Proper 11a, July 23, 2017

July 24, 2017

The Aches and Pains of Abundant Life

Romans 8:12-25

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. 18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.


I’m taking a little deviation from my normal course of preaching – which is to wrestle with passages from the gospels, in order to look at something Paul wrote about the Christian faith. I’m not a Pauline scholar, and as my preaching pattern indicates, I prefer to examine those things that are recorded in the gospels of what Jesus said and did, but Paul had some things to say that are important for us to consider. I don’t think Paul had a flawless understanding of what it means and what it takes to follow Jesus, but I consider him to have had a profound understanding of the faith, and there’s no questioning of his commitment to Jesus. What Paul did to promote the message of Jesus is sort beyond comprehension.


Paul was totally immersed in the work of preaching and teaching about Jesus, and he has some gripping instruction to those of us who seek to give ourselves to Christ, but I often find myself wishing that Paul would have written with sixth graders in mind. In my opinion, he puts forth some amazingly complex theological claims. In this text he provides us with some familiar images, illustrations, and actions, but the way he weaves them together sort of leaves me scratching my head. I think it makes sense, but I have the feeling that what he’s saying is above my reading level. So I’m not going to try to unpack everthing Paul has to say in this passage, but I’ll elaborate on some of the familiar images and ideas that he raises and share what I think he might be saying.


The first image I want to address is this idea of the goodness of our debt – which is interesting because I don’t think any of us are normally inclined to think of debt as a good thing. But Paul seems to be celebrating the fact that we are debtors. I know sound financial planners will point out that there’s a difference between good debt and bad debt, but what they are usually talking about is the difference between the kind of debt that gives you some tax advantage and the kind of debt that simply takes your money away. But that isn’t the good kind of debt that Paul was talking about.


Paul is suggesting that there’s a form of debt that puts us in touch with life. Paul suggests that there’s a form of debt that leads to life – which is in contrast to the kind of debt that leads to death. And this is one of those cases where his logic and language isn’t that easy to follow, but he seems to be saying that if we are indebted to the flesh we’re headed toward fear and death, but if we’ll be indebted to the Spirit we’ll become free and alive.


I met a man one time who was a relatively recent convert to Christianity. He saw a very clear distinction between the way he lived before he found Jesus and the new way he was trying to live. But he remembered his old ways and he said he was dealing with a man on a deal of some kind who was being unreasonable and sort of aggressive, and he said, You know, I was about to get in the flesh with him — but I didn’t. And that’s about one of the best working definitions of the flesh that I’ve ever heard. I don’t know exactly what he was tempted to do, but it was going to be aggressive and ugly, and while it might not have lead to death it would have been on that path.


When paul speaks of being indebted to the flesh I think he’s talking about our propensity to being overly concerned with our immediate selves as opposed to our eternal selves. This is a deathly form of indebtedness because there’s nothing we can do to eliminate this debt – in a sense there will always be an immediate demand of some kind to maintain our surface wellbeing. This is the worse kind of debt because it only grows and it never goes away. This indebtedness to the flesh is worse than student loan debt – which doesn’t go away until you pay it off or die, but at least it goes away at that point. If you’re indebted to the flesh it will probably follow you in to the afterlife.


But Paul says it’s a good thing to be indebted to the Spirit, because when we live with a sense of debt to the Spirit we’re motivated to give ourselves to eternal matters. To be indebted to the Spirit is to take a longer view of life and not to be battered by immediate demands. Neither the pleasant windfalls or the horrendous pitfalls that we encounter in this world are as life altering to those who are indebted to the Spirit. Death isn’t as threatening to those who are indebted to the Spirit because death doesn’t disrupt the work of the Spirit. It’s this sense of indebtedness to the Spirit that enables us to experience adoption from God.


To feel adopted by God is to trust that your primary relationship is with God. And when your primary relationship is with God you lose fear of what may happen to your flesh. This is a truth that had become abundantly clear to Paul. His allegiance to Christ had been very costly to him in a physical way. His love and allegiance to Jesus had caused him to be rejected by his Jewish friends and family members and it had put him at odds with Roman rulers. He had been beaten and imprisoned for what he did and believed. And in spite of that he felt blessed and glorified.


I believe that what Paul is saying is true, and I like to think that I’m more indebted to the Spirit than I am to the powers of this world, but frankly speaking I don’t think my allegiance has been very tested. I like to think I’m indebted to the Spirit, but this hasn’t been very costly to me. My faith doesn’t seem to be at odds with my relative good fortune, and I’m grateful for this, but I’m a little unnerved by it as well. It may be that I’m just not paying attention to the way my indedbtedness to the Spirit is at odds with my debt to the flesh. Paul seemed to see very clearly the difference between serving God and protecting his hide, and he was grateful for the abundant life he experienced because of who it was he had chosen to serve.


He considered the sufferings of his time to be a minor nuisance in comparison to the glory that was about to be revealed to him.


Now none of us are immune from the various forms of pain and tragedy that we encounter in this world. Comfort and security are fleeting for all of us, and we’re all familiar with the sound of deep groans.


I find his image of the world groaning in labor pains prior to the arrival of Christ to be really powerful. It’s an image that points to the way in which something new arrived in this world in the life of Jesus Christ, and through Christ we have this opportunity to become the adopted children of God, but he also speaks to the way in which this process of becoming incorporated in to the family of God is not yet complete.


The sound of a groan isn’t a welcome sound, but it’s such an important sound. It’s important to hear the groans of our neighbors, and it’s an important sound to utter when we we come in contact with the pain and tragedy of this world. We aren’t to turn away from the sound of groaning or from awareness of situations that produce the need to groan. We aren’t to live in fear of knowing how bad things can be in this world, and we can face painful truths because we have this assurance that the love of God is going to prevail in this world.


We aren’t to be insensitive to the sound of groaning, but we aren’t to live in fear of it. Paul proposed that we think of the groaning that we experience in life as the groaning that accompanies the pain of birth. Paul didn’t want to belittle the pain that we experience in this life, but he didn’t want us to live in fear of it.


Aches and pains aren’t all bad. I know football practice began last week, and I’m guessing that has been the source of some deep groaning, but that’s some pain that will pay off when the season begins. Paul makes an appeal for us to wait with patience for the new day that will come, but I don’t think he is telling us to sit still and wait. I think it’s a lot easier to have patience when you keep yourself well occupied, and there’s a lot of good work we can be doing. It’s not within our power to fully establish the Kingdom of God on earth, but we can engage in some work to make this world a more hospitable place for others, and we need to extend ourselves in ways that generate those good aches and pains and maybe even some groans.


This world can be a terribly painful place to be, but there’s really only one thing that can keep us from the love of God as it was revealed by Jesus Christ and that is to be more concerned with our mortal flesh than we are with our eternal souls. We are the spiritual children of our loving God and we are called to live in ways that will nourish our spiritual lives. It’s not as easy to feed our souls as it is to nourish the flesh, but I believe we can train our bodies to serve the needs of our souls. This happens when we know the source of true life and we no longer fear for the fate of our flesh.


Paul doesn’t write in a simple form, but I think his point is pretty clear. We are the children of God and we’re invited to live like God’s beloved children. This doesn’t mean that we won’t encounter terrible hardship and suffering, but we are to understand the pain that we experience in this life as the kind of pain that accompanies childbirth. What will be isn’t always obvious, but we can trust that God’s kingdom will prevail. It may not be this simple, but it probably is.


Thanks be to God.




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