"Are You a Character?"            |           Romans 5:1-11   |   February 24, 2008

The profile of a mature Christian is marked by hope, suffering, endurance, and character.
Are you a character? Or, should I ask, how much of a character are you? In the last few weeks we hav focused on Paul's exposae of justification by faith. Through faith alone God reckons us as righteous though Christ. This week's focus is on what kind of characters we ought to become as we live out the knowledge of  "having been made right with God."
Paul boldly asserts that we are justified by faith through grace - denying that we can / in any manner / earn our way toward salvation. He then just as boldly declares that there is a definitive set of virtues that a true disciple should intentionally cultivate and visibly demonstrate.

The tension between being justified by faith, and working out our own salvation, has always kept the church a bit off-balance, a trifle uncertain of where to focus its energies. Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke Divinity School, Stanley Hauerwas, has noted,  "justification suggests that our lives are given to us as a gift, whereas the virtues seem to imply that the moral life should be construed as an achievement" [i]
Perhaps what Paul was urging the Roman church to consider was transforming themselves into compleat Christians. ( Two Spellings. ) Compleat is an old variant on the word "complete" - and while they are pronounced the same, the nuances of meaning between the two are significant. Whereas complete-ness applies mainly to things and ideas, compleat-ness applies pointedly to persons. Specifically, it refers to "highly skilled, accomplished" endeavors toward "a particular art or pursuit." Mature or Perfect in the KJV.

Being a compleat Christian for Paul entailed being able to accept the gift of justification, and then respond to that grace. The Christian is moved to hope, suffer, endure and build a character which reflects our priviledged position. Such an attitude necessarily involves the whole person in commitment to faith in Jesus Christ.

FordhamUniversity theologian Robert Masson has suggested the term "the charmed circle" in his book of the same name as an image for discipleship (The Charmed Circle, Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1987). To break "into the Christian circle of faith" whose center is Christ, Masson also proposes a model that calls for the whole person to become engaged. One completes the circle of faith by becoming a compleat Christian. Accomplishing this breakthrough, Masson suggests, requires a theology of head, heart, hands and feet.
Our conversion, the realization of our justification by faith through grace, must involve our head, hands, heart and feet. Paul called for this same totality of involvement, this integrated compleatness when he spoke of the need to develop hope, suffering, endurance and character.

Consider how each of these qualities, and each part of the body, can work together for faithfulness. Issues which assault our head, our understanding, test the mettle of our character. Questions that pierce our heart penetrate to the very roots of our reasons for hopefulness. Putting our hands to work in service to our faith entails suffering. Placing one stubborn foot in front of another, continuing on despite obstacles and opinions, takes endurance.
In such a theology compleat Christians can act out their faith without confusing the gift of grace with the works of the individual.  Are you a character? How much of a character are you?
(Yet) the contemporary church (especially the Protestant church) remains coltishly skittish about incorporating "virtues" into any discussion of Christian life. When was the last time you heard anything about the classical virtues at the beginning of this 21st century? ( Temperance, justice, wisdom, courage and, some would add, piety. )  We tend to think of virtues as the concerns of quaint religious sects or sequestered elderly saints - certainly not for busy, active men and women of faith going toe-to-toe with everyday life.
Nevertheless, a mature faith cannot happen until in both an individual and communal sense one first risks encountering the truth - the truth about oneself, the truth about others, the truth about God. Examined in that light, how do we measure up to Paul's understanding of a truly virtuous, compleat Christian?
What kind of characters are we? What is our character like? We can bear in mind Christianity as a whole, the communal character of our congregation, or each one of us as individual characters.
The profile of a mature Christian is marked by hope, suffering, endurance, and character.
1st.       Do you have hope? Hope is probably the most quintessentially Christian of all these four virtues. As Paul proclaims his hope is inexorably caught up in his eschatological expectations. We hope because we are part of a community of hope, living on the Holy Spirit. Christian hopefulness is rooted in a belief that there is purposeful movement in history towards a future filled with meaning. Without this sense of hope we become little more than momentary globs of protoplasm on a mindless, soulless shell of existence.

w/o hope a/the people perish. There are times in all of our lives where 'doing the right thing' doesn't make things better. We become frustrated, discouraged, and over the course of time, may even lose hope.
 
Some pastors fall into the trap of feeling that their job is to rescue people. But only Christ can save. Perhaps the best thing ministers can do is grasp their own salvation, and share that experience with others. Writes William C. Martin in The Art of Pastoring:

"Your task is impossible. Consider the demands: 'Show us God.' 'Tell us what God wants.' 'Lead us to God.'

"If you think you can do these things, you are already deceived. But you CAN find your own soul and perhaps show others how to do that. To their surprise they will satisfy their demands on their own." [ii]

It has been argued (by Jacques Ellul, rightly it would seem,) that the challenge of the church today is not giving people something to believe in. It is giving people something to hope for.
2nd.     Do you suffer for Christ's sake? Once again it is in the Christian community's expectation of eschatological fulfillment that the Pauline understanding of suffering finds its meaning. This is not suffering through another boring meeting, or your daily gym work-out. Nor is suffering even physical or emotional deprivation. Christian suffering is not about learning to take on additional burdens or problems so much as it is about learning to give up the right to indulge in certain human weaknesses.
 
When we agree to participate in Christ's suffering, that means we forfeit the urge to "get even," take revenge, harbor malicious thoughts or speak vicious words. Shouldering our own cross means returning intentional wounding with love and forgiveness, even as Christ did.

John R. W. Stott, Rector Emeritusof All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, has literally taken up the cross, writing a new evangelical interpretation of the cross in modern theology, The Cross of Christ. Stott is well aware of what our worst fears are about God when we consider the suffering that surrounds us in this world.

The real sting of suffering is not misfortune itself, nor even the pain of it or the injustice of it, but the apparent God-forsakenness of it. Pain is endurable, but the seeming indifference of God is not. Sometimes we picture him lounging, perhaps dozing, in some celestial deck chair, while the hungry millions starve to death...

It is this terrible caricature of God which the cross smashes to smithereens. We are not to envisage him on a deck chair, but on a cross.[iii]

3rd.      Do you have endurance? Endurance might also be called the virtue of fortitude. stick-to-it-ness; or simply, guts.  Far from a passive, roll-over, be-stepped-on, "hang in there," patient attitude towards adversity, Christian endurance is courage.  Who would argue that Paul's commitment to preaching the good news despite being beaten, ridiculed, jailed and shipwrecked was a passive response to adversity? This was courage and perseverance of the highest degree.
 
As he participated in Christ's suffering and remained immersed in the hope of the approaching glory of God, Paul did not swear vendettas and seek revenge against those who abused and rejected him. Christian endurance meant Paul merely preached while in jail, returned to those who rejected him to try again, and wrote letters again and again to some of the most churlish churches ever to bear the name of Christ.
Consider the story of an elderly gentleman who astounded everyone by his cheerfulness in the face of physical ailments, family troubles and deferred pleasures. When asked the secret of his cheerful disposition, he replied: "Well, you see, it is like this. The Bible says often, 'And it shall come to pass,' never, 'It came to stay.'
"Like the Old Testament concept of hesed - God's steadfast love - Christian endurance means sticking by our faith, sticking to our grace and demonstrating our faithfulness even when the odds are overwhelming.

During his presidency, Abraham Lincoln regularly attended worship services at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. The pastor was Dr. Phineas Gurley. Barry P. Boulware relates how on one particular evening, while walking home from church, an aide asked President Lincoln about Dr. Gurley's sermon.
The President replied in fragmented phrases: "The content was excellent...he delivered it with eloquence...he had put work into the message..." "Then you thought it was a great sermon?" asked the aide. "No," replied the President. "Dr. Gurley forgot the most important ingredient. He forgot to ask us to do something great!"
Living the Christian virtues of hope, suffering, endurance and character is doing something great.
4th.      Do you have a recognizably Christian character? Are YOU a character? There are plenty of unique "characters," both inside and outside the church. Often these are individuals so concerned with being recognized by some quirky habits or trademark attitudes that they spend most of their energy trying to polish up that essentially artificial image. That is not Christian character - but caricature.
Paul puts character at the end of his list because it is what results when the Christian succeeds in integrating these other virtues into a consistently faithful Spirit-filled whole. Only when we are such a fully integrated individual do we share in the character, or integrity, of Christ.

 
In his opening convocation address as new dean at Atlanta's Candler School of Theology, R. Kevin LaGree told about receiving a letter from a friend, the wife of a United Methodist minister. She felt led to convey to him "something I've long wanted to say to 'someone' in our seminaries," and wrote:

I'm convinced that the message the seminary imprints on the mind and heart of each seminarian should be, "What you learn is important; what skills you perfect are important; what theology you preach is important; but the most important thing is what kind of person you are. If you are not a person of integrity, none of the other will matter at all." [iv]
Saint Augustine said, "Where there is no recognition of the truth, virtue is false, even in good habits." However, good habits can become virtues as we allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into the image of Christ, as Scripture encourages us to do.

Since we are justified by faith, we are at peace with God. So let’s stand up straight and rejoice, for “God has poured out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
 
 
 
 
If all this seems like an impossible goal to achieve...you are absolutely right! That is why Paul circles back around to hope at the conclusion of his list of virtues. . . “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.”
 
With trust in the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit, and the assurance of our justification by faith, Christians should be filled with the hope that our lives will come to reflect God's glory.  Amen.                                                                                                
Rev. Rosemary Stelz


[i]  "On Developing Hopeful Virtues," Christian Scholar's Review 18 [1988]: 109
[ii]  William C. Martin, The Art of Pastoring: Contemplative Reflections (Decatur, Ga.: CTS Press, 1994), 14
[iii]  John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986], 329
iv R. Kevin LaGree's "The Pair So Long Disjoined," 5 September 1991, 3.
 
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