The Big Picture
July 23, 2017
The Rev. Beth Maynard
We’ve been using Romans for our Epistle all summer, so week by week we’ve heard Paul explaining sin and law and grace. And last week we moved into the emotional climax of that teaching, where we get three weeks reading Romans chapter 8, one of the greatest passages in the New Testament. So as far as our Epistle goes, we’re in the middle of a sort of three-week party, where Paul is celebrating all that is ours once we have been redeemed by Jesus Christ. Redemption is a big word, and Paul is a big thinker, and he lays out a big picture of what this means. And this morning I want for us to try to widen our vision out and think as big as Paul does.
Let’s start that widening by asking how two pieces of this reading fit together: you might have noticed, about four lines down, that Paul celebrates that if we are redeemed people, we are already children of God. He writes, “You have received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!" In that verse, our adoption is a done deal. Yet skip just a few lines further down; he’s still talking about our adoption by God, but here it lies in the future: “We groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.”
How do those two things fit together? Are we already redeemed and adopted, or are we waiting eagerly for it in hope? Paul’s answer, and the New Testament’s answer, is both.
We’ve talked about this before: the fact that God has launched redemption in Jesus, but its ultimate fulfillment is yet to come. So we both have it as a down payment, and we’re waiting for the full thing. Now there are many images in Scripture of that full thing we’re waiting for, but Paul tries here to get us to think about it with an image that is unique to him: he says, “the creation waits with eager longing for… [what? For] the revealing of the children of God.” He’s focusing on getting us to hope for what will happen to us in the kingdom, to long for that day when we, God’s adopted children in Jesus, will come into our own, healed and full human beings at last.
But wait a minute. Here comes the big picture. We’re waiting for that, but did Paul just say creation was waiting for that? Well, yes, that’s exactly what he said. The big picture! Look again, it’s halfway down on your insert: For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now.
Now there is a fascinating idea -- the concept that the creation is bound to decay and waiting for us to become what we're made for to set it free. Our human rebellion against God has introduced corruption into the creation itself, such that the whole cosmos is groaning and longing for the full redemption Jesus offers. We don't hear this idea much. But it’s a very Biblical idea, and once we get a grip on it, it helps us understand why churches do most of what we do. The notion of the health of creation being damaged by human sin goes all the way back to the third chapter of the Bible, when Adam and Eve are cast out of Eden: cursed is the ground because of you;… thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.
Adam and Eve were supposed to be stewards of the earth, managing it for God, so when they become corrupt the management goes south and the corruption spreads to creation. Then as God builds himself a people, and gives them the Law, we see that in the same way, whenever people say no to God, their whole surrounding environment suffers. In a long list in Deuteronomy 28, God gives warnings like, “You will have olive trees throughout all your territory, but [because of your sin] you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off.”
And the great Hebrew prophets pick up this insight as well. Just one instance, Hosea 4: Where there is no faithfulness or steadfast love and no knowledge of God... the land mourns, and all who dwell in it languish, and also the beasts of the field and the birds of the heavens, and even the fish of the sea are taken away. So Scripture keeps telling us that our alienation from God affects the neighborhood. Sinful people make for sinful systems. When humans fail to know God well enough to be able to steward his world faithfully, there’s a ripple effect. Sin doesn’t just break us, it breaks everything. There’s a wonderful line in St. Cyril of Jerusalem, who says that if the universe were conscious and understood what human sin had done to it, probably it would burst out crying.
But there's good news, and here’s the part that explains why churches do what we do: the good news is that Biblically, if human sin defiles the creation, human redemption brings the creation along with it as well. God's redemption doesn’t just heal us; through us, it heals everything. Throughout the prophets we find these promises of the last days, in which not only are people reconciled to God, but there’s a whole cosmic healing. There are so many, but I’ll just read one, from Isaiah 35, which we hear in Advent: The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus… Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped. For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth."
Now there is that broad vista that Paul wants to spread out before us. This full salvation, this final purpose of cosmic flourishing at last realized. That’s the magnificent last chapter of the great Biblical story, but Paul also wants to show us that pieces of it are already at work. As soon as God launches our redemption, little foretastes of the world’s redemption start breaking out in us and in creation. And when human redemption is complete, creation will be fully healed as well. As the great Anglican John Stott writes, “The general promise of renovation and transformation is plain…. Both creations [human beings and the natural world] are suffering and groaning now; both are going to be set free together.” (The Message of Romans, 2014, p. 110)
So if we are in Christ, if we have said yes to that renovation and transformation beginning in us, then we are God’s agents in this in-between time. That’s what churches are for. Redemption doesn’t just heal us; through us, it heals everything. We are the ones who have been entrusted with the seeds and the signs of the life that will be fully realized in the new heavens and the new earth. That’s why we do almost everything we do as a church: We know, because God has told us, that full creational cosmic restoration is promised, we know that it is beginning in us, and yet we also see how partial and broken things still are.
Back to John Stott here for a second. He suggests that what Paul calls “groaning with the birth pangs of new creation,” feeling that tension between now and then and acting on it, is almost a sign of someone being a believer in Jesus. Christians won’t just make peace with the discrepancy; we will find ourselves going to work to help heal the pain of being in-between. Another writer on Romans, Martin Lloyd-Jones, explains, “The extent to which you have a full vision of what is coming is the extent to which you will be groaning [with its birth pangs] in this present time.” (Romans: An Exposition of Chapter 8:17-39, p. 92)
Now I understand how we can get distracted from that full vision. It's hard to think as big as Paul does, as big as the Bible does. Plus, the truth of our own personal redemption through the Cross of Christ is such good news that it’s tempting to stop there. But that’s only one part of the picture. It’s not the full Christian message. If we shrink the picture down into some private escape after death to “be with Jesus” (and look, being with Jesus after death is a big part of the promise, but it’s still not the whole promise – that’s how great this promise is!) --If you and I shrink God’s cosmic reclamation project down into just “helping me,” then it’s no wonder we’re not groaning with birth pangs, or crying out in joy either. It’s no wonder we’re not focused on being part of every foretaste we can find of ultimate redemption in our own neighborhood. If we shrink that big vista down into something merely individual and private, then we’re going to come to church merely to support our individual and private lives and leave it there. But if we see the whole picture, if we keep our eyes on this big Romans 8 vista, we’re going to come to church refusing to make peace with the discrepancy between what is promised and what is coming.
When we come to church that way, we bring with us not just our own sin and pain, but the pain and the incompleteness and the wrongness manifest in every web of creation we are part of. We bring it all. And then the person we have asked to be our priest that morning – and today it’s someone who is getting to do this for the first time, because God just made Fr. Caleb a priest yesterday – that person, on our behalf, spreads out on the altar all the results we can see of sin’s ancient, deep dislocation of the globe and calls down the power of Jesus’ offering on the Cross. And redemption goes to work, so truly that you and I can eat and drink it. And we will in just a few minutes.
See, we, us adopted children of God, we are the contact point. Our offering, our intercession, our action, is where the suffering of the world comes into contact with the hope and the promise that we have received in the Word and get an actual foretaste of in the Sacrament. And fueled by that contact with God’s promised future, we go back out into our world and its systems to participate in the incredible privilege God has given us as his adopted children – to be the contact points that give God’s future ever more little entrées into the present. Right here, right now, in Champaign-Urbana, we actually get to be part of a picture that big and a promise that beautiful. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel.
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