Proper 11 · Romans 8:18-27 · July 20, 2008
By William W. Schumacher,
The previous text (Ro 8:12-17) presented us with “Life by the Spirit of Christ.” The present text, the second of three consecutive readings from this chapter, encourages us under the theme of “Hope in the Midst of Suffering.”
Paul does not pretend that faith in Christ removes life’s difficulties. In fact, he acknowledges frankly that our experience is full of various kinds of suffering. The experiences of this life do not match the promises of peace, joy, and life which are promised by God in Christ. On the contrary, we daily encounter all kinds of suffering (“futility”…”bondage to decay”…”pains of childbirth”). So the life of faith is a life of deep longing for what is promised, and of endurance in suffering. It is a life of hope that keeps in mind what is promised but what is not yet seen (the memory of the certain future of God’s victory, the future dimension of faith). Living with that hope in a broken world calls out to God in prayer which almost cannot be called prayer, “groanings too deep for words,” by which the Spirit himself prays for us and through us.
Preaching this text will call for careful attention to how we state both the problems faced by our people and the hope and comfort offered in the text. This text does not present the “Law” in our usual terms of guilt and condemnation. Rather, Paul describes not only the Christians to whom he writes but also all creation—the entire cosmos—as temporarily subjected to bondage, suffering, decay, and “futility” (or emptiness, meaninglessness, v. 20). The connection between human sin and this universal cosmic oppression is only hinted at by indicating that the creation is in some sense waiting for God’s children to be resurrected and glorified (the “redemption of our bodies,” v. 23). The present state of things, both on the personal human scale and in the entire universe, simply does not yet correspond to what God intends and promises.
If the Law is presented in this way (rather than our usual categories of personal sin and guilt), then the Gospel is also expressed in a way that corresponds to and answers that state of human life and cosmic “groaning.” This means that (following our text) it may not be essential to translate the Gospel promise into a literal statement of the forgiveness of sins, if doing so means we lose sight of the specific promises and comfort in this text. Therefore, because God has acted decisively to save His creatures and redeem His creation, the present state of bondage and futility is also a state of eager longing, of enduring suffering as “the pains of childbirth,” and therefore especially of hope and of patience. What is hoped for remains as yet unseen: we can know it only by faith, which trusts the one who promises our final redemption. And in the meantime the Spirit helps us, weak as we are, to begin to pray. True, our prayers are rough and often inarticulate; not only does creation groan, but we too are frequently reduced to groans by the gap between what is and what will be. Indeed, Paul tells us that the Spirit bypasses our pitiful inability to pray as we should, and actually prays for us. Creation itself groans, we groan inwardly, and the Spirit Himself intercedes for us “with groanings too deep for words” but in a way that accords with God’s saving will (26-27).
Lutherans have a strong theological suspicion of anything that claims to be “too deep for words,” and such vague language may sound like enthusiastic Schwärmerei. But Paul is not describing some sort of spiritual accomplishment of believers who manage to experience a deeper spiritual life than the average Christian. Rather he is reminding us that our spiritual resources in the face of the present age of futility and suffering are not limited to our own abilities or our own knowledge. The inexpressible support and intercession of God’s Spirit helps us precisely in our weakness and ignorance, when we ourselves neither can pray nor know how to pray, and that help surpasses all understanding or explanation.
God’s promise of our final redemption, resurrection, and glorification casts a whole new light over the futile sufferings we experience now. Because God’s salvation awaits us, suffering will have an end and a goal. The Spirit’s work engenders confident hope and bears us up when human strength and understanding fail.