I’m not sure that there’s been a week in recent years where the news from across the world has put me in as deep despair about humanity as this one. The apparent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the Ukraine; the senseless, never-ending violence in Israel and Gaza with photos of the deaths of Palestinian children and Israelis sitting in lawn chairs cheering the airstrikes; from Iraq, scenes of the destruction of the Christian heritage in Mosul and an announcement that Christians there must convert, pay a tax, or be killed; on our own border with Mexico, the ongoing human tragedy of thousands of refugees suffering while opponents of immigration spout hate-filled slogans. Everywhere one looks, divisions seem to be widening, problems becoming more intractable. We seem to be on an endless spiral downward with little hope for a better future. The dystopian visions of Hunger Games and other fantasy fiction become more plausible with every passing day.
At times like these, when there seems to be no hope in the world, we’re tempted to retreat from that chaos. We turn inward, to our closest friends and family; we turn inward into our own selves and seek comfort and solace there. We seek our own welfare and well-being, and are inclined to let the destructive forces in the world do their thing. Our faith and relationship with Jesus Christ seems to be one place where we can focus on ourselves, “get right with God” and leave the world to itself.
Unfortunately, the biblical vision doesn’t let us off the hook quite so easily. In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans, we arrive at one of the most beautiful and breathtaking sections in all of his letters, and indeed of all of biblical literature.
It’s breathtaking in both its scope and audacity. Paul begins by connecting our stories as Christians with the story of Jesus Christ, and then goes even further, uniting our stories with all of creation. To recap something he wrote earlier in the in the letter (which we heard earlier this summer):
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
In other words, our baptisms unite us with Christ, in death and in newness of life. In case that’s not enough, here Paul takes it a step further. Even as God declared Jesus his beloved son as he was baptized in the Jordan River, so too do we become God’s adopted children through our baptisms. So baptism is about both our union with Christ and our adoption into a new community and a new family. This language has become so familiar to us that we fail to see its power and revolutionary nature. In the context of ancient Rome, to be called a “son of God” as the Greek literally reads, rather than “children” as our translation has it, is to make the same claim of a new Christian as the emperor made of himself. And to create new communities based on bonds of affection, “adoption” as it were; brought together by a common faith, was an implicit challenge to imperial authority. The new family that cries together “Abba, Father” was not a family based on ties of birth and blood, ethnicity, or shared social status, but united by the shared commitment to God, and a common faith in Jesus Christ.
There’s another way in which this is all very revolutionary. When Paul appeals to the use of “Abba, Father” as our address to God in prayer, he’s not just pointing out the obvious; again, he’s making a connection between the life of the believer and the life of Jesus Christ. There’s the Lord’s Prayer, of course; but also Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, where in a moment of deepest anguish, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father.” And so, for all of the exalted language of union with Christ, sonship, and adoption, for Paul, part of our shared experience with Christ is our shared suffering with him. On a day when the scenes of a burning church in Mosul, Iraq, and the end of a Christian presence there that began more than 1500 years ago, is a horrifying reminder to us of the suffering Christians have endured throughout the centuries and in the present, in spite of our own comfort.
But Paul doesn’t end there. He goes further, connecting human struggle and suffering in the present with the whole created order. The whole creation groans, he writes. It’s a jarring image to modern ears, I think, because we are so programmed to think of redemption in terms of our own individual souls, and nothing else.
That’s not the biblical perspective. We’re accustomed to think of the world of nature, creation if you will, as a pristine, beautiful, good, that its problems, its suffering, if you will, is the product of human intervention and despoliation. The biblical perspective begins at the same place, with the beauty and goodness of creation but as Paul suggests, it was affected by human action, not our ongoing destruction of the environment, but the consequences of our sin and death. Creation groans, because like we ourselves, it experiences the pain of existence short of the perfection for which God created it. Creation groans in longing for redemption.
Creation groans as well because of sin and judgment. Similar language is used in the Hebrew Bible to describe the cries of mourners as they grieve the death of loved ones or in the midst of community crises. It’s also used in the context of communal or personal oppression—one example is in Exodus, where the Israelites groan in bondage. God hears their cries and brings about their deliverance through Moses. In the prophets (Isaiah 24:1-6) the groaning of creation (ecological degradation) is caused by the sin of the people and is God’s judgment on that sin.
The term Paul uses, and indeed his statement in v. 23, that we groan inwardly suggest a suffering so overwhelming that it can’t be described. We’ve all experienced such pain and suffering; many of us are probably rendered speechless by all that’s going on in the world around us.
For Paul, that’s not the end of the story. Instead, in the midst of this suffering, he casts an expansive vision of a new future—of a world, our bodies and souls, redeemed by God. In fact, our groaning may be all the greater because we have begun to experience what Paul will the “first fruits” of that redemption—or faith in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. Through the Spirit, through our adoption, we have begun to experience the new reality and the new life in Jesus Christ. For Paul, that makes the realities of our present lives all the more poignant; the suffering we experience, the sins in the world, all the more painful.
Still, suffering is not the end of the story. There is hope. In verse 19, Paul uses the phrase “eager expectation”—imagine yourself stretching yourself out to catch sight of the arrival of a long-awaited friend or loved one. We are saved in hope, Paul writes. We have a sense of that new world, the redemption that is promised by God, the redemption that is shown first in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, a redemption when the whole world, and we ourselves will be re-created as God intends. It is hope that gives our suffering and our world meaning; it is hope that gives us the strength to bear witness to that vision of God’s redemption. It is hope that empowers us to work for justice and peace.