I recently took a summer school course at the Vancouver School of Theology, where I’m studying. One of the participants told a story I want to share with you. She, I’m guessing, belongs to the baby boom generation, and her father is a good, generous man for whom religion is something you do on Sunday mornings and that’s it. They’ve had many arguments about this, and finally, in one heated moment, he said to her: “Colleen, this religion thing is all very well, but not when it starts interfering with your life!”
He’s not alone in feeling this, but the idea I want to present this morning is that the whole point of religion is to interfere with our lives. We show up for the music, yes; we show up for community, yes; but walking in the doors of this place on a Sunday morning is a tremendously courageous act, because we’re opening up to the possibility of transformation. And it’s transformation in countercultural ways that can set us at odds with prevailing norms, resulting in awkward conversations with family and coworkers.
The transformation I want to talk about today is hope. Paul packs a lot of ideas into this short section of his very long letter to the Christian communities in Rome, and we’re going to skip over some of them in order to dig deep into others. I do want to say, though, that if there are other parts of this passage into which you want to dig, I would be delighted to dig in together, so come talk to me.
We start with the idea of living according to the flesh.
It can sound condemning: “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.” What does Paul mean by this?
He does not mean that the body is inherently wicked, or that its needs and functions are shameful. The term Paul uses to describe “the deeds of the body” is neutral. There is no condemnation; nothing that is bad about the flesh. There is no longing for the spirit to be free of the material world.
Instead, living according to the flesh means, quote “a dependence on and degree of identity with this age.” (James D.G. Dunn) Paul is talking about living on autopilot, never stopping to question the prevailing myths of our day. It’s about the danger of anchoring our sense of identity, our sense of worth to the standards that are held up by whatever earthly powers are in place. For Paul, it was the Roman empire; for us, it would be consumerism and globalization. It’s the status quo that has a vested interest in staying put, that doesn’t want us asking whether the earth really can support making so much plastic, or why a same-sex relationship is less valid than a heterosexual one.
The opposite of living according to the flesh is being led by the Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit who shakes us up, who pours grace upon us unstintingly, who blows truth among us. But Paul knows that this is hard. Paul knows that just because his audience had been converted and baptized, it didn’t mean that they were somehow suddenly magically immune to the siren calls of retail therapy and gossip. He knows that it takes sustained commitment, and so he reassures these new Christians that we are children of God. We are adopted children of God, because Jesus was the only begotten child of God – and we’re not going to get into what “begotten” means, because that’s not just a different sermon, that’s a whole section in the VST library – but the point is that we have been brought into relationship with God, to be siblings of Christ and joint heirs with him to the kingdom of God.
Here’s the kicker: inheriting the kingdom of God along with Christ means suffering along with Christ.
I’m going to go very gently here, because the church has got this wrong many times, and I know many of us bear scars from this idea.
Paul is in no way glorifying suffering. He is not telling his listeners to seek it out; this is not an endorsement of masochism, nor is it an instruction to acquiesce to oppression. Rather, for Paul, suffering is a by-product of what happens when we follow the way of Jesus, when we love this world with a passion and refuse to stop. And Jesus’ suffering was not only the agony of being nailed to the cross, but it was the agony of being betrayed by a friend and abandoned by his disciples. That’s the pain we’re going to encounter: when we feel alone in our cause because others don’t see the point, don’t take it seriously, or aren’t interested in changing.
But for Paul, the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. Let’s be careful with this idea, too: this does not mean that our pain is invalid. This does not mean that all the world should submit to whatever personal and systemic wounds come our way, because someday there will be nothing but rainbows and sunshine.
This means that there’s something coming that we cannot imagine, and that something is redemption. Redemption means “the action of regaining or gaining possession of something in exchange for payment, or clearing a debt.” That is still what it means here, and the debt in question is the theological idea that humanity has been in debt to God since the fall of Adam and Eve. I’m going to quote my professor, Jason Byassee, here: “God made human beings to love one another, to steward God’s creation, to reflect God’s glory. And about five minutes later we hate one another, we wreck God’s creation, and reflect our own glory.” It’s not that we owe God because we’re worthless, contemptible worms and we should really just be grateful God hasn’t squashed us. The idea is that we broke with God’s intentions for us and for this creation for which we are responsible, and both we and God are figuring out how to get us back to wholeness.
When Paul speaks of the redemption of our bodies, he is speaking of a bodily resurrection. It’s the final step in humanity’s messy relationship with God: it is a restoration to wholeness, for both our selves and our environment. We are to share the life of Jesus, as he was resurrected after his death – however you understand that. We are all entitled to our own understanding of the Easter story, but the point is that this is not some disembodied afterlife; a vague existence in which our souls float around. This is about death not having the final word: a faith that when the work of God is complete, we will be raised up to a new existence, one of right relationship with ourselves, each other, and life around us. It is a life in which we will act out of love rather than fear, and we will live in trust rather than self-defense.
And so, having been promised redemption, we hope. Now, Paul was writing about 25 years after the death of Christ, and Christ’s return was expected any day. We, however, are reading this two thousand years later, and while it can be easy to scoff at the notion of a second coming, we are hoping for something.
So this is the question: for what do we hope?
When I look at the world, I find reasons for both hope and despair. Things are getting better, and things are getting worse. Wherever we look, there is extraordinary beauty and there is terrible ugliness.
The key, I think, lies in a point made by my emphatically non-religious, non-spiritual, very wise sister: if we rely on external factors to give us reason for hope, then we will easily fall into despair. We cannot wait for the world to give us either evidence or permission to hope. We have to be hope. That’s what the idea of redemption gives us: whether we understand redemption as being a great, glorious, universal experience of transformation at the end of time, or whether we understand it as being an ongoing process that is happening right here, right now, the point is that redemption is a promise of the Christian faith that that this broken, messed up world and our broken, messed up lives are not the final answer. We don’t sit back and wait for an ethereal Jesus to descend from the clouds; we arm ourselves with this promise of redemption and we get out there in the world.
We can’t wait for governments to act on climate change before we ourselves make inconvenient changes in our lives. We can’t wait for Indigenous peoples to come to us and help us get comfortable with acknowledging their rights. We can’t wait for Donald Trump to be out of power before we challenge the idea that women are objects to be groped.
And here’s a crucial piece, friends: we have to be ready not to see results in our lifetimes. We often lift up Nelson Mandela and the peaceful end of apartheid as a great inspiration, and rightly so, but here’s a quote from Mandela: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.” When Mandela was being tried in 1963 at the Rivonia Trial, the trial which sent him to prison for 27 years, he readied himself to die. He thought he was going to be executed. He didn’t know that he would eventually be freed or that he would be president.
We can’t base our hope on seeing the outcome we want. Our hearts will break when it doesn’t happen, but that’s why we gather here together: to feel the pain, to grieve, and then to go back to work.
We cannot have faith without doubt, friends, and we cannot have hope without despair. But to follow Christ is to be heir to the Easter story: the story that tells us that in the most bleak, hopeless times, God is still at work. Our God, who promised never to abandon us; our God, who brings us into the fold with Christ as God’s children, pouring out her grace on everyone; bestowing upon us the inheritance of the kingdom of God, where the least are first, the hungry fed, and the poor empowered.
It does happen, friends. It happens all the time, but it’s fleeting. We don’t know when it will be here to stay. We don’t know even if it will be here to stay. But we know that we and this beautiful, hurting world are promised redemption from brokenness to wholeness; from estrangement to right relationship with God.
So hold on to that, friends. Hold on to that promise, and let’s walk together on that long, weary, glorious road to freedom.