Future Hope & Present Sufferings



Inspired by Romans 8:14-39

So, we have finally come to the end of year one of our Narrative Lectionary readings, which we began at the beginning of the school year last Fall in the book of Genesis, and continued by reading some of the great stories of the Bible right on through to Paul’s letter to Rome. It’s a four-year cycle of readings and year two begins at the start of the next school year around Labor Day. That leaves us with an opportunity over the summer for some series on Bible books or topics that we wouldn’t normally get a chance to do. So, beginning next week we will start a series on the Psalms, followed by a series on the letter to the Hebrews, and ending the summer with a topical series on Sabbath. Should be fun! I’m looking forward to it, I hope you are too.

Today, our final reading in Romans comes from chapter eight, which is in the middle of the letter, and it’s arguably one of the most profound chapters in the entire letter, which is probably why they decided to end there. However, if you will make the time, I highly recommend you finish reading the rest of the letter, and if you have been following the daily readings that are found in your bulletin insert, you will read most of what we had to skip.

I’m not sure how many of you use that insert but I’d like to recommend it again if you don’t. If you’re looking for a way to enrich your faith life between Sundays, it’s a great resource, even if you only use it for the daily readings, it’s worth your time. As an additional resource for your personal devotional lives, you can find a website on the bottom right of the back of the insert, where you can find a thoughtfully written devotion on each day’s reading. Those are also posted each morning at 6am on our Facebook page for your convenience as well.

But let’s dive into this reading from Romans. The Paul that wrote this chapter I like to call the cosmic Paul, or since we are in California, calling him the hippy Paul also works. He goes from being Mr. Practical, Mr. Realist, with all his talk about sin and the law, into this chapter that ends with promise and life and hope and it just oozes with positivity. There’s a bit about suffering in there too which will be important in a minute but he ends on such a positive note that you wonder who this Paul really is.

When we started in Romans a few weeks ago, I joked about how infuriating Paul can be. But there is a depth to this guy that I’ll admit that people like me just don’t appreciate as much as we should. All that is to say, if you struggle with Paul like I do, don’t dismiss him too quickly. The ancients of our faith included his writings in the Bible for a lot of good reasons, and this chapter is evidence of that.

So, Cosmic Paul has his head in the clouds in this chapter. And what I mean by that is that this chapter is very future-oriented, and by future, I mean after the end of time, after the end of all things, after the end of our time here on Earth. Paul speaks of a future time when God’s glory is finally revealed to us, when suffering is no more, when true freedom becomes a reality.

And Paul is so hopeful about this future, and more than hopeful, he’s certain. His confidence that this future that he describes will come to fruition is contagious! It’s easy to get swept up with Paul in this amazing future that Paul says has been promised to us by God, referring to us as heirs with Christ. And then, you walk out those double doors and back into the world that we live in, down here under the clouds, where suffering, and heartache, and death, are alive and well and in your face.

If you’re anything like me, this is where you struggle. It’s difficult to be comforted by Cosmic Paul when we are stuck in the earthy world that we live in. It’s a struggle to reconcile this ultimate hope of Paul’s with these penultimate times that we live in. It’s kind of like when someone says to you, while you are going through a rough patch of life, “I’m sure everything will work out” or “God must have a plan”, two phrases that, as your pastor, you will never hear me say to you when you are going through something. Not because I don’t believe those statements, but because they are anything but helpful when you are in the muck and mire of life. My response to statements like that is, “Well, that’s great but how does that help me now!” That’s why I appreciate Paul’s words about suffering so much, from this same chapter no less!

Even Cosmic Paul knows that this hope of the future doesn’t lessen our sufferings in this life. His words on suffering are an acknowledgment of our struggles down here. And you know, sometimes that all we need, just some acknowledgment that what we go through down here is valid, legitimate, real, even when it isn’t always logical, and especially when it’s self-inflicted. We don’t always need someone to solve our problems for us, or give us advice, and we certainly don’t need any more judgment than we already give ourselves. But for our suffering, no matter the size, to just be acknowledged, to just be seen by someone else, can make all the difference in the world, and can in its own way provide a comfort that answers and solutions just can’t.

When I was going through the call process three years ago to find a new church, before I found you all, I went to many, many interviews. And after each failure, when either I decided it wasn’t a good match, or the congregation I interviewed with decided that for me, I’d get a call from the synod staff that I was working with to help find me a church, Pastor Nancy Nelson. And the first thing out of her mouth when she would call me after yet another failure was, “Well, this sucks.” I had expected words of comfort, or encouragement, or hope. But no, “This sucks” is how she would always start those conversations. The first time I heard that I was caught off-guard but then I thought, “You know what, yeah, this does suck.” And she would just let me sit in that muck for a minute. A gift that has had a lasting impact on me.

Today is the Day of Pentecost, the day of the church year that we remember the Holy Spirit coming to those first disciples as recorded in the book of Acts that we read just after Easter. But more than that, it’s a celebration of God’s work in the world through the Holy Spirit, each and every day.

And as Paul highlights for us, that work includes the confident proclamation of hope and fulfilled promises that we can all look forward to, and it also includes the acknowledgment that those promises have not been fulfilled yet, not ultimately. This same Spirit, who provides an endless supply of hope whenever we need it, also knows when to just sit with us, in the muck and mire of our lives, and simply say, “This really sucks.” For me, that is a companion, a partner, a friend, like no other—and that’s worth celebrating on this day. Happy Pentecost my friends. Amen.

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