Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
19th of July 2020
This week we are again hearing from the Apostle Paul as he shares the gospel with the Christians in Rome. There are two reasons that I have us spending so much time listening to Paul. The first is that the language of this letter can be quite difficult and it’s easy for us to misinterpret it. I talked about that last week, when I said that it was important for us not to confuse ‘flesh,’ which Paul describes as negative, with our bodies. When Paul says that ‘those who are in the flesh cannot please God’ he is definitely not saying that God wants us to ignore, punish, or reject the bodies that God created, for instance. So understanding Paul demands a bit of interpretation. But the other reason that I am spending so many weeks talking about Paul’s Letter to the Romans is that I think Paul is brilliant. Despite his moments of cultural blindness to the full ministry of women, Paul’s explanations of the good news of Jesus are quite often completely wonderful. There are three such awesome elements in today’s reading.
The first is one that I have been foreshadowing ever since we began reading this letter. In today’s reading, Paul gives us a new description of our relationship with God; suddenly, Paul refers to Christian believers as the children of God. The spirit that we believers have received is not one of slavery, he says, but one of adoption. In the Spirit we can cry out Abba, Father, to God.
Becoming children of God was mentioned a few times in the Hebrew Scriptures as a privilege enjoyed by Israel, an expression of the intimacy and closeness to God experienced by that one nation alone. By arguing that everyone who has received the Spirit is a child of God, Paul is telling the Christians in Rome that the privileges previously considered to belong to Israel alone are now extended to Gentiles as well as Jews. All of us are the children of God, adopted in our baptism.
Paul then moves from our adoption as children to our status as heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ. That’s a phenomenal thing to think about. We are not just children of God; we are co-heirs with Christ. Everything that is his is ours. We could not be more important or have a higher status in the world than this. Wealth, race, gender, class, sexuality, intellect, employment – in comparison none of those matter. And this is a status that is widely shared. The poorest child living in a slum in the developing world has the same intrinsic worth as the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury. We are all children of God and co-heirs with Christ.
The second of the three elements I want to mention today doesn’t seem to be as immediately positive. Our status as co-heirs with Christ is not a simple matter; both glory and suffering are involved in this inheritance. Glory makes sense, in Christ God was glorified, and in the resurrection and ascension God glorified Christ. But why is there still suffering in this post-resurrection world? If God has defeated the powers of sin and death, why is life not perfect? Paul now needs to explain why, with all he has said about Christ and the Spirit, human life is still so painful. So, Paul looks at suffering in an eschatological light, that is, in light of the end that God is going to bring about for all creation, and finds it godly.
‘I consider that the sufferings of the present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us’, writes Paul. Not only are these sufferings not worth comparing to the coming glory, as his argument unfolds Paul claims that they’re actually evidence for that glory. The present suffering of believers is a sharing in the suffering and death of Christ. In his letters Paul always talks about his own suffering as him sharing in the sufferings of Christ; here he expands that idea to include the sufferings of all believers. Suffering is a sign of identification with Christ, he argues, and so it’s a necessary stage of our journey to the eternal glory that Christ now experiences.
In talking about suffering as an ordinary part of Christian life, Paul was responding to the ‘prosperity theologians’ of his time. The false apostles argued that Paul could not be a true apostle because he experienced adversity. Like today’s prosperity theologians, who tell us that God wants us to be healthy and wealthy, and so if we’re sick and poor we must have done something wrong, Paul faced ‘super apostles’ who argued that because Paul experienced ‘weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities’ God could not be with him (2 Corinthians 12). Paul would be appalled by today’s prosperity theologians who argue that once you ‘have Jesus’ everything will go right.
The comparison of the suffering of the righteous with the future glorious vindication is well established in pre-Pauline Jewish thought. Jewish apocalypticism believed that the final vindication and salvation of the elect was to be preceded by a time of greatly increased suffering. As Paul has done throughout his letter, he is taking a Jewish theme and extending it to include Gentiles.
Like Paul’s rejection of ‘the flesh’ this justification of suffering can be read the wrong way. In history we have seen the value of suffering being preached by those who do not suffer to those who do, as a reason for them to accept injustice rather than fight against it. The connection Paul makes between suffering and glorification can be dangerous if it’s taken the wrong way. But if we take it the right way, what Paul is saying is that even in the worst suffering we experience God is with us, and that our suffering definitely is not a punishment from God.
The third part of today’s reading that I want to talk about is Paul’s description of creation waiting with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God and creation groaning in labour pains until now. Paul is telling us that the non-human creation is so closely connected to human beings that we are all going to be saved and brought into glory together. Throughout the Bible we see the non-human creation acting as part of the community that worships God (my favourite version of this is the beginning of Psalm 19). Here we are reminded that we human beings cannot be saved apart from the rest of creation. Just as we are not going to be saved from our bodies, but in them; so we’re not going to be saved from the world, but with it.
We know that the universe is almost unspeakably old; almost incomprehensibly vast; amazingly dynamic; unfathomably organic. As Christians, we also believe that it has been, and is still being, created by God who loves it and intends it to be good. This close connection between the human and non-human creation should affect how we live; it is why the Pope, and the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the World Council of Churches tell all Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians that we have a responsibility to respond urgently to the Climate Emergency.
So, these are the three points I want you to remember from today’s reading: we are all children of God and heirs of Christ; suffering does not separate us from God, and most certainly is not a punishment from God; the non-human creation is just as important to the Creator as the human creation, and will one day ‘obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God’ together with us.
This present time is the ‘between time’, the time between the resurrection of Christ and his return. In Christ we have seen what God’s new world will look like when it comes; a world of love, freedom, life over death. Knowing that this is what is coming, we groan inwardly when love is absent, freedom is taken away, life is shortened. But as children of God we can follow the example of Christ our elder brother in sharing love, freedom and life with the whole creation, as we look forward in hope for the glory about to be revealed to us. And in next week’s reading Paul will further reassure us that while we wait nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.