires and stained glass that you can only glimpse from the outside, you realize the separation and seclusion between everyday life and the world of academia. You realize the wonder of the libraries and learning…well, ok, I realize that isn’t a “wonder” for everyone, but it is for me…you realize normal regular old you is walled off from so much.

The first time I was in Oxford was with our whole family, on the amazing trip to Europe we got to take as part of my sabbatical four years ago. Like many things on that trip, we got to see it, but our time was so short we didn’t really get to do it justice. On our way from London to York, we spent a couple of hours walking around Oxford. We hadn’t done any planning ahead of time, hadn’t made any arrangements, so we just had to do the best we could.

On the one hand, I was in heaven realizing I was actually there were Lewis and Tolkien and so many had lived and learned. But it really was kind of a pathetic visit. We walked along the streets, I got excited about things like the Oxford Press bookstore.

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One of the colleges was open for tours, so we walked through it…but most of the place wasn’t accessible to us.

I remember at one point I left my family and ran across the street, because I saw one of the really cool looking colleges. The sign told me it was Queen’s College, but the access was blocked. I remember I felt so sneaky and daring when I darted in the entrance, hung by the side, and leaned my phone over the rope and took a picture of the courtyard!

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My second visit could not have been more different, because when I visited the second time, I was visiting our daughter Natalie, who was an admitted student of Oxford on a semester abroad.

She was my access to joys and sights unimaginable! Her student body card got us in everywhere. Because she was in, whenever I was with her, I had access too. That forbidden courtyard in Queen’s college that I snuck a picture of? This time, we just walked right in.

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And not just the courtyard! We could go in everywhere, including the beautiful chapel.

She got me in the Bodelian Library;

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We ate in the Christ Church dining hall, where William Penn and John Locke and John and Charles Wesley all ate as students.

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But most wondrous of all was when we were invited into the private library at Christ Church College, the college within Oxford University that Natalie was assigned to. You could not get in this room unless you were a member of Christ Church College. Even if you paid for a tour of Christ Church, you wouldn’t see this room.

To me, it was a room that was heaven on earth. Without the access that Natalie made possible for me, I never would have seen this room, this room where there were first editions of Milton’s Paradise Lost that may have been in that room since it was published in the 1600’s. It is, as they say, who you know that gets you by in life.

I give all that to you as a visual picture to illustrate a faint glimpse of what Paul is trying to convey to us here, of what becomes available to us through Jesus Christ!

“We have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.”

Jesus is our access. He is our entry. He is our advocate. Jesus is the one who opens doors for us, who leads us into wondrous places and experiences that our minds cannot imagine!

I love the image Paul uses of grace, of God’s gift to us, as something “in which we now stand”. It’s a space we inhabit. Faith in Jesus brings peace with God, and flings wide the door so that we can walk in with Jesus and inhabit the same space as the God of the Universe!

To move back to the analogy, I love that I had the opportunity to have access to those places in Oxford because of Natalie. But even with that, I just went and gawked there one time and then I left. As a student for a semester, she had a deeper and richer experience. It wasn’t just the beauty of the place she experienced, but the actual teaching and learning and shaping of an education.

Then there are the students who are there all four years, with that much richer of an experience…and then the dons and professors who spend their lives inhabiting those spaces and mutually learning and teaching with students.

Paul is opening our eyes to a true glory we can experience, a true glory we can boast in. Jesus is so much more than our access to get a picture of some amazing heaven! He is a guide, an entry way, into a way of life now and forever that can be lived in grace…where we can stand, we can inhabit the graceful space that is the very presence of God.

No wonder Paul says, “We boast in the hope of glory!” 

For these past few weeks, the lectionary texts keep bringing us back to living in the life and power of the Holy Spirit of God, keep drawing us to see what Jesus and the Spirit can usher into our here and now life. Today’s text reminds us we can experience the very glory of God! The very space of grace! This is where we can stand now and will stand for all eternity, because of what Jesus has done. Clinging to Jesus makes this possible!

And what I love about these verses is the way Paul refuses to let us start thinking all heavenly and pristine and future. He makes it earthy and messy and NOW.

Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character; and character, hope. (Romans 5:3-4, TNIV)

This is one of those places in the bible that can cause me to roll my eyes. Come on, Paul, really? Glory in our sufferings? Celebrate our sufferings? What are you trying to pull on us? And if this was a denial that suffering was bad, or if it was some kind of glossing over to find something positive, this wouldn’t be compelling to me.

But instead I see this as an honest acknowledgement that we all experience suffering, and that because of the access to grace we have through Jesus, something positive can be brought out of suffering. Suffering can be redeemed. That, I DO find compelling!

Not only that, but there is no waving of a magic wand here. We co-labor, we struggle with Christ to see this redemption and hope born in us. Suffering doesn’t magically lead to hope because we hold Jesus’ hand. Instead, there is a progression we go through, a progression that implies our cooperation and effort, a progression that isn’t just words on a page, but a progression I have observed in this real, human, gritty world.

When Paul writes that suffering produces perseverance, you and I both know that isn’t always the case.

We can and we sometimes do make very different choices than to persevere in God’s intended direction. Experiencing suffering can lead to many different responses on our part. The most natural is to avoid the suffering, and we avoid in a million ways. We use substances to numb the pain of our suffering; we sometimes stop going where God is leading when the suffering of resistance is too great; we stop taking risks to avoid suffering, settling into safe routines.

But it’s fascinating to me that Paul uses the word “persevere” as the thing that suffering produces. What he clearly intends is not the “natural” result of suffering; Paul is guiding us toward what God’s Spirit desires to produce in us as a result of suffering. God desires, then, for us to persevere in the face of suffering. And that word in this context is profound.

Just as we have access through Jesus to a standing place of grace, Paul is letting us know that in the face of suffering, God’s desire is to keep guiding us. God’s desire is for us to persevere, for us to keep walking hand in hand where Jesus is leading even as we experience difficult and hurtful things. Suffering is not a sign to give up, or something to avoid or numb; it is just another experience of life in which we have the opportunity to “attach” to Jesus and find he gives us access to the strength to persevere, to keep moving in the direction God is leading.

Our choice to keep moving in the direction God is leading even as we experience suffering, combined with the access by faith in Jesus to God’s grace; these together are the means by which we co-labor with God in our transformation. God gives the strength to persevere as we choose to allow even suffering to be a venue in which we stand in God’s grace. Those co-laboring choices are what lead to change and moral development in us, what lead to what Paul calls development of our character.

I don’t mean what I am going to say to be a statement of taking sides; I mean this only as an example of what I have observed up close and personal as I have walked alongside our staff.

I have in my mind so many examples of Elizabeth Sherwood and Steve Fawver, of Michelle Akins and Nolan Staples, choosing in the midst of the difficulty of the last months to keep standing in the grace Christ gives them access to. I have watched them persevere in doing what Christ has asked them to do. With all kinds of reasons to run away or lash out, I have instead watched them draw more deeply from Christ and walk the path ahead of them.

Christ has enabled them to persevere beautifully. I name and honor Christ’s work in them. I thank God for and I celebrate the exemplary character I see in them, character forged by the Holy Spirit…character which brings hope, just as Paul writes! Hope in them…and hope for me as I see Christ in them.

This is good news! And it is practical news. And it is time-tested and people-tested news.

The peace we have with God through Jesus Christ, the access we have to stand in the grace and presence of God in the Holy Spirit…it is real. It is transformative. It is powerful. And it is marked by character and hope and the love of God.

I see it. I celebrate it! Paul’s words here and my observation of Christ’s work in the team and in so many others over so many years encourage and challenge me to live in this myself. To not avoid suffering or let it discourage me or paralyze me or cause me to settle, but rather to let it challenge me to hold even more tightly to the hand of Jesus as he leads.

It challenges me to walk alongside Jesus, to ask for and look for the perseverance that God will bring; perseverance to continue in obedience and faithfulness. I hope for and long for and ask for God to build character and hope in me!

And I celebrate what Paul says: that “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

May God bring perseverance and character and hope to all of us! May we walk where Christ leads into the grace where we can stand and live. And may God’s love pour over us, dwell in us, and overflow to others!

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