Romans 5:3-5 – choosing to suffer for growth in faith

When I was a kid we lived on a long narrow block on the slope of the hill in the northern beaches of Sydney.  The slope of the block was equivalent to the road at the front of the house being level of the peak of the roof being and at the rear of the little ten square house it was two stories.  So it was sloping reasonably steeply from front to back.  There was a straight concrete drive down the side of the house that led to a terraced concrete are behind the house where there was access to parking in the garage and a carport under the deck.

My brother and I had a metal pedal car in the shape and colour of an army jeep, like the ones they drive around in in MASH, with metal wheels and solid rubber tires on them.  One of the things we used to do, when neighbours came around to play, was to ride this little pedal car, feed off the pedals, down the drive, gaining speed, and taking the corner at the bottom at whatever speed we need to rip the tires off those little wheels.  After which we would restore the tires and the next person would have a go.

I wonder about that now.  Apart from realising that there is a period in life, instinctively, where we believe we are indestructible, well at least males do, that I would do anything so risky.  As an adult I can see the absolute danger.  I think of the rigidity and unforgiving nature of metal should any accident occur.  You wouldn’t have a pedal car made of metal today for the reason you can imagine.   What a lot of softies.

I do recall one of the neighbours not making the relatively sharp turn at the bottom and turning the jeep into a war plane as he became airborne off the wall that formed the terrace.  Fortunately he landed on all four wheels on the grass and dirt of the back yard without serious injury.

Despite the injuries I manage to inflict upon myself as a result of a lack of due diligence to the potential dangers, I am now a considerably more conservative.  I get nervous about the chainsaw, fearful I might do something stupid.  The Vicar’s Warden has almost made me promise not to use the chainsaw without the supervision of a second person, just in case I do.

I’m not sure this is what St Paul had in mind when he wrote, ‘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.’  (Rom 4:3-5; NRSV)  This statement of St Paul’s has come out of his experience; God’s grace has sustained them in their suffering.  Their experience of suffering has led them to understand God’s graciousness and, indeed, led them into knowledge of themselves and what they are capable of doing.

Consequently, it seems to me that going out on a limb, allowing ourselves to venture into uncharted and unfamiliar territory, to step out of our comfort zone, to take some risks in faith, we can discover more about who God is and, indeed, who we are as individuals and a community of God.

To be disciples is to be people who continue to be astonished by what God can do, and can do through us.  But, to be astonished, we must allow ourselves to be prepared to be astonished including placing ourselves in situations where we are out of our spiritual comfort zones, out on a faith limb, feeling like we are hurtling down the driveway in our little pedal car, not knowing whether we will make the corner or not, trusting in God and his faithfulness to us, that he will never give us a burden more than we can bear.

As disciples, it is so easy to rest in the security of the familiar.  It is so easy to continue doing the same thing, following the same routine, keeping our feet on flat ground where we are in control.  But in doing so, we miss the potential of being astonished by what God can reveal and do and, therefore, what we can learn about the mind and character of God.  This lack of experience of what God can do and lack of knowledge of him becomes a vicious circle and makes us less likely to push the boundaries, to challenge social custom, to take risks of faith.

The account of the woman at the well is a story that speaks of Jesus willingness to step out of the conventions of his day and astonishment that is a part of discipleship.

The woman at the well is astonished – although the word is not used regarding her, but her response to the residents of the city in which she lived indicates that some new discovery had amazed her, ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done!  He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’

It seems to me that once we make the initial step of faith to exploring the mind and character of God, God reveals himself and, acting on that, God continues to make himself known.  It is easier for us who have been encouraged as children to be open to God and participate in groups that help us to grow in the knowledge and love of God, but for those without this experience it is a great leap of faith, a risky step.

The disciples themselves, returning from the city where they went to obtain food, found Jesus talking to, firstly, a woman and, secondly, a woman who was a Samaritan, and we are told they ‘were astonished.’  This doesn’t sound like much to us today.  You might be able to recall when the Church first began talking about the ordination of women.  For many the idea was unthinkable and the lobbying of the members of the Movement for the Ordination of Women would raise the hackles on their necks.  Then later we also began talking about the consecration of women as bishops.  But now, now that we have experienced the ministry of women as Deacons, Priests and Bishops, it seems nothing at all – we are stronger and better for it.

Then there are those Samaritans of the city who also appeared to be astonished.  Initially, some accepted Jesus because of the testimony of the women and, surprisingly, they invited Jesus and the disciples to stay with them.  Then others also came to believe, not because of what the women told them about Jesus, but because ‘we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Saviour of the world.’

All this took place because Jesus was willing to step outside the convention, the comfort zone, and, dare I say it, break the social rules.  Jesus took risks and it bore fruit.  The disciples, I am sure, would have been inspired in their understanding of the nature and character of Jesus by what they saw taking place, and others in the Samaritan city came to be disciples as a result.

There are two aspects to this word ‘astonishment’ as we have it translated in our text for today.  They are fear and amazement.  It is a common theme regarding people’s response to Jesus’ miracles.  The first response, for want of a better description, is to be fearful of what has been witnessed or experienced.  This is the fear of being out of your comfort zone; in unfamiliar territory.  Then, the acceptance of what has taken place has indeed taken place, but totally amazed at what they have really witnessed.   The result is that those who are astonished come to a new and deeper realisation of the nature and person of Jesus.

The invitation of discipleship is to be people, who in faith, choose to enter into that which is out of our comfort zone, a little bit fearful, unfamiliar, for then we can make new discoveries about the mind and character of God.  Call it choosing to suffer, if you like, for ‘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.’  This is Paul’s experience of discipleship.  It is choosing to do that which challenges us, even scares us a little, where we grow in our knowledge and love of God.

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