If you’ve ever dealt with charcoal, you know that it begins to get messy. When you light the charcoal, it begins to turn colors, and it looks very beautiful for a brief bit of time. Then it begins to burn. It begins to decay and all of a sudden this once black piece of charcoal now becomes white and starts to gain this dusty consistency. It begins to turn to ash. Ash is messy- it’s not something that we consider pleasant. And yet on Ash Wednesday we put these ashes on our foreheads—we remember that we are from the “dust.” We also remember ashes in our own lives. We remember the ashes of our lives that we don’t want to deal with sometimes—we remember the messiness. Our reading for today, Romans 5:1-11, leads us to dealing with the ashes of suffering.
We’re going to pick up in verse 2, and I’d like you to follow along in your bibles if you have one with you, or a smart phone if you prefer. Paul begins in this chapter by talking about Christ. He says: “2 through Christ we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Paul, before he begins talking about suffering or anything like that, starts in this key spot. What he means when he says this is that we have access to stand before God on account of Christ. Our presence with God is a safe haven. It’s a refuge. Paul is saying that our refuge is solely in the wounds of Christ.
With this starting point for his hearers, Paul moves into verse 3 and says, “3 Not only do we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.” This is the point where things start to not make much sense to me. What on earth is Paul talking about? Suffering is a good thing? Are you kidding me?! When I read this I think back to a couple that I know at the seminary and what they just went through. This couple, Andrew and Katie, on January 3rd saw Katie’s brother Wyatt as they celebrated at his wedding. He had just gotten back from Korea where he served with the Marines, and he was finally marrying the woman of his dreams. And then on January 28th they once again saw Wyatt—this time to mourn at his death. He was killed on a head-on collision while driving home from the military base. 25 days after being married, his wife is now a widow. His family now mourns the 20-year-old brother, son, husband, and friend. In that suffering, where is endurance? How can Paul say this, how on earth could he tell Andrew and Katie and Wyatt’s family to rejoice in the midst of that suffering?!
My initial frustration with this verse and with what Paul is saying comes from the fact that I didn’t understand what Paul meant. See—Paul isn’t saying that suffering in-and-of-itself is good. He’s not saying that we will be able to look at instances like this in our life and say, “Hey- I’ve just lost someone very close to me, what a blessing!” Rather, he is saying that in the midst of those sufferings we are to rejoice in the hope of that which is to come. We are to hope in the promise that God gave us to restore us and to give us life everlasting. We don’t look forward to suffering itself, but in the midst of suffering we look towards that last day.
Maybe you look even further into this verse and wonder what place suffering has in the Christian life. One biblical scholar says: “Although suffering is nothing but penalty for the wicked, it is used by God as a means for drawing the believers nearer to himself.” Humans will indeed always experience trials. For Christians, it makes them rely on God even more. I think back to that saying I've so often heard: "God doesn't give you anything you can't handle." Pardon by brashness, but that’s bull crap. There is plenty of stuff in life we can't handle. Do you think that death that my two friends experienced can be handled on their own? No way! Do you think that when you get too old to take care of yourself you’ll be thinking, “I can do this on my own?” No way! We put ourselves into the wounds of Christ because there’s no way we can have refuge in anything else.
Paul goes onto say: “4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” All of this suffering produces in us an endurance to deal with life because we have a God who endures with us. St. John Chrysostom comments on this hope we have in our endurance, saying: “Does our good really lie in hope? Yes, but not in human hopes, which often vanish and leave only embarrassment behind. Our hope is in God and is therefore sure and immovable.” Our hope doesn’t lie in the ashes of suffering in our lives, our hope is in Jesus Christ!
When Paul says that this hope doesn’t put us to shame, he knows that because we have already had grace poured over us constantly and consistently. We have experienced forgiveness from God without end. We have been marked as God’s own—we’ve been marked as God’s sons and daughters who hold us preciously in his arms.
Paul keeps moving us forward in this talk of suffering and faith and say: 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Another way to say that is this: “while we were still sinning, Christ died for us.”
And here we have it—the clash between the Savior and the Suffering. The Savior comes down into the world, in the midst of our suffering, not because He had to- but because He wanted to. How often would you find that in life—someone who would willingly die not just in your place, but also in place of the whole world?
Skip ahead with me to verse 11 where Paul ends with this: “11 […] we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” You have been forgiven your sin. You have been set free. You will experience the ashes of suffering in this life, but no longer will you suffer alone because you have been made right with God. Christ not only suffers with you and weeps with you can groans with you, but in the midst of that suffering, he gives you the promise to hold onto. The promise of your forgiveness, and the promise of His love. The promise of life eternal. And that’s the promise that we can hold onto tightly.
The hymn “It is well with my soul,” is a beautiful hymn written by Horatio Spafford. His life started to spiral downward in 1871 when the Great Chicago fire ruined him financially. Looking towards a future, he sent his family to Europe on a boat, planning to join them as quickly as he could. The ship that his family was on was involved in a collision with another vessel, and sank rapidly in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. All four of his children died, and only his wife survived. When he got the news, he went to meet her as soon as possible. As the ship he travelled on passed the place where his daughters had met their fate, he wrote the words of the now famous hymn in the midst of his suffering. My favorite part of the hymn are these words: “But Lord, ‘tis for Thee, for thy coming we wait, the sky, not the grave, is our goal; Oh trump of the angel! Oh, voice of the Lord! Blessed hope, blessed rest of my soul.”
Let me say this again- you will indeed deal with the messy ashes of suffering in this life. You will face pain and challenges, whatever they may be. And yet we boast in these sufferings, knowing that they are the pains we experience before Christ returns again. No longer are these ashes something we must handle on our own. Christ is there in the midst of your ashes of suffering—and we are called to be with others in the midst of theirs. Not necessarily to speak, because sometimes words just get in the way, but to show God’s love in your presence. I’m sure you all have someone in mind who is experiencing suffering in some way—this next week I want us to intentionally reach out and be with those people. Love them. Hold them. Let them know that there is hope in the ashes of this suffering.
 Lenski, R. C. H., The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 336.