Sermon for Holy Trinity Sunday, Year C
Based on Rom. 5:1-5
One of the deepest mysteries of life is suffering. Today, on this Trinity Sunday, when we ponder the mysteries of our suffering; we see that it is closely interwoven with the most all-embracing mystery, whom we name God the Holy Trinity. In our second lesson today, Paul has a very creative and fertile way of speaking about the grace-filled Christian life; which, Paul says, is shaped, formed and transformed by suffering.
For Paul, suffering is extremely productive. He tells us: “that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” As you can see from this passage, there is a lot of producing—a lot growth going on in the lives of grace-filled Christians.
Paul knew firsthand that the mystery of our suffering was closely interwoven with the mystery of God. He also knew firsthand that God is able to produce countless good out of our suffering. Paul knew that God is always at work in us; helping us to keep growing in our faith-journey. This was the case for Paul and the other early Christians—this has been the case for millions of Christians in every age, even today.
(Russian Orthodox Christian writer,) Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to the mind of Viktor Frankl after he became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in concentration camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.
The way in which a person accepts his (or her) fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which (s)he takes up (their) cross, gives (her) him ample opportunity—even under the most difficult circumstances—to add a deeper meaning to (her) his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish. Or in the bitter fight for self-preservation (s)he may forget (their) human dignity and become no more than an animal. Here lies the chance for a person either to make use of or to forego the opportunities of attaining the values that a difficult situation may afford (her) him. And this decides whether (s)he is worthy of (her) his sufferings or not. 1
For the Christian, suffering does not intentionally make one bitter—rather, suffering makes one better. Suffering is productive in that it produces endurance. Endurance is the ability to stick with, to have stamina, to bear up, to tolerate. The following story demonstrates how suffering can produce endurance.
She practiced behind closed doors, so no one would interrupt her train of thought or make fun of the way she walked. Denise had been born club-footed, and even after several surgeries, her feet did not line up with her knees, and she easily lost her balance. So she practiced walking in between surgeries. She was seven at the time.
By the time she was ten, Denise walked confidently, head held high. And her dreams had changed. She wanted to run. Again, she practiced, this time at the YMCA, where the track was clear and none of the kids from her school would be there. When she ran, she would turn red, and her legs would tire easily, but she kept at it, running four afternoons a week and swimming on Saturdays to build her endurance. As her endurance improved, she fastened weights to her ankles, just a pound at first, but then as much as 5 pounds on each foot. She was finally ready to let others see her run, so she joined the school track team, where she was one of the best runners.
She ran for all she was worth. Faster she went, concentrating hard on where her feet were, fighting the pain, monitoring her breathing as she had been taught.
When she accepted the bronze medal, at an important race, Denise poured out her thanks—thanks for her trainer and her school coach, who had opened the doors for her, and thanks to God for the pain and disability that had driven her to overcome. 2
Such endurance, Paul says, produces character. And what is character? Quite often we hear people speak of someone by saying: “He or she is a real character.” What they mean is that the person having character is someone who is fully alive, has integrity, is colourful and has a good influence on others. Thomas Hardy said, “Persons with any weight of character carry, like planets, their atmosphere along with them in their orbits.” Thomas Carlyle said, “It is not what I have or what I do, it is what I am that is my kingdom.” According to Benjamin P. Browne, “Good character is not born; it is shaped by circumstance, much as a sculpture is chipped from marble or pounded and pressed in clay. It comes neither easily nor cheaply.” Perhaps no one—besides God of course!—knew this better than the apostle Paul.
People with character know how to handle trying experiences—they come through them with flying colours. Such people have a love for God, others, and all of life which shines through.
Indeed, the Greek word Paul uses here might most aptly be translated as “tried character;” it carries with it the sense of being tested and passing the test not because of one’s own resources—rather, because one learns, through endurance, to trust in God more than anything or anyone. This makes it possible to receive God’s resources and pass the test. It also makes it possible to keep an attitude of openness towards the future—since God is going to be shaping and forming us in the future; therefore, we are able to have hope. If we learn to be open towards the future, then our lives shall have plenty of room for growth—since God continues to work good things in our lives. This really does give us hope for the future; we are able to journey on an adventure with one another and with God.
Paul assures us that our future is secure in God’s hands. Why? Because: “hope does not disappoint us.” We are so precious to God; we mean so much to God that God has given us a future of hope, since God too is full of hope.
Several years ago a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child. She took the boy’s name and room number and was told by the teacher on the other end of the line, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind the others.” It wasn’t until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s room that she realized it was located in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain. She felt that she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” The next morning a nurse on the burn unity asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” Before she could finish a profusion of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment. It’s as though he’s decided to live.” The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw the teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears he expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?” 3
In a similar way, God has given Christ and the Holy Spirit to teach us. God wouldn’t do such a thing if God hadn’t given us a future of hope, would he?
1 Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (New York: Pocket Books Simon & Shuster, 1963), pp. 105-07.
2 Cited from: Emphasis Vol. 25, No. 1, May-June 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc., 1995), p. 44.