[a sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, based on Romans 8:18-27]
It’s been a big week for news. Much of it dismaying, to many – in a deeply divided nation, and world. Although I suppose we could say that on any Sunday.
But this Sunday, it’s the season of Easter – specifically the Sunday we call “Good Shepherd Sunday.” We’re meant to be celebrating new life, the risenness of the risen Christ, sharing the joy and giving thanks for the freedom and the care and the compassion we know in that. And still … we’re waiting, for something we don’t see, something we can’t see yet. And waiting is hard work.
Something or someone is still about to be born. The whole creation is in on this waiting, says Paul, waiting for “the revelation of the glory of the children of God.” Waiting, literally, for the “apocalypse,” which in Paul’s Greek just meant the big reveal, but which we use these days to refer to “the end of the world”. And we can probably see how a new birth IS a kind of “end of the world,” an end of the world “as we know it,” and the beginning of a new one that contains new and different possibilities and that forecloses some old ones. To quote the philosopher songwriter of the 90s hit “Closing Time,” “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” I read somewhere that the lyricist, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, was inspired by his visit to the Labor and Delivery nursery.
We’re still waiting, for something we can’t see, yet; something or someone is about to be born; we’re still expecting this revelation, this apocalypse, and we and the whole creation are leaning forward in an eager, intense expectation …
Reading this text reminds me of a little memory, a delightful one, of our daughter, who was about three at the time, standing in front of the door in the hallway of her grandparents’ house on one of our holiday visits, waiting for her cousin, who was also three years old, and whom she adored, to come through that front door, and suddenly blurting out “I’m so excited!”
The whole creation is so excited! Something or someone great is about to be born. But it’s not easy. There’s suffering in this waiting. Paul tells us the whole creation is groaning together – using a word that in Greek carries images of trying to squeeze through a tight space – and is literally laboring in childbirth together – so this eager expectation is in fact an image of an active, all-in kind of waiting …
It’s a long, difficult process, apparently, and we can expect suffering as part of this process. But Paul reckons this suffering isn’t even worth comparing, doesn’t even come close to the glory that we’ll see when we do finally see it. Because this revelation, this apocalypse, this birth that’s getting ready to happen will be the glorious new life of the sons of God, or as we say these days, the children of God – it will be the full vision of the body of Christ, that is, something really, truly new. So, sustained by hope, and supported by the Holy Spirit, Paul urges his readers, urges us, to embrace this waiting, in patience, or maybe more precisely steadfastness.
It’s a lot to ask, frankly. Paul seems to know this. Especially because up until now he’s been talking about freedom from sin and death, and about rising with Christ, but now he’s confronting our experience that, in real life, as far as we can see, we all continue to struggle with those very things.
Something he is trying to get us to see is that we can’t SEE very far at all. So have a hard time imagining, literally coming up with images of, this profoundly new reality we’re expecting. This is for the simple reason that – all our images come from the world around us, from the world we already know. We are so embedded in those frames of reference, it’s hard for us to see past them. Arguably, we can’t see past them.
And those frames of reference are constrained by all the same “futility” that entraps the whole creation – that experience that nature itself is tied to an endless round of morning noon and night, winter spring summer fall, birth and death, followed by more of the same, all for nothing. That “there’s nothing new under the sun.”
Free as we are in our imaginations, even at our most creative, we find ourselves repeating patterns we have already learned from experience.
Those patterns, and the experience people gain in this world, make it hard to wholeheartedly share Paul’s enthusiasm for this waiting. Even though this text uses what is almost surely our best, most persuasive worldly image of genuine newness, the image of birth. It’s also probably the best image we have of real, even intense suffering that we can feel is thoroughly overcome by the outcome of that suffering.
This makes the text strikingly appropriate text for Mother’s Day, as a matter of fact, something we might not have expected from the apostle Paul. And he has intensified this imagery in Greek, by piling up grammatically feminine nouns, filling the cosmic labor and delivery waiting room with maternal imagery as it were, starting with the creation herself, and then the expectation, and the revelation and the glory, and yes also the bondage and the weakness and also the redemption and the hope. Above all the hope that sustains and supports the groaning expectant actors through this intensely active expectancy …
So our author has done his best to give us a remarkable word picture, and a beautiful one – but beautiful as it is, it still falls short, it’s broken; it’s broken by our knowledge of reality, our knowledge that sometimes the things we hope for don’t turn out the way we hope. In real life. We know too much about disappointment; we know too much about loss; we know too much about people for whom the sufferings of the present moment have not, at least not in their lifetimes, not that we could ever actually SEE, been compensated by some far greater positive experience.
Today is Mother’s Day, and while the card companies would have us thinking of motherhood as all sweetness and light, we know better than that. Anna Jarvis, the 19th century originator of Mother’s Day Work Clubs, which were the precursor to Mother’s Day, inaugurated those Work Clubs to reduce infant mortality in Taylor County, West Virginia. Infant mortality was something she knew from bitter personal experience. Of her eleven children, four survived to adulthood. One of them was her daughter, also named Anna, credited with championing the national recognition of Mother’s Day. Julia Ward Howe, another important figure in the history of Mother’s Day, advocated for recognizing it as a day to enlist mothers in the cause of peace, bringing an end to war. Ironically, as it turned out, the first Mother’s Day was celebrated in 1914 – the year the war to end all wars, that turned out not to be that, began. Julia Ward Howe herself had better luck as a mother than Anna Jarvis; five of her own six children lived past the age of four. But she was no stranger to suffering; her own mother died when Julia was five, in childbirth.
All of which is to say that the history of this benign day, from its inception, has been bound up with the suffering and loss of our very broken world, and to recall that motherhood is also a recurrent image of suffering, and tragic loss, all the way back to “the mother of all living,” Eve, in the early chapters of Genesis.
So even the best image of indomitable hope we can draw from this world still lets us down. That’s the problem with images drawn from this present world – beautiful as they often are, they really don’t – they really can’t – express the reality of something unbroken, something as pristine as the first morning of creation, or of the dawn of the new creation. We can say those words, we can even grasp them intellectually, but what that would look or feel like in real life – what experience do we have of that?
Paul seems to be aware of this objection, in fact. He says as much: no, you’re right, we DON’T see the end of this expectant waiting yet. That’s what makes this time a time for hope. If we could see the glory of this redemption, if everything were already fully and completely turned out, that would indeed be so great, but we’d call that something else; we wouldn’t call that hope.
Now, however, this present moment, IS the time for hope. Precisely because can’t SEE past the limits of our awareness, but we can HOPE past those limits. And in this time of hope, we are there groaning right along with the whole creation, waiting for the redemption of our body …
And Paul does seem to have said “body” there, not “bodies.” Suggesting that we are not simply waiting to be snatched out of here, leaving our friends and neighbors behind with a wave and a shout of “good luck, you all.” Rather, Paul seems to be saying we are waiting and working along with the whole creation for something that is even bigger than that, for the redemption of the entire family, so to speak, for the whole big full scale family picture, multi-generational, all the faithful of every time and place body of all the glorious children of God – to use Paul’s language here. A BIG reunion.
So that the hope Paul holds out in this text seems to be a genuinely collective one, one that includes … the whole body, fully complete, with all its fingers and toes, so to speak, the perfect realization of health and wholeness and shalom.
We are sustained in this effortful waiting and eager anticipation, by this hope.
And by the Spirit. We are sustained and supported by the Spirit. Because the Spirit sees farther than we do. And because the presence of the Spirit already gives us a taste or a hint of that apocalypse we are waiting for. While we are still groping for the words and images to express what we need and want and hope for, the Spirit can almost literally come alongside of us and lend a hand to our efforts.
The image of the Spirit interceding for us, supporting us in our waiting and groaning and expectation, connotes a kind of bending over and helping make sure that things stay on course or get where they’re going.
If we pictured a toddler … struggling to say “please pass me my sippy cup full of grape juice” … which is not how it comes out, as we may know, it’s more likely to sound something like “I joo” … and Mom then saying “oh, she wants her juice, it’s in the side pocket of her bag” … if we pictured that scene, we would probably have something like the right idea of the Spirit’s activity here.
Here it is the season of Easter. We want to be celebrating new life, the risenness of the risen Christ, the promise of the new creation. But it has been a big week for news; it’s always a big week for news, as far as we can see. We are still waiting, and doing the hard work of waiting, for something we don’t see, certainly not completely. And that, it seems, is exactly what we can expect in this present Easter season.
There is a sense in which Christ’s work is ongoing. The work of gathering up the brokenness and pain of this present suffering world, with all its suffering people is still being accomplished. Our own active waiting and working is now part of that ongoing work. When we talk about the church being the Body of Christ in the world, this is exactly what we mean: the acts of care and compassion, comfort and concern, that as far as we can see still share in the sufferings of this present moment. But that also point beyond them.
They are sustained by hope, which as the late William Sloane Coffin said “arouses, like nothing else, the passion for the possible in us.” They are supported by the far-sighted Spirit. They are part of the chorus of eager expectation, that fully expects futility to give way to freedom, that expects indifference to give way to love, that may not be able to see – yet – beyond the horizon of this world, but that trusts the clearer eyes of hope and of the Spirit that tell us to wait actively, with steadfastness, because that horizon is, ultimately, only temporary.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Gesellschaft vor Kappelle,” Marie Sandholt, 1922, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons