Being a Real Character!
Text: Romans 5:1-11
2 Lent, B
We all know people who are real characters. Maybe it’s the man who is always complaining about the strangest and most absurd things, or the woman who insists on using a single tea bag 10 or 12 times before she will throw it out. Maybe it is the fellow who is always ready with a terrible joke whenever you meet, or that sweet lady who never has a single unkind word to say about anyone. These are the kinds of people who stand out from the crowd. The kind of people who make you change the way you look at life. But what makes them a “character” and not just someone with a strange quirk of personality?
They are real characters, these individuals, because they are true to themselves no matter what the circumstances. No matter how many tea bags she can afford that woman will always reuse each one until not an ounce of flavour is left. No matter how well things are going that man will always find something wrong. No matter how sad or hurting he is the joker will always try to make you feel better with a joke and a smile. No matter how horrible a person has been or the unkind things they have done, that lady will never once think of saying anything hurtful. She will find something kind to say instead. That is real character. Sticking to your guns, no matter what the circumstances, no matter what anyone else might think or how you might be treated because of it. That’s why so few of us are truly Characters.
So where does real character come from? St Paul describes it this way: “3More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and 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.” Suffering and Endurance? No wonder more people don’t have real character! Who wants to go through all that? Be honest. Who among us, if given the choice, would actually choose suffering and endurance? It might be fun to be a little strange or quirky, a little different from the crowd ... but only until we are made fun of for it ... only until it makes people think less of us ... only until it makes us stand out so far from the rest that we become a target of ridicule, anger, or persecution.
How much time and energy do we spend trying not to stand out? Wearing the right clothes, watching the right shows - listening to only the right or approved news, staying away from the wrong people, having only the right opinions. It was once said that “The primary danger of the TV screen lies not so much in the behaviour it produces as the behaviour it prevents.” (Christian Medical Society Journal, 1977) Our TV and internet culture – Our multimedia, social media culture tells us to fit in with the rest, fight for the right causes, toe the party line, ignore the “fake news” (any news you disagree with) punch the Nazis (again, anyone who is dangerously in disagreement with you). And why? So things will be easier for you and there will be equity for all. You don’t want to suffer for being different do you?
Yet, if anyone can understand being true to yourself and your beliefs even when the world scoffs, it is us Christians. It is the very thing Jesus laid before His disciples in the Gospel this morning. 34And he called to him the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? 37 For what can a man give in return for his life?
Deny ourselves? Take up crosses? Lose our life? Sounds an awful lot like standing out from the crowd and suffering because of it! It used to be that we could talk about being Christian here in church and it didn’t matter ... so long as you didn’t make a bother of yourself by also thinking you could do it out there. But now it is dangerous to talk about being a Christian even in a Christian Church. Now the only “safe way to be Christian is online, not IRL” We now live in a day and age when Christians are unapologetically attacked just for having the gall to be in church! Being a Christian is great until it begins to cost us something. Until people are mocking, rude or nasty or you are called a grandma killer for wanting to be in God’s house. Until you stand at the crossroads of following God or obeying the government.
When the price of our Christianity becomes uncomfortable how many Christians shrink down to do as the world tells them and pretend to be something other than what they truly are? But trying to be someone you are not won’t keep you from facing troubles. Neither will running away from what we are. Trouble and suffering are a part of life. Someone is going to be unhappy with you no matter what you do, are you sure you want that someone to be God? Cross bearing is part and parcel of being Christian. But not simply as some kind of Divine punishment for our sin. Even suffering has a godly goal.
Martin Luther put it this way in his commentary on this passage: “If God should not test us by tribulation, it would be impossible for any man to be saved. The reason is, that our nature has been so deeply curved in upon itself because of the viciousness of original sin, that it not only turns the finest gifts of God in upon itself and enjoys them (as is evident in the case of legalists and hypocrites), indeed, it even uses God Himself to achieve these aims, but it also seems to be ignorant of this very fact, that in acting so iniquitously, so perversely, and in such a depraved way, it is even seeking God for its own sake. Thus the prophet Jeremiah says in Jer. 17:9: “The heart is perverse above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” that is, it is so curved in on itself that no man, no matter how holy (if a testing is kept from him) can understand it.1
To explain it further he goes on to say: Of whatever quality suffering finds characteristics and people to be, such it makes them even more. Thus if a person is carnal, weak, blind, evil, irascible, arrogant, etc., when trial comes, he becomes more carnal, weaker, blinder, more evil, more irascible, more arrogant, etc. And on the other hand, if he is spiritual, brave, wise, good, meek, and humble, he becomes more spiritual, braver, wiser, better, meeker, and humbler … Those people talk nonsense who attribute their bad temper or their impatience to that which causes them offense or suffering. For suffering does not make a person impatient but merely shows that he has been or is still impatient. Thus a person learns in suffering what kind of man he really is ...2
It is only in facing those times where the cost is more than we are comfortable with, it is only in suffering, you see, that we truly begin to see what we are made of. And all too often we see is a lack of real character. But, we also know that it is in the end, thankfully not about how we measure up or not. In our lonely hearts we do not have the Character needed. But Jesus does. He has more than enough character!
Consider this definition. “You can tell a lot about the character of a person by the way that they treat those who can do nothing for them.” It is the very definition of Christ’s character Paul gives us in our text: “6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
Jesus is, by every positive definition, the ultimate character. Despite the cost, He remained true to Himself and to God’s plan of salvation. Despite the cost He came and died for those who could never do anything for Him in return. Indeed, He did it all for us while we were still bound in our sin, still trapped in our doubts and fears, while we were enemies of God. Not caring one bit what the world might think of Him, Jesus stood apart and became a target for us. He took up His cross ... OUR CROSS! ... and saved us from our own lack of real character. In that cross He continues to give us forgiveness, freedom, and the hope of everlasting life.
And what’s more, He continues to stand by us even when the going gets tough. He stand by us to lend us the character we so sorely lack. He stand by us in Word and Sacrament, remaining true to His promises no matter what! He will never let us down. He will never let us face these trials, hardships, or persecution alone. In the water of Holy Baptism, in the Bread and wine – His Body and Blood, in His eternal Word of promise He alone will make us firm in the faith, and strong enough to stand up for Him even hen the cost is more than we think we can bear. He will use suffering to produce endurance, endurance to produce character, and character to give us true and everlasting Hope!
Standing out from the rest is never easy. Being a real character in a world of compliant clones takes perseverance and endurance. But not to worry! God gives us plenty of opportunity for each so that character may be gained and hope secured. Each new trial we face is an opportunity to be true to our faith and ourselves. Opportunities to stand true in Christ Jesus our Lord. Through the gift of faith we live in grace and are built up by the very things that would seek to tear us down. “Life is a grindstone Whether it grinds you down or polishes you up depends on what you are made of.” (James Hewett) So what are you made of dear friends? Sturdier stuff than anything life in this world can throw at you! Your Character is founded on the reconciliation and peace that only Jesus Himself can bring. Your hope ... heaven itself! “1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
1Luther, M. (1999, c1972). Vol. 25: Luther's works, vol. 25 : Lectures on Romans (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther's Works. Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.