The letter to Romans is a theologically rich and complex book of the Bible, and therefore the source of so many of the church’s most contentious debates. The eighth chapter is the climactic point of the middle of the letter, and so reading here is like coming in in the middle of a movie and trying to figure out what’s going on, so I think it’s helpful to have some sense of the context in which Paul was writing, both broadly in Romans and in the letter so far, to more fully appreciate his words here.
Many scholars believe Paul was writing to churches in Rome—churches that he had never visited—that had experienced a pretty dramatic demographic shift. In roughly the year 49, there is evidence that Emperor Claudius had expelled all the Jews, or perhaps all the Christian Jews, living in Rome because of infighting regarding the identity of Jesus as Messiah. For Christian churches, this had huge implications because most likely the churches up to that point were predominantly Jewish. In the intervening 5 years, while Jews were no longer allowed in the city, the churches grew to be exclusively populated by non-Jews, so when they were finally able to return, the power and cultural dynamics of the churches had changed dramatically. Romans is Paul’s pastoral and tactful way of calling the gentile and Jewish believers into community and to narrate the deeper theological unity made real in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Woven throughout the letter, then, are passages that emphasize similarities between the two groups and dispel notions of superiority. Paul pushes back on boundary markers like circumcision but also reminds gentiles that they’re being grafted into the covenant people of Israel.
One important way that Paul plays to both sides is in how he talks about Sin. Romans chapter 1 is notorious for its description of gentile sin and has been used as a proof text to argue against any theological basis for queer inclusion. Yet these narrowly focused arguments miss the forest for the trees for both Paul and the letter to the Romans. In chapters 1-3—notably NOT just chapter 1—Paul is trying to show that Sin—with a Capital S—is an enslaving, dominating power against which all humans are powerless to address on their own. For Paul, and the New Testament more broadly, discussions of sin are not primarily about individual mistakes and actions. Rather, Capital S Sin is a force, a power, that exerts dominion over creation, that enslaves and provokes humans to hand their God-given vocation to steward creation over to non-human forces, which in turn exploit and spoil the world. This is what Paul means in his letter to the Ephesians: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
A lot of people have a hard time with Paul because of these opening chapters of Romans, both in the actual content and the way these verses have been used, and those are valid feelings. But I also think that even if we may have different specific examples, most of us can understand the idea that there are powers and systems at work beyond the immediate influence of any individual or even any one group. Our world is certainly in the grip of such powers—of white supremacy, of patriarchy, capitalism, climate change.
The idea that some bigger force is working to subvert your effort is familiar to oppressed people. The Apostle Paul, a subject of the Roman Empire, knew that feeling—the magnitude of despair many of us experience about climate change is a real feeling for Paul as well.
And yet in Romans 5-7, Paul sees the death of Jesus as a way for humanity to be liberated from enslavement to these powers of Sin and Death and made right with God and one another. Here we could get into all sorts of fun theological debates that Christians have had for centuries about what it means for the cross to have a salvific effect, but instead I want to highlight one particular more recent way of understanding the cross that directly relates to how we view oppressive systems like. Some scholars emphasize that liberation from Capital S Sin does not come by way of mere “faith” or belief that Jesus died for your personal sins to appease God’s wrath, but that it is the FAITHFULNESS of Jesus to God and humanity by which we are saved, in that Jesus lays out a cross-shaped pattern of life that we live into with the help of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’s self-giving love is how humanity can now reclaim our vocation as worshipping stewards of creation. As scholar Matthew Bates writes, ““Final Salvation is not about attainment of heaven but about embodied participation in the new creation.”
That’s why when we get to chapter 8 the role of the Spirit is so critical. The same Spirit of the Living God who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your bodies, bodies which are so easily corrupted by systems of death. Enlivened by God’s Spirit, we are also now empowered to participate with our bodies in the further work of God. Contrary to popular belief, Paul isn’t opposed to bodies but he is aware that idolatry manifests itself bodily and so a liberated life in Christ looks like bodies employed in deeds of justice (sometimes translated as Righteousness in English).
Recently, JoLeah and I were talking about some of the things we need to be thinking about for the future for our kids—how we want to raise them, how our family values translate to everything from our jobs, schools, and much more. Our conversation led to a scary realization: Our primary job raising kids in this generation is to prepare them to live amid a climate catastrophe.
Climate change is just one example of systemic forces beyond the direct influence of any individual. These disordered systems all operate in subtle ways, so subtle in fact that most us don’t realize how few free choices we truly make because our imaginations are also under the grip of these systems. Most of us know all this, but it’s interesting to me that looking at the world through a more systemic lens has emerged in popular discourse in recent years. I’m intrigued by this in part because the western emphasis on individual self-determination that has dominated American society has meant historically most white people have been able to live generally free of the anxiety that oppressive systems cause. White people have been able to say and believe that individuals write their own success or failure. White people can believe these things because the economic systems at work in the US tend to benefit white people. Of COURSE individualism seems to work if the system is designed to work for you.
But with climate change, many white people are reckoning for the first time with something that questions the validity of individual-is-god view of the world. Scientists keep telling us that the world is warming and that our current trajectory will render many parts of Earth uninhabitable and erode the fragile threads that keep societies even quasi-functional (or as functional as they can be in a dysfunctional world). The scientific, rational realm gives us every reason to despair.
And yet, the gift of the spiritual life is that we need not be constrained by rationality. Paul declares that we have not been given a spirit of enslavement to fear but a spirit of adoption and that comes with an inheritance of hope. In short, we need the Spirit to animate our imaginations. In a seemingly-determinative universe dominated by self-serving systems where we have so few real choices, the children of God are those who continue to discern with the Spirit to find the cross-shaped, self-giving pattern of Jesus. As my friend Ashe says, where the Spirit moves, the Spirit subverts. So, we hold in one hand a world facing decay and bondage to Sin and Death and in the the other, the possibility that the Spirit is subverting this very decay through us.
Then we get to verse 18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” It’s the start of some of the most elegant and beautiful language in the entire New Testament, but it can feel cheap because Christians have wasted so much time on pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die theology that it’s hard not to read sentiments like verse 18 as saying more of the same. “Don’t worry about your suffering, others suffering because as long as they have Jesus, it all gets better when you die.” But I don’t think that is what Paul is saying; it can’t be what he’s saying if the Spirit enables us into faithful living in the here and now. I think what Paul is saying is that the inheritance of the adopted children of God is to be part of the fully restored cosmos.
And then Paul reaches down and pulls out this poetry: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 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. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
Creation—the earth, the rivers, the trees, the oceans—is groaning, longing for freedom that humans can bring with Spirit-empowered, cross-shaped justice. It is a prayer to God for humanity to reclaim our lost vocation as the stewards of the earth.
I have a confession to make: I love the Bible. I’m standing in a church, preaching, so it may not sound like much of a confession, but in liberal and progressive circles these days, the Bible is, as the Gen-Z-ers say, “sus.” (Suspect, I think is what that means, though I’m not sure). It’s okay to be spiritual, it’s okay to like Jesus the radical revolutionary, but more and more, Scripture itself is viewed, I’ve noticed, with skepticism, or at least certain parts of it are. We live in a time when, perhaps more than ever, the world is keenly aware in specific ways that Christians have perpetuated some of history’s most abominable actions. If you say you love the Bible, people start to assume you’re one of “those” Christians: the E word.
But, as I said, I love the Bible. I love its complexity, its nuance, its challenge. Scripture makes a claim on us, it invites and challenges us to see the boundaries of a just and beautiful life and at what points we cross into selfishness and hedonistic self-service. When I read passages like Romans 8, I am reminded of the richness of the biblical tradition to articulate both the darkness of much of the human condition and the narrow path out of it. The world needs the unique hope of biblical eschatology. We all do. But I don’t just love the beautiful, poetic parts. I love the parts that don’t always make easy sense.
My love for the Bible comes from a few places but none more significant than my father. My dad is a New Testament scholar who has focused primarily on Paul’s writings but has also written books on the gospel of John and Revelation. From a young age, my dad taught me to read the Bible carefully and that it was to be done in community with a diverse group of people who could help each other understand it better. He and my mom have modeled this by a weekly Bible Study hosted in their house for more than 30 years with the same few families, some of whose kids have been my best friends. My father’s love of the Bible led to his own conversion to a life of committed nonviolence in his theology and praxis, leading our family to reject nationalism and patriotism, which was not such a popular take on the Bible growing up in a town right next to a military base.
I came to care about justice in its many forms because of the Bible and came to commit myself to a life in alignment with an embodied participation in its eschatological vision. And I doubt I’m alone in that in this room.
And so it breaks my heart to see how the Bible is used by the powers and principalities to continue to subjugate so many Christians to a spirit of fear, when the Bible can instead be a gateway to a life of radical resistance to those same powers. Creation is groaning, waiting for those children to be revealed too. And it saddens me that many Christians who are able to see these systems at work and want to resist them have also given up on the Bible as irrelevant or worse.
My friend Drew Strait who teaches at AMBS and writes and teaches congregations how to confront White Christian Nationalism asks us not to give up on the Bible yet. The Bible is being used to do harm but that does not have to be the last word. Many of us probably have friends and family who are still living under the reign of Death. We cannot give up on them because creation is waiting on them too and I believe the Bible can help us reach them. For a lot of my life amongst evangelicals, I was taught to read verses like that to mean the unchurched, those who hadn’t “accepted Jesus into their hearts.” Now I hear those verses and lament those who claim to love Jesus and yet embrace a worldview that might literally kill us all.
Yet to abandon the lost Christians, to wipe our hands clean as good Anabaptists is not enough. It’s like cities choosing to destroy Confederate monuments rather than re-contextualizing and teaching with them—we can try to erase our association with these things but is that what really helps us move forward? When I look at my kids and imagine what life on earth might be for them, I need to remember that creation is waiting for the revealing of all the children of God. Where are they hiding? So many are in churches that tell them that the Bible says God is going to destroy the earth anyway, so why does it matter if we speed it along.
I think we might take a lesson from Paul, whose entire ministry was imbued with a deep sense of urgency for gentiles to become grafted into the covenant people because he truly believed time was short. Paul declares in 2nd Corinthians, “NOW is the acceptable time; see, NOW is the day of salvation!” It’s sometimes called Kairos time—God’s timing. It’s what Luke does over and over—TODAY is the day of salvation. What might it mean for there to be a kind of evangelism to the lost sheep of the church? In racial justice work, the call I have heard from black friends is for white people to go get your fellow white people and bring them on board. Might it not be the same for Christians regarding climate change? What holds us back? When Ron Sider stood before the Mennonite World Conference in 1984, he asked, “Do we have the courage to summon the entire church to forsake the way of violence?” His charge helped lead to the formation of Christian Peacemaker Teams (now Community Peacemaker teams) and a dedicated, active Peacemaking force in conflicts zones around the world in the name and spirit of Jesus and the Anabaptist vision of peace. I’ve experienced the beauty of this work myself in the West Bank.
And so I ask a similar question—given the violence of climate change and the knowledge we have about what will likely happen to our children and life on planet earth, Do we have the courage to summon the entire church back to a cruciform life in the Spirit and satisfy creation’s longing for the revealing of the children of God? Might this be part of what it means to “hope for what we do not see?”