Creation groans – a sermon on Romans 8:19-23

 

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that 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. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and 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. (Romans 8:19-23)

I received an invitation this week to be part of a delegation to Yemen later this year. I’m not sure if this will come off, and I don’t want to be in Yemen at the expense of being back to Syria, where I hope to deliver some significant financial aid to the church there before Christmas. Even so, I have expressed my interest.

For those who don’t know, Yemen is currently at the centre of a terrible humanitarian disaster, including a devastating outbreak of cholera – all being the result of their military conflict with Saudi Arabia.

I don’t blame anyone here for not knowing much about this, as it is all being radically under-reported in the media at the moment. One article I read this week referred to Yemen as “the war that isn’t happening even as it’s happening”.

This sort of thing makes me groan – not only the horrors of war, but also the way in which our media decides which things in our world are worthy of our attention and which things we should turn a blind eye to. It should make us all groan. Indeed, it should leave all creation groaning. That’s what came to mind for me, at any rate, as I reflected this week on that part of St Paul’s letter to the church in Rome where he speaks of creation groaning:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 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. (Romans 8:22-23)

Is the violence in Yemen the sort of thing that would make St Paul groan? I’d like to think it is, though I’m very aware of my tendency to create Paul in my own image.

I suspect that we all tend to do this. We don’t do it so much with Jesus, as we recognise that we can’t enter into the consciousness of Jesus, the Son of God. St Paul though was a brother, and I find it easy to assume that Paul was a guy much like myself, who struggled with the same sorts of things that I struggle with, and who thought about life in roughly the same way I do.

My tendency to think of Paul as a mate is probably also a product of the devotional material about Paul’s writings that I’ve been consuming since my youth – the sort of thing that encourages us to think of the New Testament as if it were written specifically for us as individuals – a message addressed directly to me.

I’ve always found this especially easy when it comes to the letters of St Paul. Indeed, I can imagine Paul sitting in his office typing:

“Dear Dave. I, Paul, an Apostle of Christ …” Hang on, let’s try servant, not Apostle. [hold down shift key with left hand, press back-arrow key with right hand, highlight the word ‘Apostle’, press delete and retype]

“Dear Dave. I, Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ …”

We know it didn’t work like that, as Paul didn’t have a computer. It wasn’t as easy then as it is now to compose a letter, and most probably, Paul never actually wrote any of his own letters on his own anyway.

By this I don’t only mean that Paul might have had someone else doing the actual writing while the letter was being dictated, which was certainly the case with this letter to the Romans, where we read at the end of the letter “I, Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord” (Romans 16:2).

I mean though not only that Paul’s was not the hand that actually wrote (or chiselled) the message. I mean more so that the letter was probably the creation of Paul and his team, because that’s the way letters were written in the first century!

Paul didn’t have an office from which we wrote his letters alone, just like he didn’t have a pulpit from which he preached – not one in a house of worship, at any rate.

It’s difficult for us to envisage the real, first century Paul, I think. Let’s try to imagine him ministering in a place like Corinth – a seaside city. Where does Paul spend most of his daylight hours? The answer has to be down by the docks, as that’s where he would have done his work as a tent-maker.

We know that Paul did his best to earn his own living wherever he went, lest he should be accused of exploiting the churches financially, as some of his competitors were doing. He worked as a tent-maker, which was a great trade to have if you were travelling a lot, as the only tool you really needed to do your work was the awl that you carried with you. Your awl could be used both to poke holes in the leather and to stitch up your tents. You carried your awl wherever you went and you purchased your materials (leather and twine) as you needed them.

And who do you think used the most tents in the first century? The answer is sailors. In those days, they didn’t have radar to help them navigate the seas at night, so the normal practice with sailing was to travel by day in sight of the coast as much as possible, and then pull in to a beach at night and get out your tents – for yourself, your crew and your guests.

Ships were therefore in constant need of tents, and the obvious place, both to stitch them and to sell them, would have been at the docks, and that’s where I imagine Paul did much of his preaching. I envisage Paul stitching leather with a crowd of people around him. While he stitches, he talks to the crowd about Jesus, fields questions, and sells tents.

This is how the real, first century Paul would have done most of his preaching, and he probably did much of his letter-writing in a similar way, though we know that he also wrote some of his letters from prison. Either way, he would not have been alone. He would have been surrounded by friends and onlookers, some of whom, no doubt, would have contributed to the formation of his letters.

St Paul starts, “Dear Romans. I Paul, an Apostle of Jesus Christ …” when someone interjects, “what about ‘Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an Apostle’? That sounds less arrogant.”

“Yep! Good!”, says Paul. “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1)

If you’re up-to-date with New Testament scholarship, you know that there’s been a fair degree of dispute amongst scholars over whether Paul himself actually wrote all the letters that are attributed to him in the New Testament. The main reason scholars express doubt over the authenticity of some of these letters is that the language used in letters such as the first and second letters to Timothy is very different from that used in this letter to the church in Rome, for example.

I don’t want to enter into the debate over the authenticity of any of those disputed letters, but I would suggest that another possible explanation for the use of different language (and even different concepts) in Paul’s letters could be that Paul was with a different crowd of people when he composed those different letters – a different group that made their own distinct contribution.

The bottom line is that people were much more connected in those days in the ways they lived and worked. The rights and achievements of the individual just didn’t figure in Paul’s day in the way it does now, and most especially in the church. People lived and worked in community, and there was an almost organic sense of connectedness between them.

We pick that up very strongly in Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ, as expressed, for example, in his first letter to the church in Corinth:

“Now you are the body of Christ”, says Paul, “and individually members of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:27), and the order there is all important! We are a body, first and foremost, and (secondarily) individual members of that body.

This organic connection between the members of the Christian community means that individual members of the body share the joys and pains of the body as a whole.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.” (1 Corinthians 12:26)

I remember back in the early 80’s, listening to Reverend In Myung-Jin of the Urban Industrial Commission of Korea. He opened my eyes to what was happening in South Korea at the time, where people were apparently being maimed or killed in industrial accidents at an average of one every minute, due to the lack of safeguards protecting workers in the big industrial complexes.

Reverend In said that if we weren’t feeling the pain being felt in the Korean part of the body then we weren’t functioning as healthy members of the body! If an injury in the left hand isn’t felt by the right hand, the two are not connected. Healthy bodies don’t work that way. There’s a connectedness in a functioning body such that every part of the body is affected by every other part, and it’s that sense of connectedness, I think, not only with each other but with the whole created order, that Paul (and his team) are tapping into in this passage from his letter to the church in Rome.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 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. (Romans 8:22-23)

Creation groans, and we groan, and of course it’s not just any groan that St Paul is referring to here but those especially excruciating groans associated with childbirth.

Many of us have experienced those groans first-hand. Others amongst us have only experienced that pain vicariously. We might have assumed that St Paul would have had no experience of the process of childbirth, but perhaps, once again, such things were not as thoroughly privatised in the first century as they are today. Either way, the point of the analogy is not only that this groaning, in which we are all involved, is deep, but that it is also deeply connected to our hope for something better.

We know that this planet is not what it should be. We know that the world was never created to be at war with itself. We know that workers in Korea should not die from industrial accidents and that the children in Yemen should not be suffering cholera.

Our planet is sick. The eco system is in decay due to global warming. Greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise as companies and countries safeguard their profits. People suffer, animals suffer, creation as a whole suffers, and, in the understanding of the Apostle, it’s all connected, and it’s an agony that we are all connected to!

I’ve mentioned before the story that my dad told me many years ago – one that has stuck with me – about the time when the Beatles travelled to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation under the tutelage of the Maharishi Yogi. According to my dad, alongside the palace of the Maharishi, where the great guru would teach students to rise above the worries of this world, ran a small Christian mission, dedicated to helping young girls escape child prostitution.

Whether I’m doing justice to the late Maharishi, I don’t know, but the point my dad was making was that there two different ways of being spiritual in this world. One tries to rise above pain and suffering, looking for something higher. The other groans with the world, enters into the suffering, and waits in hope for a better tomorrow.

I do hope to get to Yemen by year’s end. The big event for me though, that I’m even more concerned with at the moment, is my next boxing match, scheduled just over a month away. And I appreciate that while a number of people might think I’m an idiot for wanting to go to Yemen, that number would pale in comparison to those who think I’m crazy for continuing to box. Why? Because, while in Yemen there is a real chance of me getting myself hurt, in boxing, getting hurt is pretty much guaranteed!

Pain is indeed a part of the currency of boxing. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that if you’re not getting hurt, you’re not taking your boxing very seriously. That might make fisticuffs seem like a very odd choice for a sport, yet I think St Paul would say exactly the same of the Christian life – that If you’re not in pain, you’re not in the game!

And as for the boxer, so for the Christian – the pain we feel is not pointless, and it’s not forever. It’s like the labour pains of a woman in childbirth. It hurts like hell, and there is just no way of ever getting completely comfortable. Even so, through the pain we see a new day dawning and a new world coming to birth – the Kingdom of God at hand, the end of all war and suffering, the redemption of our bodies.

sermon first preached on July 22nd, 2017, to Holy Trinity church in Dulwich Hill

About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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