First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 7

William Loader

Pentecost 7: 23 July  Romans 8:12-25

This passage rounds off well to the theme with which Romans 5 began: hope. Partly the issue is personal: Paul's sufferings underlined that God was not blessing him and approving his gospel. A naive (but in part biblically supported) theology of success calls Paul's credentials into question. In response Paul refuses to descend like his later imitators to the blaming game and to name calling. Instead he goes back to the heart of the gospel as he understands it and mounts his case not really for himself - but for God! Paul does theology. We have the benefit in the passage of seeing how Paul, having dealt with the Law issue, turns to show how faith faces struggle. He knows he tells his own story but also addresses the story of many others, including those who will hear his letter read before them in Rome.

Our passage begins with echoes of the theme of Romans 6. Having been baptised, a celebration of our entry into the new life which God offers, we are to live that life. Baptism celebrated the receiving of the Spirit. We receive the Spirit so that we might walk with the Spirit. Last week we saw that Paul is setting in contrast two systems. One is based on following the inclinations of our personalities when they are living from fear and guilt and are self-obsessed ("the flesh"). In it we are caught into a syndrome of sin and fear and guilt and it spells death. The other is based on the liberating goodness of God which sets us free from our guilt, fear and even from shame, so that we become free to live for God, for others, and even for ourselves, in ways that are creative and, in turn, life giving for others.

Paul does not apparently have a list of church members. At least he does not do his counting by who once had a conversion or similar experience in the past. This became an obsession in the church in a form that left people with nowhere to go. I'm saved and going to heaven: why should I do more than enjoy the prospect? It's a cast iron guarantee! The earliest Christians really did not think like that. Here in 8:14 Paul has a much more dynamic description. Those who are children of God are those who are led by the Spirit. He does not mean people who pray and find parking spaces or who slip "the Lord's leading" into their sentences in the belief that they are so sure they know each step to take and the steps they take are always right. Being led means being moved or activated by the Spirit. Paul is still talking about the ongoing process in which the Spirit frees us to love and so more than fulfil what the Law intends.

By speaking of "children of God" Paul is using the language which meant so much to converts whose entry into Christ was celebrated by baptism. For many today the experience of coming to faith is gradual and baptism celebrated that at its (and our) infancy rather than in adulthood. This should not prevent us from grasping Paul's meaning and insight. Paul's point is precisely that being a child of God is not guaranteed by an occasion of ours from the past but by an ongoing relationship which continues in the present, a relationship which in that sense baptism (even in infancy) celebrates in advance. We spend our lives realising the potential it celebrates for us, entering more fully into the once for all story it depicts.

8:15 makes it clear that he is using the language of relationship. We are not in a relationship of slavery, but in one of freedom. We have been adopted into the family, itself, and have been made heirs (8:17). Like children who grow up in the household we address our father in intimate terms. Paul may be reflecting a widespread tradition in the beginnings of Christianity of retaining the Aramaic family address of children to fathers: "abba". It probably reflects Jesus' own tendency to do theology by pointing to what parents do when they operate rightly: they care, they confront, and they love.

Even self assurance is not based on fetching the certificate of membership or recalling an event of the the past, but a sense of oneness or otherwise with the being of God the Spirit moving within our lives (8:16). It is a sense of being together in ourselves, including God's presence within us, rather than counting up extraordinary experiences or measuring the depths of the mystical into which we can descend. Paul is always pragmatic. Love is the fruit of the Spirit - not hard to recognise. It grows where it has soil. It doesn't need specialists of intellect or charisma or achievement or meditation, as valuable as each can be. At most we may need specialist help to remove the clutter that blocks the light of love reaching deeply into our lives. It is just as likely to be found among the ordinary people going about their daily round as it is among those who know all about it.

Lack of assurance or false self-assurance plagues people at many levels and leads to compensatory behaviours that are frequently destructive to self and others. Paul is confident in love and assumes this is what God's goodness does for people. It frees people from their self-preoccupations. But of course others have a big investment in wanting to keep people back in their sense of inadequacy - including, alas, some in the name of Christ!

In 8:18 Paul takes off from present confidence to future hope - just as he did in 5:3-5. Adversity does not topple his confidence. He expects it. In 2 Corinthians and elsewhere he expounds this by pointing to Christ's suffering resurrection. Christ is the model. We live mainly on the cross side of his story, for even though we also have some of the new life now, the real change to resurrection lies in the future. Here Paul speaks of glory, a favourite image of God's presence and being. Paul's hope is not golden streets and shinier rewards, but God and God's presence.

In 8:19-24 Paul clearly moves beyond just his own situation in which some of his adversities come from his fellow believers. His grasp of God's goodness enables him to see "God-wide" into the broader context including both all humanity and all of creation. He is not a gnostic who can't wait to escape this evil material world. He is not a dualist who limits the focus of God's goodness to just some segments of creation. He is not one of those ancient and modern Christians who see salvation in terms of the salvation of souls. His passionate heart goes out to all creation. He looks to its renewal, its rebirth.

We might wonder at Paul's explanations. He sees it all as part of God's plan for the universe, while at the same time he clearly does not attribute destructiveness and failure to God's action. In his understanding the universe (much smaller of course than the way we see it and geocentric) is like a mother in the final stages of pregnancy. We all belong in this mother image. The Spirit also belongs. It is almost as though he sees the Spirit as the panting in the birth process, though that is my connection not his. The image is remarkable nevertheless. The Spirit - indeed God - is travailing with us for change.

The sense of solidarity is remarkable. The compassion knows no limits to its extent. The goodness which Paul celebrates as the good news is now fully universal. His mere hints send us out to look in awe and respect not only at all humanity but at all creation. Ignoring the plight of the world's eco-systems becomes impossible. Tossing off concerns about the environment is a gross outrage against God's goodness - against future generations, but more than that: against creation itself.

Paul's sense of hope is firmly rooted in present engagement with God's goodness in the world of people and of creation. His dreams envisage a renewal that will see us all (like creation as a whole) transformed into a new form of reality - raised in transformed bodies like Christ's resurrection body. That was a common belief of his time. He also envisaged that the cosmic re-birth would happen as early as his own lifetime. We find ourselves necessarily distanced from his times and his timing, but also from how he conceptualised the fulfilment. Our universe is larger than the one his generation envisaged by a factor of trillions and more. In this light we may be tempted to treat the passage as little more than a relic of a past hoper. It is that, but it is more. Our hope is perhaps more naked, but its central truth remains: in the end: God. But our engagement with God's goodness in the present usually lags far behind Paul's vision. Two millennia behind us, he walks far ahead of us and leads the way more than any other New Testament writer. Our challenge remains: to walk according to this Spirit and not according to "the flesh".

 Gospel  Pentecost 7 23 July Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

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