First Thoughts on Year B Epistle Passages from the Lectionary


William Loader

Trinity:  27 May  Romans 8:12-17

Paul plays with the notions of slavery and freedom. For us these are symbols. For Paul's hearers they are also symbols, but related to a reality much closer to home. Slavery meant fear. Slavery meant having no rights of inheritance. It meant no hope. The opposite is to be free, to belong to the family either by birth or adoption, and so to have an inheritance. The application is clear enough. Christ is Son of God. We have been adopted to become his brothers and sisters. We will share in his inheritance.

This sounds like self-assurance, which could easily lead Paul's hearers to feel smug and self-righteous. For some, the notion of inheritance incites the imagination to picture golden streets and eternal bliss. If we examine the fabric of this image, we soon find loose threads which are disconcerting. We are heirs of God. But what if God never dies? We shall enjoy glory together, but what is this about suffering together as well? Or is God what we inherit? Is glory a kind of heavenly meringue or something else? The word, glory, often conveys the notion of God's presence, often associated with light. There is little room for heavenly materialism when what we are being promised is a presence. Paul will go on to imagine what this presence means. It includes renewal of people and of the whole creation. It is what just people, and the earth itself, in harmony with the Spirit groans for (8:21-23).

Unmistakably Paul is doing more than dreaming of the future. His previous letters show that opponents failed to see any merit in Paul's afflictions. On the contrary, they turned them against him as signs he was not a triumphant Christian. Not enough miracles! Not enough success! Paul is doubtless taking a swipe at such views when he asserts that common glory only comes with common suffering (8:17). Paul asserts hope. He is not revelling in a kind of existentialist fulfilment in nothingness and decay. He contemplates liberation from oppression and decay with great hope. But the hope and joy is about the presence of God and renewal. It is all rightly connected; it is all about 'rightness' or 'righteousness'.

The hope which keeps Paul going is not simply a belief about the far off (or even near) future. It is already something of a present reality. For Paul, the Spirit is a component of future hope which has already been given. Elsewhere he speaks of it as a down-payment or advance instalment. For some, that meant: the Spirit brought the reward of success. For Paul, it meant something different. It was much more personal and much less materialistic. Its focus was not things, but a personal relationship. So Paul uses family language. The Spirit brings a sense of belonging. He connects it to the confidence of knowing that one is a child of God. The love which is at the heart of the good news invites us to belong. Paul is celebrating that sense of belonging. Just as we might be aghast where families are focused on greed and inheritance, so, here, family and belonging matters most and does not play second fiddle to inheritance.

Going back further towards the beginning of our passage, we see that Paul is contrasting two ways of living. He has just described the change which comes over people when they open themselves to the radical love of which the gospel speaks. As Christ died and rose, so people will make a similar major shift when they respond to this love - from death to life, ultimately to life associated with the renewal of all things, but for Paul also life in the here and now. This has been his argument with those who fear that the only way to change people is to insist on fulfilment of the commandments and that any questioning or undermining of them foils any hope of human goodness.

Anxiety drives demand and command! Anything which weakens that authority subverts the very law and word of God. That was how the first century fundamentalist Christians, who had been attacking Paul for his daring departures from some demands of scripture, saw it. In Romans 7 Paul had countered, that such an approach drives people into a worse state, where their guilt conspires with their sense of inadequacy to produce a kind of moral impotence in which people just keep getting worse. For Paul, the radical message of Jesus was that love offered belonging and forgiveness, and that from the new restored relationship with God goodness would flow, not because of fear of disobedience, but because love begets love. Love is the fruit of the Spirit. The way of imposing the law leads people into slavery.

This all lies behind the first verses of our passage. If we understand this liberating process which love inaugurates, then we ought to ensure it keeps going. We must not stop the process, but foster it. If we don't, then the effects will begin to dry up and fruit disappear, and we will head towards the death of spontaneous goodness in our lives. Paul describes this as living according to the flesh. By 'flesh' he means the human values which have come to dominate people: selfishness, greed, exploitation. Sometimes he lists the fruit of such lifestyle. It is negative - the opposite of love, generosity and compassion. Galatians 5:18-23 sets two lists side by side. 'Flesh' does not mean the body of flesh and blood in a literal sense, as though Paul disapproves of what it means to be human and the way God made us. It is what we do with who we are that counts. It certainly does not mean a disparaging of our natural instincts, such as our sexuality or our sensuality.

So Paul has written our passage after making a major argument about what is a liberating spirituality and what is not. In our passage he is drawing out some implications. First, he urges us to keep the process going of becoming more liberated and so becoming more free to respond to others in love. Paul is not a status Christian. He has no time for people smugly claiming they are 'saved' because of some past conversion (even if it should match his own). What matters is the ongoing relationship, not the moment of first acquaintance (or: the marriage, not the wedding), just as the focus is on God the person not the 'gift' of heaven or the like. Relationality then leads Paul into the family image and the sense of belonging - including the future, which helps make the present bearable, but, all the time, what thrills Paul is the shared life of God. And the reward? God and sharing God's life, here, there, and everywhere.

Gospel: Trinity: 27 May  John 3:1-17

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