Discussion, July 23, 2017

Living in Tension

Fr. Larry Ort, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

For the past several weeks, the Revised Common Lectionary has included passages from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Church of Rome (Romans). Paul begins Romans 8.12-25 by reminding the Christians of Rome (and us) that “we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – 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” (Romans 8.12-13; NRSV). This notion of debt is a bit troublesome. If our salvation is a freely given gift of God’s grace, how can we be in debt?

A better sense of what Paul is saying comes from thinking in terms of obligation. In Romans 8.1-2, Paul tells us those who are in Christ Jesus no longer stand in condemnation for they now live under the “law of the Spirit of life” as opposed to the “law of sin and death.” In that we are “led by the Spirit of God,” we are now “children of God;” we have “received a spirit of adoption” (Romans 8.14-15; NRSV). Paul further notes, when we pray, when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” the Spirit of God is “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” and thus, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8. 15-17). Living in the Spirit, and being a child of God, does present a certain set of obligations. As a child of God, we stand in a special relationship with God; we have an obligation to worship and honor God in all that we say and do. As we live in the Spirit, we cannot do whatever we please.

Paul further tells us he considers our current sufferings as nothing when compared to the glory we will ultimately see and experience. Presently, all of creation suffers and eagerly awaits the revealing of the children of God. In the meantime, “we who have the first fruits of the Spirit [love, joy, peace, etc.], groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8.23; NRSV). Paul closes this passage by noting we patiently hope for this day.

Perhaps you noted a seeming discrepancy in Paul’s account; we have received a Spirit of adoption (Romans 8.15) yet we “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8.23). We live and suffer in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.”    Why do we suffer? We suffer from knowing the discrepancy between the person God calls us to be and the persons that we are. Transformation is usually a slow process. As for me, I suffer when I witness the callous disregard that would deny millions adequate health care coverage. I suffer when I witness attempts to remove vast wilderness tracts and national monuments from protection such that a few may become wealthier.  I suffer when I see our country pull out of the Paris climate accord. I suffer when I see the way we worship our false idols and abuse the gifts that God has given us.

Yet with Paul, I can rejoice, for I realize that my suffering leads to endurance, endurance leads to character, and character leads to hope, and hope does not disappoint, for our hope rests in the Spirit of God (Romans 5.3-4). I already am, but I am not yet. We can live and rejoice in the tension.



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