The Hope that Doesn’t Disappoint --- A Lectionary Reflection for Lent 3A (Romans 5)

The Crucifixion - Taddeo di Bartolo (Art Institute of Chicago)

Romans 5:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

5 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. 10 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. 11 But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.


                The Lenten journey started with a reminder that we’re all caught up in sin (Rom 5:12-19). If your Lenten journey involved the readings from the Letter to the Romans, we stepped back into chapter 4, where we encountered the story of Abraham, who believed God’s promises, and that faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Thus, faith, and not works, is the pathway to salvation. Now that we’ve heard these two readings, we return to chapter 5 of Romans and engage the first eleven verses. Paul’s message is simple. Since we’re justified by faith, we can now be at peace with God. All of this is good news. Of course, the details of this path to peace with God requires some deep thought. What should we make of Paul’s words about suffering, whether our suffering or that of Jesus? How might the death of God’s son reconcile us to God? How does his blood save us from God’s wrath? These are the kinds of questions that cause many of us a great deal of trouble.

                It is good to know that we have access to God’s grace, which allows us to share in the glory of God. It’s good to know that even if we experience suffering, there is hope. That is because suffering leads to endurance, and endurance builds character, and “character produces hope.” This hope, we’re told by Paul, will not disappoint, and that’s because God’s love has poured out into our hearts through the presence of the Holy Spirit. If I stop here, I can avoid the more troubling aspects of the reading. I can take comfort in the knowledge that even if I experience suffering, I can find hope in the presence of God. Unfortunately, Paul does stop there. He goes on to talk about how Christ died for the ungodly, and as we’ve learned on the first Sunday of Lent, that includes all of us. So, what should we make of Paul’s message?

                The chapter begins by affirming the promise of justification through faith and then speaks having peace with God. Standing behind this statement is the Hebrew word shalom, which envisions an expansive understanding of peace. It can include the absence of violence, but it also has in mind justice, safety, and well-being. As we can see from Paul’s larger context, he has an eschatological vision of shalom. The peace that is promised is rooted in the work of Jesus, through whom we receive grace. So, even if we experience suffering in this present context, that suffering can lead to endurance, character, and a hope that doesn’t disappoint. That is because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.  That hope that is promised to us leads to a sharing in God’s glory.

                When it comes to sharing in God’s glory, we might want to think eschatologically, with the idea of sharing in God’s immortality. One way to envision this is the concept of theosis, which is prevalent in Eastern Orthodox traditions. Theosis is a concept of deification or divinization. That is, in Christ, we share in God’s glory and thus union with God. That is our destiny, our hope. 

                This leads us to the role Jesus plays in this process. According to Paul, at the right time, Jesus died for the ungodly as an expression of God’s love. Therefore, “now that we have been justified by his blood will we be saved through him from the wrath of God” (vs. 9). Here is where it gets tricky. Does Jesus suffer God’s punishment on our behalf? Penal substitutionary and satisfaction theories of the atonement both suggest this is the meaning of the passage. Unfortunately, that interpretation leads to the view that God is rather thin-skinned and even abusive since God needs to have God’s anger assuaged by a bit of violence. If not on us, then it’s visited on Jesus. While penal substitution and satisfaction have dominated the conversation in the Western churches since the middle ages, these are not the only possibilities. Paul isn’t clear on these matters, so it’s perfectly acceptable to explore other alternatives. The point is that in some fashion the death of Jesus helps reconcile humanity with God. That broken relationship that exists to sin is somehow healed.  

                The overarching point of this discussion has to do with experiencing peace with God in a context in which the relationship with God is broken. We can’t do anything to fix it. We are part of the brokenness. Nevertheless, God is at work seeking to restore the relationship. The means of this restoration or reconciliation is the death of Jesus. In some manner, which Christians have never fully understood, which is why there are so many atonement theories available, it is through his death that the relationship is restored. There is hope to be experienced in Christ, who is with us in our suffering, empowering our endurance, producing character, and thus hope. We need not envision the cross as a means of appeasement of an angry God, but it does remind us that something is seriously broken. In the end, there is union with God, a sharing in God’s glory (theosis). All of this comes to us by way of faith, which brings justification, which is a restoration of a right relationship with God. This is a result of God’s love and grace. That hope will not disappoint!


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