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Readings: 5th Sunday after Trinity

11 July 2014


5th Sunday after Trinity

Proper 11: Isaiah 44.6-8; Romans 8.12-25; Matthew 13.24-30; 36-43

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of the Church is governed and sanctified: hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name; through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

IMAGINE yourself in the turbulence of mid-50s Rome. Claudius had expelled 40,000 to 50,000 Jews from Rome at the end of the previous decade. When he died (AD54), returning Jewish Christians found that the Church had changed and was now predominantly Gentile. Inevitably, there was tension. When something we love changes in our absence, it can be difficult to accept.

Paul gave a theological framework to this heart-searching over the relationship of Jews and Gentiles in a Church he had not visited. We land in the middle of his dense argument that expands the meaning of the righteous life. It begins with the law's inability to change a person, but God's power to do so through the Spirit's transforming work (8.3).

Paul ranges over themes of wider interest which transcend his context: how we should live; not knowing how to pray; God's purposes for us; suffering - our own and that of creation; and hope. The suffering was not abstract, but practical: the Romans suffered from the devastating impact of Claudius's rule, while Paul suffered with Christ.

Five times, in five verses, Paul refers to "creation". Nowhere else does he address the relation of humans to the non-human world, and he packs it in tightly. Contrasts are drawn: "eager longing" and "futility"; "its own will" and "the will of the one who subjected it"; "bondage to decay" and "freedom of the glory of the children of God"; "groaning in labour pains" (birth) and "adoption". The creation story underlies these verses, which also link to earlier in the letter; in one sense, this is the final answer to the problem of 1.18-32.

Paul believes in a cosmic working out of salvation, that creation's suffering is not without hope. It waits with "eager longing" (in J. B. Phillips's memorable phrase, "on tiptoe") for the revealing of the children of God. Human redemption is coming, and has implications for creation.

Paul's "we know that" (8.22) presupposes knowledge of the apocalyptic tradition that, if creation suffers by human action and disobedience (Genesis 3.17-19, 2 Esdras 7.11), it will be set free when humans come into their freedom and glory, and the Messiah delivers his creation (2 Esdras 13:26).

How can we put today's flesh on these theological bones? The thought of creation subjected to futility and bondage to decay is vivid when we are all too aware of ecological issues. Jesus spoke, memorably, of the stones crying out (groaning in labour pains and hope?) if people were silent when the Messiah came bringing redemption. Can we hear the cries of the ravaged earth and the people who suffer on it? Do we respond with action?

These verses lead to Paul's next thought: creation waits in hope, we were saved in hope, and we, too, hope and wait for what, by definition, is not yet seen. Creation waits with eager longing; we wait with patience - not resigned "patience on a monument", but patience invigorated by hope that glory is about to be revealed to us. Hope and revelation are inextricably linked.

From Paul's complex theology we move to Jesus's story, which is drawn, like others, from familiar faming life. Farmers know all about hope. This farmer had bold hope of an excellent harvest, despite the practical reservations of his slaves, who, doing the weeding, saw the problem at first hand. With Jesus's explanation, we realise the connection with Paul's theology, and with Isaiah's redeemer and king.

There will indeed be a harvest, and we are right to wait in hope, but, until then, evil is allowed to continue - paradoxically, to avoid destroying the good. Maybe that helps us to understand why Claudius (and his successors today) could devastate the lives of thousands; why Paul suffered with Christ; why creation still yearns in hope; why we wait for adoption.

I am challenged by how I cope with what I think are annoying weeds messing up my life, situations that I wish would change. But this is not the whole story, and Paul's matchless scene-setter (Romans 8.18) is that there is a double time-perspective: this present age, and the glory about to be revealed.

Creation will obtain the freedom of the glory of God's children, and the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father's Kingdom. We live in confident hope.

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