Thursday, December 26, 2013

Suffering New Creation Into Existence

The final verses of Romans 8 decidedly bring to a close a large section of Paul’s argument in Romans. Throughout these 8 chapters, Paul has been laying out rather systematically his understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He identified the problem of the human condition; that no one is righteous because we are all, Jew and Gentile alike, powerless before the overwhelming force of sin. But God has acted decisively in the person of Jesus Christ, revealing a righteousness apart from the Law. This righteousness is possible because the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit have inaugurated a new age, an entirely new epoch in history. We are able to participate in this new reality by means of baptism and our own willingness to walk according to the Spirit. Due to the presence of the Spirit in this completely new age, we are able to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law in a way that was not a possibility prior to Christ. Furthermore, this possibility of holiness is a sign of what God intends to do for all of creation; remaking it and setting things right so that all of creation is transformed and God’s righteousness and peace reign in the world.

Of course, Paul knows that remaking has not been completed yet. It has only just begun in the communities of Christ followers springing up around the Roman Empire; little colonies of new creation taking root in the midst of the old. But that old creation with all of its ways of destruction and sin, injustice and unrighteousness is still quite prevalent. It is so prevalent, in fact, that more often than not, one might find it difficult to see the presence of the new creation at all. It might be easy to begin to wonder if such a hope for things to be made new is only a fool’s dream. In the midst of so much tragedy, so much hunger, pain, grief, and injustice, can we really say that God is doing a work of new creation among us? Paul’s answer is not only a resounding yes but also an assurance that the very things we might imagine are signs of our separation from Christ are actually opportunities to be conformed to his image. This, I think, is the heart of what Paul intends to communicate in the final verses of Romans 8.

Most telling in this regard is the quotation in v. 36. It follows the central question of this passage in v. 35.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘for your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’”

Surely, this list of dangers combined with the image of helpless sheep is not a comforting thought. Paul first cites all the marks of the old creation in our world, all the things that might cause us to wonder if the Spirit of Christ is really doing this work of new creation among us or not. Paul follows this question with a quotation from Psalm 44 which lists some of the very same concerns before God. The Psalmist says that God has forgotten and rejected his people, leaving them to the affliction of their enemies and selling them for a low price. In fact, in the verses immediately after what Paul has quoted, the Psalmist calls upon God to wake up! In times of suffering, it is easy for the faithful to wonder if God has gone off and taken a nap. Otherwise, why wouldn’t God be here doing something about our plight?

But Paul understands suffering differently. Rather than seeing suffering as something that represents our separation from Christ, he claims it is actually something that brings us closer to and makes us more like the Christ who suffered himself. Contrary to Psalm 44, Paul says “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” Paul ironically claims that it is by our suffering that we actually conquer because it is in those losses that we become more like the Christ who conquered sin and death by his suffering.

Once again, context is exceedingly important at this point. Without it, we may very well misunderstand and dismiss Paul in a number of ways: as a naive optimist who utters platitudes about a suffering he has never himself experienced, as a determinist who thinks everything comes pre-planned with no choice left for us, or as a masochist who sees suffering as inherently good. But what we know of Paul won’t bear out any of those caricatures. Paul was a man who knew suffering in all its ugliness but came to see it differently in light of Christ.

We must also remember that Paul was speaking into a culture in which all these things... tribulation, persecution, famine, etc... are sure signs of abandonment by one’s god(s). Almost certainly, Jesus’ own suffering was one of the reasons why Paul initially rejected Jesus as the Messiah. If Jesus had really been the Messiah, he would not have succumbed to such a humiliating death. But when Paul accepted the one who suffered as the Christ, he recognized that meant also accepting that the way of the Christ was the way of suffering. Contrary to the popular belief of Paul’s day, Paul had come to see in Christ that suffering was not an obstacle somehow contrary to God’s nature but that it was essential to truly knowing the heart of God. In repeated and various ways, Paul reminds us throughout his writings that if we are to know Christ we must share in the fellowship of his sufferings.

So when Paul says that “for those who love God all things work together for good,” he isn’t saying everything will be always be peachy or your suffering isn’t really that bad or that you should look a little harder for the silver lining that explains how this seemingly bad thing is really a good thing. He is saying that your suffering isn’t for nothing. He’s saying that your suffering isn’t a sign that you are doing life wrong. He’s saying that if the one faithful Jew, the one who got it right it, the one who was the very presence of God in the world suffered too then maybe when you suffer you are closer to the heart of God than you realize.

And when Paul says that “those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers,” I don’t think he is saying that God chose a few individuals from before the foundation of the world that would be saved while the rest of us are damned. I think he is saying that the God who has known you from before you were born is the same God that has called you to this fellowship with Christ and that same God will see that fellowship through to its completion.

It is fitting that Paul ends the first half of this magnificent epistle in this way; re-imagining suffering in light of God’s love. In 1:16 Paul said “I am not ashamed of the gospel...”; a bold claim for a message with something as shameful as a crucified Messiah as its protagonist. But for the last 8 chapters Paul has been explaining to us why it is not a shameful message; namely, because in it the righteousness and love of God are revealed. The love of God revealed in the cross of Christ has turned the meaning of shame and suffering upside down. Shame and suffering have been filled with new meaning as they have been filled with God’s own self, becoming God’s own instruments of righteousness and restoration in our world. The cross, once a symbol of torture and God abandonment, has become the very sign of God’s presence for those who call Jesus “Lord.”

And in that same act of re-purposing shame and suffering, God in Christ has also reworked what it means to be holy and righteous. To put it another way, these verses about suffering are not a mere addendum tacked on to the preceding verses about holiness and new creation. Christ’s suffering gives shape to what Paul means by holiness and new creation. To be holy is to lower one’s own status for the sake of another as Christ did for us. To lean into the new creation is to subvert the power structures of the old creation by seeking the well being of those “below” us rather than the favor of those “above” us. Reaching back earlier in Paul's letter, this is what it means for the righteous to live out if faith(fullness). This is the righteousness apart from the law for which Paul has been arguing.

To live life in such a way, will surely be costly to us but, Paul argues, if all these things.... the cross, death, sin.... have not kept us from the love of Christ then indeed “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” If this is the length to which God goes to be with us then indeed “Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?” In our suffering, our weakness, our vulnerabilities, even in death, we are not defeated, abandoned, or put to shame. We are more than conquerors because the Messiah, the Son of God has suffered these things for us and suffers them with us still. When we suffer for and with others, we are ushering God's new creation into existence. 

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