Sermon, July 30, 2017


St. Paul’s – Brookings

Fr. Larry Ort

Genesis 29.15-28; Psalm 105.1-11, 45b; Romans 8.26-39; Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52


As noted previously, Romans 8 is the pivotal chapter of Paul’s letter. Having pointed out that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, that our justification is the free gift of God’s grace which comes through belief in Jesus Christ, that we live under the law of the Spirit as opposed to the law of the flesh, Paul begins the chapter with the ringing pronouncement, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Vs. 1; NRSV). Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under the sentence of death. If Christ is in us, if we have the Spirit of Christ in us, Paul tells us the Spirit of God will give life to our mortal bodies. This is the Gospel; the good news.

It gets even better! Paul further tells us “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God” (Romans 8.14). As children of God, we have been granted a “spirit of adoption.” God is our Father; Christ is our brother. When we cry out, “Abba! Father!”, the Spirit of God bears witness that we are the very children of God – the heirs of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, provided that (note this provision), “we suffer with him so that we may be glorified with him” (Romans 8.17; NRSV). We are children of God if we suffer with our Lord Jesus Christ. With no apology to those who hold the prosperity gospel, if we do not suffer with Christ, we are not the children of God.

                Paul further tells us that he does not consider his suffering “worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed” (Romans 8. 18; NRSV). As children of God, we are not the only ones who suffer – all of creation suffers with us as it awaits redemption. As Paul notes, “not only the creation, but we ourselves . . .  groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8.23-24a; NRSV). Not only were we saved in hope – we wait longingly and patiently with hope for the resurrection.

Last Sunday I named a few of the things those in Christ suffer. We suffer from the realization of how far short we fall from fully living into the image of Christ. The more thoroughly one is transformed, the more one is bound to suffer, for one who lives more deeply into the Spirit of Christ comes to see and feel more clearly with the eyes of Christ. One sees and feels the brokenness of individuals and relationships in families and communities. One sees and feels the ravages of poverty, hunger, unemployment, addiction, discrimination, disease, and war. One who sees with the eyes of Christ is likely to experience a cosmic sense of sadness which may lead to despair; hopefully, such a one will also experience a cosmic sense of hope. As Paul earlier noted in Romans 5.3-4, our suffering leads to endurance, endurance builds character, and character produces hope which does not disappoint us, for “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (NRSV).

In today’s reading, Paul continues to build on the good news of our adoption and new life in Christ. Once again, he addresses our weakness and our suffering: “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8.26; NRSV). When we see with the eyes of Christ, how do we pray? Where do we begin? Our efforts and attempts are so weak – so shallow.

Jesus gave us a wonderful prayer – the Lord’s Prayer – but if we pray that prayer to the depths of our being, we realize that even those words, beautiful as they are, fail to fully express our deepest needs and longings. Thanks be to God, for God knows our deepest needs and longings, and the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with sighs too deep for words. As St. Paul tells us, “God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8.27; NRSV). God, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ our Lord are present with us; they work on our behalf in accord with God’s plan of salvation.

Thus, Paul assures us, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8.28-30).

Unfortunately, this passage has led to a lot of acrimonious theological debate. Two related questions are at issue: 1) Are we to understand this passage from an individual or a communal standpoint? 2) When Paul speaks of God’s foreknowledge, is he thinking in terms of God’s sovereignty over all things, including salvation history, or is he thinking of the philosophical issue of free-will versus determinism?

Given the overall structure of Romans which addresses salvation history, and given Paul’s consideration of those adopted into the family of God, the children of God, of those who live in the Spirit, I favor a communal interpretation. Some theologians, especially John Calvin, interpret this passage from an individual standpoint and introduce the question of free will.

I further believe the two interpretations reflect differing images of God. The communal-sovereign interpretation reflects a God who would make all things new, a God who would restore creation. In contrast, the individual-free will interpretation reflects a God who is far more judgmental and wrathful – a God who would predestine some to eternal damnation and others to eternal life.

Our image of God reflects our understanding of the character of God. If God is characterized by love and justice, God must hold out the free gift of salvation to everyone, and it is up to them to respond as they so choose. Given God’s character of love and justice, could God do otherwise? God desires that we be transformed into the image of God’s Son. God’s love and compassion for us may be deeper than we will ever realize. In Jesus Christ, God has acted, continues to act, and will continue to act for us. And let us not forget the resurrected Jesus ascended to the Father that they might send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. Our God is an awesome God of love!

Paul next asks: “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8.31b; NRSV) As Paul observes, God’s love for us is so great that he came to live and walk among us through his son, Jesus Christ. Christ died, was raised, now sits at the right hand of God, and intercedes for us. “Who,” Paul asks, “will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” (Romans 8.35; NRSV). Paul affirms that we are more than conquerors in all these things. Paul then reaches the apex of his argument and his testimony: “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39; NRSV). Nothing can destroy, or separate us from, the love of God. God’s love is the only thing we can take with us as we depart this world – indeed, it is the only thing worth possessing, and God graciously offers it to us as a free gift.

The love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord resides in every child of God. It is a profoundly spiritual aspect of our being which brings love, joy, peace, and eternal life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from this love. Let’s live this life, and share it with others!


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