In this passage Paul sets the nature of our own salvation, and reception of the Holy Spirit, against the backdrop of all history. The “cosmic veil” is pulled away and he gives readers a broadened perspective on both the nature of creation and believers’ place in it.
First, Paul likens the natural upheavals of the world—things like earthquakes, violent storms, floods, droughts, disease, famine, and war—with distress. In Paul’s cosmic vision creation itself is frustrated. It’s been cut of from what God wanted it to be, and is writhing as it fights to get through the process of fulfilling its purpose. The literal image here is labor pains—a painful process which is often a tad frightening, and carries some danger, but there is a hoped for ending which helps people get through.
Jewish understanding sometimes referred to the convulsions of the world as the “birth pangs of the Messiah 1” and, no doubt encouraged by people like Paul, our early Christian kin took that into their own faith. They believed the world was heading toward a climactic end of process in which the world as it was meant to be would emerge at last. And, when we read the New Testament we find that folks, including Paul, expected the end to be soon.
And, as a way to connect his readers to the great cosmic drama being played out all around them, Paul pointed out that those who received the gift of the Holy Spirit joined with creation in this groaning. Why? Because we believe death has been conquered, sin has been defeated, forgiveness has been given to us, and salvation is at hand—but we still die. The earliest believers knew, just as we continue to know, that so much their experience in the world was in dissonance with their faith. If eternal life had been granted, and the Spirit was indeed leading people along that path, why were there so much death?
And Paul pointed out that their dis-ease with the contrast between their faith and their experiential reality was because what they longed for, the redemption of their bodies 2, hadn’t yet come about in all its fullness. So they hoped. They hoped that the things they longed for, but were obscured from their view in the present, would become real so they didn’t have to hope any more.
And the Roman believers to whom Paul was writing knew they needed to be in prayer as they expressed their longings for these hopes. But, lacking any idea how to vocalize these longings, the Spirit helped them in their cries.
So what’s this mean? Well, go back to the image Paul uses earlier in this passage, the groaning and crying out which accompanies child-birth. There is pain there, which I can barely imagine 3. But it’s joined by the hope that the process will end well, and a longing to be on the other side of labor with a new life in a loving embrace. And most of the time words fail to encompass all this.
It’s the same type of expression with which a family cries out in grief when a loved one passes away. It’s the same wailing I’ve been seeing on the news in Buffalo, Ulvalde, Tulsa, and even more towns since I first wrote this sentence as people cry out in distress at having been hit with the horror of mass shootings. It’s the frustration we feel whenever we’re confronted with something that is not the way things are supposed to be—a frustration released only with our strangled cries of anger and grief, tinged with hope.
That’s what Paul’s talking about in verses 26 and 27. We’ve got the first fruits of the Spirit, the down payment on the new world for which creation itself is groaning, and it makes the pain of this world hurt more. And we’re told that it’s the Spirit who takes our strangled cries of frustration and turns them into prayers. Prayers which reach God and change us. Because there’s something about the Spirit’s assurance that our prayers have been heard, which helps to develop our hope.
It all comes back to hope.
I have to say, after the past two years plus I’m beginning to feel like a broken record. Hope in the face of real-world adversity has been my one message since March of 2020 4. It’s always been hope. Hope that the New Creation will come, even in the face of a pandemic and war and personal crisises.
And why has my message always been hope? Because the darker things become the more essential hope is. Without it, we tend to give up. What’s the point in suffering, after all, if it’s not leading anywhere. Worse, a loss of hope can cause us to take disastrous shortcuts into power. Because if we think that Jesus is never coming, but hang on to a desire to set the world right, grasping on to the levers of power is something which makes sense. The rise of Christian Nationalism, which is a rejection of actual Christianity dressed up in church clothes 5, is a result of lost hope. It believes the lie, “God’s not doing what we want, so we’ll do it ourselves.”
This is a recurring theme in the Bible.
Cain was ticked that Abel’s offerings were accepted and his weren’t, so he murdered his brother.
Abraham tried to jump start the promise so he took Sarah’s servant as his wife.
Moses thought he’d spur his people to rise up to freedom by killing an Egyptian overseer.
The people in Israel wanted a King.
Saul tried to get the LORD to answer him when Samuel was late.
Judas betrayed Jesus, some speculate he did it to force Jesus’ hand.
All these instances occur when hope failed, and people thought they had to step in to make God move the “correct” way. That is, the way they wanted God to move. Because when hope fails we human beings have a tendency to try to manipulate God. And it never ends well.
So my broken record is skipping again because the need for this message never goes away. In the face of more mass shootings, hope. In the face of polarization in our communities, hope. Against the backdrop of this miserable pandemic, hope. There will be a dawn, resurrection and new creation will come. I wonder, on this Pentecost Sunday, if the real power the Holy Spirit gives the church is the very ability to live in hope.
And hope is not passive. As we hang on to it, sometimes with bleeding fingers, may it drive us action. Not for power, or the fiction of “security,” or anything else like it. May hope drive us to acts of love and service which can reveal to others that the brokenness of this world does not have to dominate, because a new world has come. If only we have hope, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A of Word Biblical Commentary. Accordance electronic ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 489. ↩
This is likely a reference to the resurrection. ↩
If men had to bear children our species would have gone extinct a long time ago. ↩
June 5, 2022 was March 826th in our all March 2020 calendar. ↩
Well, church clothes in a “normal” church, anyway. ↩