This letter from the Apostle Paul to the Romans is thought to have been written near the end of Paul’s life and ministry, perhaps somewhere around the middle of the first century.
The letter can be viewed as a summary of what Paul had learned about faith and hope and love through his own journey of trials and suffering. Paul had suffered much in his life and would suffer even more before his death a few years later in Rome.
This is also Trinity Sunday, the first Sunday after Pentecost. The root word of ‘trinity’ is ‘unity.’ So the holy Trinity is a way to speak about God…God the Creator, the Father, or the divine parent that is beyond human understanding.
And God the Son, the Christ, the Redeemer, that is the window through which we can see God.
And God, the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer, that is the presence of God that is interactive in the world today.
The understanding of the Trinity came about in the third century as a human effort to explain how God is experienced. The word ‘Trinity’ is not found in the Bible, but certainly the concept of this unique unity and solidarity of character among God, Christ and the Holy Spirit is contained throughout Scripture.
In this passage from Romans, Paul uses the concept of the Trinity to give us an understanding of hope that he has learned from troubles and suffering. Paul will tell us in this Scripture that hope can come even in the midst of problems and trouble.
Therefore, since we have been made righteous through his faithfulness combined with our faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have access by faith into this grace in which we stand through him, and we boast in the hope of God’s glory. But not only that! We even take pride in our problems, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope. This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. – Romans 5:1-5
If you ever took an art history class in school, you may have been introduced to a painting entitled “Hope,” by George Frederic Watts. The painting, created in 1886 shortly after the death of Watts’ adopted daughter, shows a woman sitting on a globe, blindfolded and clutching a musical instrument known as a lyre with only one string left in place.
The woman is barefoot, in a simple dress, and sitting in a hunched position with her head leaning toward the instrument, perhaps so she can hear any musical sound that she can make with the single remaining string.
George Frederic Watts has been quoted as saying, “Hope need not mean expectancy. It suggests here rather the music which can come from the remaining chord.”
Looking at this artistic image of Hope and hearing our passage from the letter to the Romans, I wonder what the woman in the painting had gone through or was going through in her life…her experiences, problems, pains, sufferings, disappointments, and even joys. From the image depicted in the painting, it does not seem to matter that her instrument is incomplete or nearly useless without the intended number of strings for playing beautiful music.
The one remaining string signifies that there is still hope. And as we hear in our Scripture, the Apostle Paul said, “This hope doesn’t put us to shame, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” Other biblical translations say, “And hope does not disappoint us.”
Have you ever felt like you were going through a time or season of life with only one string left?
Feeling like we have only one string left and that hope is far off can be a common feeling when our lives are overloaded with daily stresses, responsibilities, caregiving, hardships, and the 24-hour news cycle that depicts a world of uncertainty, disappointment, harm, and violence. It is easy to focus on the strings that are not in place because they are broken, incomplete, or missing. It is easy to miss the one string that can still offer hope and promise like the woman is clinging to in the painting.
Much of the progress and forward movement we make in our own lives and have made in our country and world when it comes to problems, suffering, discrimination, and exclusion, have happened because we and others have risked holding on to the hope found in the remaining string.
For the Apostle Paul, that remaining string of hope is God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. That almost seems too neat and clear-cut when we hear it in Scripture. Most of the time the journey from suffering-to-hope doesn’t feel like we are following any clear-cut or orderly plan.
Yet, Paul’s assurance for hope is more than a wishful-thinking, finger-crossed, emotional kind of hope. The hope Paul talks about through God’s unconditional love is a confident, expectant, and promised hope that carries us through even when we can’t see it or feel it.
God’s promise is never that life will be without problems and suffering. But, Paul was right when he said, “Hope doesn’t put us to shame,” and, “Hope does not disappoint us,” because it is rooted in the assurance that God is with us; we are not alone. And God’s promise is that we don’t have to confront the problems and suffering alone.
Hope, it seems, is the string of faith that remains when all the evidence around us points to despair. Or as my grandmother used to say, “The difference between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep.” Besides a good night’s sleep, hope is the strength within us that surprises us at times. It’s the kind of hope poured deep into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.
So, once we are filled with God’s Spirit, the question becomes, what do we do with it…what do we do with this love of God that has been poured into our hearts?
The key lies in acknowledging our interdependence with our sisters and brothers in God’s human family…many of whom are leaning into hear that one last string of hope. The key lies in realizing that the common good of God’s people is really our own good and our only hope.
As Christian people of faith, we live in resurrection hope and therefore the common good of humanity is not something we are called on to create. In reality, it is what Christ died for and we are called to recognize it and make it real in our own lives and for others.
There is an African story told about a rat in a farmhouse…
The rat looked through the hole in the farmhouse wall and saw the farmer and his wife opening a package on the kitchen table. The rat recognized the contents of the package as a rat trap.
The rat immediately called together the Animal Council and told them that the farmer and his wife had purchased a rat trap and it was now in the house. The animals listened intently.
The chicken said, “A rat trap in the house? My goodness, that sounds awful. I don’t quite know what to say, but I do know that I have never heard of a chicken getting caught in a rat trap. This really isn’t a chicken issue.” And with that, the chicken left.
The goat said, “Well, that sounds like a very fearful thing; this rat trap. You be careful. We’ll pray for you. You take care, and remember, God loves you.” And off went the goat.
The cow stood chewing his cud and said, “Well that doesn’t sound good. If the trap snaps, you could get hurt. This trap really doesn’t concern me though, but you be careful.”
The snake listened quietly and didn’t say anything.
Late that night in the farmhouse the trap snapped. From the tall grass outside, the snake smelled a rat and slithered into the farmhouse and bit the farmer’s wife, who died from the bite.
The farmer was in such shock and grief that the family decided he needed some chicken soup, so they killed the chicken and made him a fresh bowl of chicken soup.
That night, the extended family gathered and they killed the goat for supper.
Now what to have for the funeral lunch? It was decided to have beef sandwiches…so you know what happened to the cow…all because of the rat trap in the house.
As Scripture tells us, we are the body of Christ and individually members of it. That make a difference when it comes to our understanding of unity and genuine love and respect for one another.
When one member of God’s family suffers, all suffer together…even because of a rat trap…
Rat trap in the house…People hunger for daily food.
Rat trap in the house…Divisions that separate left or right; conservative or liberal; Republican or Democrat.
Rat trap in the house…Wars being fought in the name of God.
Rat trap in the house…People searching for work and a living wage.
Rat trap in the house…Terrorism being thrust upon people living their daily lives.
Rat trap in the house…The church excluding a portion of those called into ministry based on their identity.
Rat trap in the house…Thinking the worse of one another before we take the time to understand one another.
Rat trap in the house…God’s human family struggling to find hope.
The Apostle Paul was writing this letter to the Roman people who knew persecution, alienation, exclusion, war and death because of their beliefs in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Jesus lived among people who feared the foreigner, hated the Samaritan, marginalized the poor and condemned the sick. Religion was misused to divide and isolate. Walls were built between people. The connections were minimized and the differences maximized. Those were the very things Jesus gave his life for, and which Paul is asking us to find hope in.
In the midst of our own suffering and the suffering of others, we can be hopeful. The late theologian, William Sloane Coffin said, “Hope is a state of mind independent of the state of the world.”
“For like nothing else in the world,” he said, “hope arouses a passion for the possible.”
So, what does a passion for the possible look like…what does a future with hope look like? What does hope look like for us, for the Church, for our communities, for our world?
It looks like what is given to us in Jesus the Christ. That’s where we see the God-formed life. That’s where we see compassion, devotion, obedience, faithfulness, kindness, justice, joy, endurance, character, peace and hope.
That’s where we see what it looks like to be at-one with God. That’s where we see that sin and death do not have the last word. That’s where we see the hope in the one last string on the instrument.
That’s where we need to make our home and say to our children…look to this man’s life…Jesus the Christ, and know hope that does not disappoint because of God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
This is the Good News of God this day.
Thanks be to God.