(Romans 8. 11, 18-27)
11 If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, God, who raised Christ from the dead, will also give life to your mortal bodies through the Spirit, who lives in you.
18 I consider that our present sufferings cannot be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as children, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. 26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. 27 And God who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.
Perhaps this text (with its talk of loss, groaning, weakness and searching) seems a strange one to read at a time when we have chosen to think about the Easter hope – and when we have gathered together to reflect on the vocation to communicate it in a complex world. Isn’t communication about clarity? And isn’t Easter about the certainty of life beyond death, the triumph of love over hate?
Indeed so, but not in the way we often assume. The victory of God at Easter is not like the kind of victories we are accustomed to hearing about in the news. It is about a love that transforms us, but does not overwhelm us. God’s self-communication in Christ is decisive but not deafening. It is incomplete, and for the most part it is unseen. It invites us with the gentleness of faith, not the power of purely human certainty. This is a challenge to our human expectations and wishes.
I hope none of us spends too much time thinking what it would be like to be God – that might not be too good a thing for our spiritual welfare! But if we did think about it we might wonder why God didn’t choose to be a little more proactive? Couldn’t the path to life have been made clearer, less ambiguous? Surely if we were God we would make sure that things got sorted out with some speed and efficiency. But that is not how God goes.
Sometimes Christians are inclined to defend their faith by making the point that it is historical, that it is confirmed in the Bible, that God has come to us in person. As if that settled everything. But can you think of more vulnerable means of communication than history (which everyone disagrees about), than texts (which everyone argues about), than flesh (which is all too susceptible to corruption and decay)?
The eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans describes just this kind of world, and just the kind of God who loves us in and through it. Its vision is that of the Risen One in our midst, but not present in a way that simply enables us to bypass or ignore the world’s suffering and death. Rather, we share in it. Today, for example, we remember and give thanks for the loss of a loved one, Minnie Wenger Roth. We grieve and yet we are caught up in hope.
In other situations the hope is less clear – sometimes awfully so. Consider the pitiless terror of revenge and the seemingly endless cycle of violence in Israel-Palestine at the moment; or perhaps the looming threat of war with Iraq. To be formed as part of a world that can respond freely to the love of God is also to live with its brutal contingency and its deep capacity for going wrong or doing wrong. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer starkly reminds us, resurrection is not a negation of death. That Christ died was not the possibility of his rising but the impossibility of it, he says. The possibility lies only in God.
But our reading tells us that God does not abandon us – not even to the human capacity for hope. The Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Christ who is risen but whose form and purpose is not yet fully seen, is with us: groaning with us, praying with us, communicating the love of God in the most unlikely of situations; inviting us not so much to believe in the Resurrection – that can be horridly difficult at times of loss and pain – but rather to live it, together, as part of the Body.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Wales, illustrates this work of the Spirit beyond our believing and knowing in a story he tells in his little book, ‘Writing in the Dust’. (The title, incidentally, is a reference to the dust at Ground Zero, to the gathering fog of war, and to Jesus’ action before those reaching for stones to launch at a woman caught in adultery.) He writes:
“I was stopped in the street in New York by a youngish man who turned out to be an airline pilot and a Catholic. He wanted to know what the hell God was doing when the planes hit the towers. What do you say? The usual fumbling about how God doesn’t intervene, which sounds like a lame apology for some kind of ‘policy’ on God’s part, a policy exposed as heartless in the face of such suffering? Something about how God is there in the sacrificial work of the rescuers, in the risks they take? I tried saying bits of this, but there was no clearer answer than there ever is.
“Any really outrageous human action tests to the limit our careful theological principles about God’s refusal to interfere with created freedom. That God has made a world into which [God] doesn’t casually step in to solve problems is fairly central to a lot of Christian faith. [God] has made the world so that evil choices can’t just be frustrated or aborted (where would God stop, for goodness sake? .. ). They have to be confronted, suffered, taken forward, healed in the complex process of human history, always in collaboration with what we do and say and pray.
“I do believe that; but I don’t think you can say it with much conviction outside the context of people actually doing the action and the prayer. In the street that morning all I had was words. I wasn’t surprised that they didn’t help. He was a lifelong Christian believer, but for the first time it came hope to him that he might be committed to a God who could seem useless in a crisis.
“Perhaps its when we try to make God useful in crises, though, that we take the first steps towards the great lie of religion: the god who fits our agenda. There is a breathing space: then just breathe for a moment. Perhaps the words of faith will rise again slowly in that space (perhaps not). But don’t try to tie it up quickly.” (1)
Don’t try to tie it up quickly. Wise words to a communicator, as to a believer. God’s ways are gentle, mysterious, non-overwhelming even — perhaps most especially — when we wish they were otherwise. But the Spirit and the community are promised to us, to sustain us. God’s communication, you might say, is transformation through companionship.
‘Lo, I am with you. Even to the end of the age,’ says Jesus to his friends. For, as St Paul goes on to remind us later in the same Letter to the Romans from which we have just read, there is nothing that can finally separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.
(1) Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust: Reflections on 11 September and its aftermath (Hodder & Stoughton, London, UK, 2002). Excerpted from pp. 6-9. The emphasis is the author’s. Used with grateful acknowledgement.