God is Faithful

        “God is Faithful”              Acts 9:1-22, Romans 5:1-8              Pastor Teddie McConnell           7-2-2023The Apostle Paul is spending the winter in Corinth in the year 56 AD. This morning, he carefully unrolls a note on a fragile piece of papyrus from the Christians in Rome, reviewing their fears, joys, and complaints. All Jews, including the Jewish Christians, were expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius, leaving the Gentile Christians to carry on without their guidance. Now the Jewish Christians have returned, and arguments about theology rage, even as they all face ridicule and even persecution from their neighbors.
Paul tucks the letter away, then lifts the leather door covering and hangs it over a peg, opening the shop for business and letting in the cool, dry breeze. He stretches his back, feeling the pull of scars left by whips. He understands persecution from both sides.
“Paul, look! I have a big load today!” shouts a dirt-covered boy who arrives at the door carrying a hand-basket. Paul empties the container outside the back door of his cramped, dark store, then gives the basket to the boy along with a small coin. As a tent maker, he creates a variety of leather goods. The process involves treating animal hides by scraping off the hair, soaking the skin, then treating it with dog droppings like the ones the boy just brought him. Frankly, Paul’s shop stinks and is positioned down-wind from the rest of the city.
A smiling woman walks into the store wearing the heavy apron of the trade. “Aquila, I’m glad you’re here,” says Paul. “Before you start work, please pray with me about the letter I’m writing to our sisters and brothers in Rome.”
“Of course,” she replies. After they pray, Paul pulls out the sooty ink, goose feather quill, and costly paper he needs to finish the letter. “Thank God for his faithfulness!” he exclaims. “We’re making decent money in the business. Every extra coin will help pay to get this message to Rome. I feel led by the Spirit to tell them about peace with God in the face of suffering. Their note shows how much they need to hear it.”                
Today we’re delving into a small portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul wrote first of enjoying real peace with God, because God was faithful to send his long-promised Son to redeem us from sin and death and allow us to share in God’s glory.
Originally, Paul, also known as Saul, was trained as a Pharisee and persecuted Christians by jailing, torturing and killing them. We just read about his acceptance of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. As Paul rode to Damascus carrying letters that required the synagogues to cooperate in the arrest of all Christians. A brilliant light blasted him, and he heard Jesus saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul was struck blind. Three days later, Ananias healed him. Jesus finally had Paul’s attention and his belief.
 If anyone should have felt the burden of unforgiven sin, it was Paul, but his newfound faith allowed him to accept the forgiveness and peace of God and to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. He himself suffered extensively for the gospel, most seriously by enduring 39 lashes three separate times. Why 39 and not 40? The penalty of 40 lashes caused such severe injuries and blood loss that it was considered a death sentence. The Romans considered 39 lashes merciful! Paul’s recovery from those three beatings was miraculous.
Let me emphasize this - peace with God is not the same as peace in our circumstances or with those around us. Peace is not the same as “happiness,” which depends on what “happens” to us. Our lives are filled with different kinds of hardship than Paul endured, but we do suffer pain and losses – we lose people we love, jobs, relationships, health, youth. Standing up for what we believe in can also lead to suffering, as those in the various social rights movements can attest.
But God is faithful. God is with us, gives us peace, and redeems our circumstances, whether we’re aware of it or not.
            Paul’s next point in the letter is difficult to hear. “ We also boast in our sufferings.” This is not because we want to suffer or enjoy it. We’re not masochists. We boast of how God faithfully helps us get through our suffering by pouring love and peace into our hearts through the Holy Spirit and by sending others to help us. Our boasting is not out of pride in what we do, but out of gratitude for what God does for us.
Why did a loving God create us with the ability to experience pain? If we couldn’t feel pain, we could have injuries without realizing it, as is the case with leprosy. We could hurt or even kill someone else and neither know what it felt like nor experience empathy for what they’re going through. Pain also lets us know when our bodies or hearts need time to recover and heal.
Paul goes on to say that suffering teaches us how to endure. The certainty that we can endure the difficulties of life with God’s help produces character, an inner resilience. When problems arise, we rely on God to give us strength, courage, and insights through the Holy Spirit. This process gives us hope. God’s love sustains us, knowing that our failures and trials are not the end, but part of the process of our growth. God is faithful to redeem our suffering.
When my late husband, Tom, was diagnosed with kidney cancer, the doctor told him he would probably live less than five years. Tom was furious. He was determined to beat the odds and keep his hope. He and I prayed daily and counted our blessings, even as we lived in his mother’s dark basement and used the laundry room for our kitchen. Tom showed up at chemotherapy wearing wild Hawaiian shirts, joking with the nurses and cheering up everyone around him.
But he was constantly exhausted. At home, he complained that his food tasted like dirt, and he lost weight until his clothes hung on him. He often coughed so hard he would throw up, because the cancer had invaded his lungs. We learned to live with the sucking and thumping noise of the oxygen concentrator and with yards of oxygen tubing.
Of course, I was hurting too, watching him suffer and feeling helpless to do much for him. I searched for foods that he could taste or at least tolerate. I spoiled him with DVDs, jokes, back rubs and new clothes. I hated to leave for work, but we needed the income and the health insurance. I missed him terribly, long before he passed away.
Am I glad I went through all that? Of course not! But I know I rely more on God now and I’m a stronger and more empathetic person for it. I’m thankful for how God walked with me through that valley and gave me friends, my church family and caring professionals to support me through it.
Finally, when the treatments ran out, Tom courageously decided to have a good death and be an example of hope to his non-believing brother and mother. Even as the EMT’s helped him up the stairs and into the ambulance that took him to hospice to die, he joked with them. He knew where he was going. He knew that God is faithful and had sent Jesus to die for him and give him a way to share in the glory of heaven. While I planned his memorial service, I remembered seeing a woman sing this hymn in a news story. Even as tears rolled down her face, her eyes shone with her faith. We all sang it together for Tom. (His Eye is on the Sparrow)
Let’s go back to Paul’s letter for a moment, verse 5. Hope doesn’t put us to shame, disgrace us or embarrass us. God gives us peace while people around us are losing their heads and accusing us of underestimating the situation. We can choose to put our faith in God where it belongs and to ignore the defeated people who scoff and say there is no God. We persevere.
We know God is our hope. God is faithful. By staying peaceful in the face of uncertainty, we are examples to those who don’t know God and will want what we have.
In verses 6 through 8, Paul reminds us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. People are weak, selfish creatures. Despite having the law to guide them, the Hebrew people shed the blood of animals in sacrifice after sacrifice to atone for their sins. No one can follow the law perfectly. It is designed to show us not only how to behave, but also our own weakness, dependence on God and need for a savior.
 God didn’t wait until humanity had reached a certain standard, made the grade, before God redeemed us. God was faithful to the promises made centuries earlier to send us the Messiah at just the right time.
We cannot earn our redemption. We don’t deserve it. God gave us a “get out of jail free” card. We don’t need to be ashamed of our imperfections, just work on them with the Holy Spirit’s help. We don’t have to be heroes. We can rejoice in the fact that God loved us enough to send his Son to die for us sinful people.
            God sacrificed Jesus, the perfect lamb, for our sakes. Jesus is the ultimate hero, our precious hero. Jesus saw the danger and yet acted on our behalf. He knew in advance about the torture and death he would suffer and went through it anyway out his of love for us. His is the victory and the glory. Ours is the gift of eternal life, grace, and peace with God.
            We live in a different world than Paul did, yet we have similar issues. We have conflicts within and between denominations and between countries. We suffer painful losses and die despite the best modern medicine has to offer. When asked for their religious affiliation, our young people most often check the box that says “none.” God is still faithful to redeem our suffering. God wants to give us peace in the face of evil and pain.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is three-fold.
First, practice gratitude. When you feel discouraged, count your blessings by making a list of the things and people God provides. Keep adding to it. Thank God in all circumstances, not for all circumstances.
Second, practice forgiveness. Holding on to resentment hurts you more than the person you’re angry at and prevents the healing of the relationship. The Lord’s Prayer says, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, which means, “Forgive us in the same way we forgive the people we’re mad at.” If we don’t forgive, we won’t be forgiven. While you’re at it, forgive yourself, like Paul did, for your own mistakes. If you were perfect, you wouldn’t need God or other people, for that matter.
Third, knowing that God is faithful, consider how to share the time, talents and goods you’ve received with those who are persecuted or less fortunate, because you know God is faithful to abundantly replenish whatever you give away. If you have nothing else, share your joy and peace in knowing Jesus.
When you pray, remember that the Holy Spirit lives in you, loves you, guides you, and helps you. Most of all, be grateful for our hero, Jesus Christ, who gave his wisdom, his example, and his life, that we might have peace and joy. Even now, he is interceding for us with our heavenly Parent, the God who is faithful to redeem our souls and our sufferings. To God be the glory. And all God’s people said, “Amen.”

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