This is my homily on 13 July 2014 (for the 4th after Trinity) at Grace Anglican Church. The primary text is Romans 8:18-23, and the other two mentioned are Genesis 3:17-19 and Luke 6:36-42.
Who are you? Do you have a sense of self-identity? What is your purpose in life? Do you feel aimless, lost, or confused? The scriptures today help us to answer a question that underlies such big existential questions like those; particular the one question: “Where are you going?”
Where are you going?
In Romans 8 we find a marvelous treatment of this question. This particular section of Romans 8 is near the climax of the book up to this point. Particularly the great themes of sin & salvation have been building throughout this letter. And now, finally, in the middle of chapter 8, we a big picture of the entire salvation story. Our entire salvation from beginning to end is summarized right here. In particular, it gives us a glimpse of the destination of the Christian life.
This is what’s called an apocalyptic vision. Apocalypse is fancy Greek word for “revelation” “unveiling” or “revealing.” It’s about the big appearance or unveiling of God, in which we can see and understand him in a new and powerful way. Much of the book of Revelation is apocalyptic – describing the final and full revelation of God – and several other books in the Bible also contain this kind of literature. And here, in Romans 8, we get a brief but beautiful example. In verse 18 we find Paul writing that he considers the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed. This is the apocalypse word here – that glory would be revealed to us.
And this little phrase, “revealed to us,” is an interesting one. It has a couple different translation, depending on which book you look at. This is not a revelation “in us” as if it were the final triumph of mankind on our own. This is not a revelation, strictly speaking, “to us” as if we were spectators of God’s triumph. Rather, this is a revelation “into us” or “for us,” meaning we are participants in the triumph of God. It’s not something that we accomplish on our own; it’s not something that God does and just makes us stand and watch; it’s something that he does, inviting us to share or participate in his glory.
And it is our participation in this glory which creation is eagerly awaiting. In verses 19 and 21 we get a clear description that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God! The sons of God! Or, in verse 21, the children of God. It’s referring to us as children of God, meaning that we are inheritors. We’re not simply bystanders, we’re not merely slaves, we’re inheritors, we’re co-heirs with Christ. This is taking us back to the original state of creation. This is saying that we are going to be taking up the mantle of leadership or stewardship as it was in the beginning. And only then, with God’s order restored, will we and creation truly be free! This is what verse 21 says: creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Now, what does creation have to do with this? This may seem a little odd to us, perhaps. Normally we think of God’s glory and triumph in us being about the forgiveness of sins and making us new in Christ. Well, verses 20 & 22 give us a little more context for this. The creation was subject to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it – and in verse 22 – we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. What is this pain in creation? And why is it awaiting our glory, of all things?
To understand this, we need to go back to what happened in the beginning. God created all the universe, and then he created mankind to rule, steward, and care for this creation. In the garden, we made a terrible mistake. The Devil, taking the form of a serpent, thus representing the creation that we were supposed to be looking after, tricked us: convinced us to listen to him instead of listening to God. And by listening to this serpent we turned our allegiance upside-down. Rather than listening to God in order to rule over creation, we listened to creation in order to rule over God! And this is significant, this is huge! We had care over creation; we were supposed to be protecting it. That means that when we fall from grace, it’s not just us who fall! It’s us and everything in our protection, everything in our care. So when we fell, when we received the curse of sin, creation fell under a curse also, because it belonged to us – we were supposed to be protecting it. And when we forsook that protection, Satan took over. And so the creation is subjected to pain, to futility. Things don’t work in creation the way they were supposed to.
So, in the meantime, in this age before all things are fixed, there is pain and futility as we plod along through a broken life in a broken world. Now, don’t get me wrong, we were made to work. Caring for creation, acting as stewards, is work. However, ever since the fall in Genesis 3, our good work has been turned into a laborious chore. That is the curse that Adam particularly received, which we heard in the readings this morning. So it is because of this curse that we and all creation suffers from, and the future revealing of God’s glory in us, that there is a tension. Things are not now as they ought to be. There is a tension as we labor toward creation’s liberation and our liberation from sin.
This is what verse 23 is saying: both the creation and we ourselves, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await for adoption as sons and the redemption of our bodies. This is the restoration of creation, both around us and in us. And we, as Christians, especially should be feeling this tension because, as this verse describes, we have this Holy Spirit at work within us. The Holy Spirit is here to change us, to transform us, to make us from Old Creation into New Creation, fixing us, cleansing us from sin, and making us the way we were meant to be!
Therefore, we should be groaning with creation. Now, what does this mean? It means going to the places of sin and pain and injustice; and it means laboring with God to birth something new from that sin and pain and injustice. This is what it means to be merciful, and not condemnatory. As the Gospel reading describes, we are still suffering: there are still specks and logs in our eyes. But the reason that we’re able to even talk about helping others, in the midst of our own sin and brokenness, is that we have seen this revelation, this unveiled glory. We have gotten this glimpse of what this world is supposed to be – and, even better – what this world is going to be! And so, with that glorious vision in sight, we are able to come before the world with good news: with news of restoration and healing.
Where are you going?
That is the creation that Romans 8 has been describing. So think about that for yourself: where are you going?
When you think about salvation, do you have the restoration of creation in mind? Or are you thinking about a personal heaven with a personal Jesus? ‘Cos that is what our culture, both in and out of the Church, often encourages us to imagine. A personal heaven with a personal Jesus to fulfill your personal faith, to make your personal life better… because when it’s your personal heaven and your personal Jesus and your personal faith, that’s okay for you, because it’s personal for you. It doesn’t have ramifications for anyone else. But, as St. Paul beautifully describes here in Romans chapter 8, salvation is not just about a personal heaven and personal Jesus, not at all! It is about the restoration of the entire universe. Everything will come under the work of the Holy Spirit. This is not Universalism, this is not saying that everyone will accept God’s transformation into perfect glory. It just means that everything will be brought before God, one way or another.
So when we think about the question “Where are you going?” this is not just about where you and me as individuals are going, this is about where the entire universe is going! The entire universe is being renewed, recreated, brought back to God, and re-ordered the way it was originally designed to be.
Only with that full picture of redemption of the entire creation sight, can we know what the journey there is like. This is a journey of laboring with God to transform sin and pain and injustice into goodness and holiness and perfection. And by the way, the purpose of the Church in this light is not so that we have a hiding place to hole up and wait for the end. It’s a place, rather, in which to be strengthened, and from which to be sent out so that we can bear with the world’s sufferings until Christ returns. That is where we are going, and we’re going there together.