Saturday, June 14, 2008

Can We Boast Without Shame?

Homily for Proper 11, Year A
Sunday, June 15th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 5:1-8

St. Paul writes, “Since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Well, I do not know about you, but in my world, boasting is not something to be encouraged – and certainly not to be encouraged as a Christian virtue! I have always understood boasting as something selfish and conceited. At a slightly deeper level, if I boast about what I have, the boast is, in effect, a put-down of another: I have something you do not have, and therefore I am better than you and you should be ashamed or feel unworthy. I suppose it does not help that we are Canadians. Do we not pride ourselves in being unlike our boastful neighbours? Do we not overcompensate and over-apologize for any little offense that we might perpetrate; or even apologize for things that we have not done, lest it seem that we are to pig-headed? Furthermore, as Christian people we are to be filled with loving charity, giving of ourselves, doing without, being like Jesus, suffering for the sake of others. The last thing that we should do either as Canadians or as Christians is boast.

And yet, here, in this most crucial letter of the Pauline corpus, Paul affirms boasting, of a sort, as a Christian virtue. What are we to make of this? To me, this is one of those uncomfortable passages in Paul’s letters that is perhaps most easily passed over and left for another day. I suggest, though, that the difficulty of a passage must not dissuade us from considering how it might speak to us in the deepening of our Christian walk. I suppose, when it comes right down to it, I find this passage difficult because I know that my own ego is perhaps, slightly oversized. I know that I have a tendency to boast when, perhaps, I should instead be walking in humilty. I suspect that I am not alone in this although I cannot speak for others. So, when Paul speaks of boasting as a Christian virtue many of us feel a bit squeamish, because our own sin, and propensity to sin, is ever before us.

What is it, though, that Paul instructs us to boast about? It is this: “Our hope of sharing the glory of God.” This hope is rooted in our own justification by faith, our own peace with God through that justification, and indeed our access to God’s grace.

Before I continue, I would like to make a short digression and speak about justification by faith. This is a term that has been bandied about by theologians for hundreds of years. There is still much disagreement about what is meant by the term. Justification is what we call a legal-forensic term, with its etymological roots in the Latin translation of the Greek word for righteousness. A literal, and more correct (if grammatically dubious) translation of “justified”, might best be understood by transforming the noun “righteous” into a verbal passive form, “to be righteoused.” The controversy around this phrase concerns how we understand what to be “righteoused” or “justified” means. One understanding involves a permanent change in status of the person justified, a change of nature once and for all. In this understanding, a person takes on a permanent new identity through the sacrifice of Christ. Another understanding involves a wiping clean of the past, a clean slate, a tabla rasa, but with the possibility of going off track again. The past has been wiped clean, but the future is remains open. Furthermore, the degree to which a person continues to rely solely on grace or participate through post-justification "works" in the post-justification state continues to be a matter of theological disagreement and discussion. We cannot resolve these debates here, I only raise then to demonstrate that while Christians may agree on a doctrine of justification by faith, they may indeed have quite different understandings of what it means. Similarly, we might ask the origin of the faith through which we are justified. For some it is a faith we stir up ourselves when we realize we are unable to do right without God; it is a decision we make in the face of our realization that we have no power in and of ourselves to be righteous. We realize that only God makes us righteous and that stirring of faith leads imputes righteousness. Others will suggest that while that realization may be the catalyst to faith, faith comes not from ourselves but as a gift from God, which we appropriate both when we are confronted by crisis and also in the gentle unfolding revelation of God in the midst of our lives. I must confess that I fall into this latter group. All of this is to say that I take faith to be a gift from God. As we begin to receive that gift we begin to realize that God has opened to us the way of new life.

So what does this digression on justification have to do with boasting? Namely this: That the hope in which St. Paul boasts is a hope rooted in a faith imparted by God in Christ, through God’s grace, for a peace offered by the same loving God in Christ. We have access to this God in and through the self-offering of Christ in the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection. Put simply, we have cause to boast because we have received a most wonderful gift, reconciliation with a loving God and with each other. The gift is freely given and loving received. It is not of our own making but is divine and precious.

However, boasting still has its dark side, and St. Paul knows this better than anyone. We boast not in and of ourselves, or for ourselves but in, of, and for Christ. And we must always remember that our Lord and Christ is the one whose throne is a cross and who is a king who wore a crown of thorns. To boast in Christ we must always remember that the way of Christ is indeed a way of self-offering and self-denial. Boasting is not for self-glorification or the deprecation of others, but a confession of God’s gracious self-offering that transforms all creation. Boasting in Christ means claiming both the Cross and the Resurrection as our cause for boasting.

That wonderful Christian hymn, Lift High the Cross has this most poignant line: “Great is the cost of walking on this road, to follow and suffer with the Son of God.” I do not for a moment believe that suffering is a condition of our Christian faith nor is suffering sent by God to test us. Yet, I think suffering is a condition of our humanity. Each of us will, without fail, suffer in some way along our earthly pilgrimage. For some it will be physical suffering of the worst kind. For other there will be psychological suffering, emotional suffering, or spiritual suffering. One thing I find in common amongst those I meet who suffer is a propensity to utter such a phrase as this: “At least I’m glad don’t have it as bad as that other person over there…” While this sentiment can be a helpful coping mechanism, it is ultimately a symptom of a denial of our human condition, and illustrates what Rabbi Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People) calls the “suffering Olympics.” Yes, there will always be someone who has it worse than you, but what does that really matter. Your pain is real, your hurt is authentic, your struggle feels impossible to manage. What good is it to compare and be self-effacing about it. In a way, this propensity to compare our suffering with that of another is kind of boasting in which we lie to ourselves – as we attempt to minimize the reality of our suffering we implicitly claim to be better and more able to cope with our suffering that what we actually are. This is not the sort of boasting encourage by the Apostle.

I have said before that I take myself to be a Christian Existentialist. I believe very passionately that our life of faith comes about, develops and matures as the result of meeting God in the midst of human crisis. If we deny our suffering, if we reject it, if we allow the cup to pass, then we also risk missing the encounter with a Lord who meets us in our suffering. We risk meeting a Lord who makes our suffering one with his suffering and offers his Resurrection as our resurrection. Again, we do not believe that suffering is a visitation from God, but in our suffering we may certainly be visited by the one knows our pain and shares our wounds. Thus, St. Paul says that suffering produces endurance, but it is not our endurance, but God’s endurance when we have not the strength to endure. Endurance produces character; and again, it is not our character but the indelible character of Christ imprinted on us. Character produces hope -- hope not only for our deliverance from affliction, strife and need, but hope for the whole human family; for all our brothers and sisters who despondency threatens to overcome. And hope does not disappoint us. God is faithful to the last.

Thus, to boast in our justification, in the grace we have received, in our access to God, is not to boast in our own righteousness, our own access to God, our own peace, but to proclaim the righteousness of God to a hurting world, to those who suffer indignity and unjust oppression. To boast in our access to God is not boast in our relationship with God but to proclaim to the lonely and brokenhearted that God calls them, journeys with them, loves them beyond measure and will never leave them. To boast in the peace of God is not claim that we are a people without conflict or division, but to proclaim to a world torn apart by conflict, strife and division, that God reconciles us to each other when all hope for peace seems lost. To boast in hope is not to assert that we have a salvation from God that others do not, but to proclaim to any who walk without hope, to any who have lost their faith either in God or their fellow human beings, that in Christ all things are being made new with each new rising of the sun.

To boast in Christ is not an act of self-aggrandizement, nor is it a deprecation of the faith of others. It is the simple claim that we have met a Lord who loves us even in our darkest hour, who sharing in our suffering leads us forth to a yet more glorious day. It is the proclamation that again and again, he comes to us, and takes our hand, from one age to the next, loving us, helping us, leading us, transforming us, when we cannot help ourselves. It is the proclamation that this word of hope is hope for the whole world. And finally, it is a word of hope in whiche we can boast . It is a word of hope tht we can share with the world, without shame and without reservation.

Text c. 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

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