July 27, 2014
Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 105:1-11, 45C; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
If there is one thing that is true of all human beings, I think it is the search to find meaning in life. We struggle to understand, to explain, to comprehend, to give a reason for the things that happen to us. We especially try to find meaning in our difficulties and in our sorrows, when tragedy or disaster strikes – not just us, but anyone. That search for meaning was at the heart of my work as a hospital chaplain for 15 years, but it is not restricted to the health care arena. The classic question, “Why do bad things happen?” was surely on the lips and in the hearts of the families of something approaching 700 people who died in airplane crashes this week, in Ukraine, Burkina Faso, and Taiwan, as it is on the lips and in the hearts of civilians in both Israel and Gaza, as it has been on the lips and in the hearts of hundreds of Manitobans affected by yet another flood, as it is on the lips and in the heart of the person sitting in the doctor’s office to hear a life-changing or life-threatening diagnosis. The essence of the spiritual journey is the quest for meaning and purpose, and the search for connection beyond oneself.
In these times of struggle and sorrow, one of the explanations that arises is the one contained in Romans 8:28 – “All things work together for good for those who love God.” It is an answer that has been arrived at by many devout Christian people for many hundreds of years. All things work together for good for those who love God.
If this statement is true, it is not always immediately apparent. Someone in the midst of a crisis, someone experiencing a devastating loss, is not necessarily going to conclude that God is doing this for their good! They are more likely to wish that God would leave them alone. It is easy to twist Paul’s assurance into a facile optimism that says everything will turn out all right in the end. So then, we need to ask – in what sense is it possible to say that all things work together for good for those who love God?
Paul himself was no stranger to suffering. In his missionary work, he endured great hardship. To be a Christian was both difficult and dangerous. A few weeks ago, we heard Paul very realistically describe his situation: “I do not understand my own actions. I can will to do what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do.” Paul is equally realistic about the condition of the universe. In last week’s excerpt he stated, “The universe was subjected to futility.” His words sound oddly contemporary – “The whole universe has been groaning in labour pains until now. We also, as part of the created order, groan inwardly while we wait for God to set us free.” Paul speaks vividly and with personal knowledge of the suffering, the transitoriness, and the infirmities of human existence and of the Christian life.
Yet, mixed in with the acknowledged pain, stress, and anxiety is a persistent hope that will not go away. The hope of redemption, the hope of transformation, the hope of vindication keeps breaking through. We wait in hope for our full adoption. We have the Spirit as a pledge and a foretaste, or installment, of that adoption – the Spirit that enables us to call on God as our Abba, our Papa. Even creation is to be set free from its bondage to decay and will enter the freedom of the glory that belongs to God’s children. Paul’s words fit right in with care of creation.
To live as a Christian is to walk by faith, i.e. by trust, and not by sight. It is to find the meaning of life in God’s future rather than in the present. Yet we do not abandon the present, for it is the realm where God’s purposes are being worked out. And we are not abandoned in the present. The Spirit is not only a foretaste of the future – that would be small comfort for us in our sufferings. The Spirit comes to our aid now. For instance, says Paul, we don’t even know how to pray as we should. Very few of us do! Those wordless sighs that come from the depths of our being are the deepest form of prayer. They are the work of the Spirit pleading for us, for God needs no words to know what is in our minds and hearts. Thus it is not “I down here” who prays to “God up there”. Rather, the Spirit, God-within-me, recognizes and prays to God-beyond-me, and so by prayer I enter into the mystery of God’s very being.
Prayer is one way that the Spirit acts on our behalf, but the Spirit’s action is the foundation of the security of those whom God has called and chosen. The presence of the Spirit is proof that our redemption has already dawned, and its fulfillment cannot long be delayed. Therefore the eventual outcome for those who love God is their good. Paul outlines the process of redemption – rooted in God’s purpose that humanity should be formed, conformed, and transformed to the image of God’s Son, that humanity should bear the image of Christ. And to achieve that purpose, God calls men and women and children. Then God justifies – that is, God sets the relationship between God and humanity right again, and finally God glorifies. And when human beings are glorified, they do indeed bear the image of Christ; they are recognizably part of the great family in which Christ is the first-born; they have achieved their full adoption as God’s children and heirs. With those who are so called, justified, and glorified, all things have indeed worked for good. So confident is Paul that he can describe our future glorification as though it has already occurred.
There is another way of reading that verse. Instead of saying “all things work together for good”, it is also possible to say “in all things, God works for good together with those who love God.” In other words, God cooperates with us. God works for our good in all things, whether in good things or in bad things. God is always working with us, never against us. Regardless of which interpretation makes more sense to you, the message is the same. Christian hope and Christian confidence are more than naive optimism. They are based in our experience of what God has done for us. God has chosen, called, justified, and sanctified us. God will glorify us. Our hope as Christians is not for something totally different from what we already have, but for the fulfillment and completion of our present life in Christ.
In all things, God works for good for those who love God. This is what enables Paul to go on to proclaim his unshakeable conviction that nothing in all creation – not persecution or hardship, not spiritual powers, not even death itself – nothing will ever be able to separate us from God’s love, embodied and made known in Jesus Christ. We are heirs with Christ, but there is a kicker – we are heirs of his glory, provided we suffer with him. Suffering is real. We cannot deny it; we cannot escape it. The life of faith is not some magic kind of vaccine against trouble and pain. To live by faith is to live in the Spirit. And we must express this faith in our choices and in our actions. Some of our choices will not be the best or the most wise. We will bring pain and suffering to ourselves and others. Others will bring pain and suffering to us. In spite of it all, in and through it all, lies the promise and the hope of glory. Amen.