Groaning in Labour (163)

I wonder if you’ve ever had one of those conversations about God where you felt like you got hold of something especially honest and true. Maybe you were driving with a friend or paddling a canoe. Maybe you were stuck in an elevator or stuck in a snowbank. Whatever the context, it was just limiting enough to give you one of those magical hours where you and a friend talked openly and vulnerably about God. And maybe, just maybe, you came to the conclusion that so many others have come to, which is that it’s hard to talk directly about God. The best we can do is look around for analogies. Maybe you concluded that God is like the sun, an old analogy, or like electricity, a much newer one. Maybe you likened God to beauty or to a rock. Or maybe you said that God is like the channel of a stream or a protective mother hen. Or maybe you said God is like the wind.

Our churchy language has a tendency to becomes so familiar and easy that we forget it’s mostly analogies. Sometimes it takes a new analogy to help us see things that are true but so very hard to notice. I think it was Julian of Norwich who described everything that exists as a small, round hazel nut. Seeing it that way helped her gain a deeper appreciation for the expanse of God’s love.

In scripture, the church community is often described as a woman. Our reading from Acts 2 told the story of the beginning of the church. We know her/our biography extends across time and around the globe. We, the church, are a woman. More specifically, we are a bride betrothed to God’s incarnate presence. The analogy plays a bit with our concepts of gender, but more significantly it says something about the mutual love we share with God. It also says something about the future. We expect a new type of relationship with God, more immediate, more present, more unified.

We also expect the future to include a great wedding celebration complete with a banquet. Thinking of that, we might wonder if this banquet will be another rustic chic affair in a rickety old barn, with mason jars and old-timey filament bulbs. But this, of course, is the thing about analogies: when we take them too literally we lose the literary point.

At the core of our reading from Romans 8 is one of these great theological analogies. You may have noticed it already. Let me repeat a couple of lines:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 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.

What the writer is reaching for here is something so deep and internal and wrenching that nothing a man experiences can relate. Only the contractions of a woman in labour can describe what it’s like to be us. To be us, to be a part of creation in the here and now, is to look towards God’s future with the deepest anticipation. ‘Anticipation’ in this context is a weak word, for the hope we feel is pressured by our life being on the line.

When our first child was about to be born, I asked my wife if I should drive fast to add some drama. It was, I figured, the one legitimate reason to break the tires loose and rip through our town’s single stoplight. I was told that this wouldn’t be necessary. That was at the birth of our first child—the peak of the drama. When our youngest was born we walked. My wife carried our son to the hospital; I carried him home.

Like me and like many of us, the writer of Romans has not experienced the contractions of labor. But he has heard the groans. It isn’t hard to imagine that such things could not have been hidden in a first-century village. There would have been hard stone buildings, no windows and narrow streets. The sounds of birth would have echoed through a neighborhood. Everyone would have known that some woman was going through the pain of birthing new life. . . . Common enough, I believe, that everyone would have known that new life came, not with magic or ease, but with risk, with work and with suffering.

Paul saw the whole of creation through this image, this experience of a woman’s labour. “Creation waits with eager longing,” he writes. “Creation itself will be set free,” he writes. “The whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains,” he writes. “Creation,” he writes, “has been subject to futility.”

Emerson Powery is a professor of biblical studies at Messiah College, a school in Pennsylvania with Anabaptist roots. Powery wonders if this passage from Romans 8 shows us a side of Paul that we often miss. Paul’s writing on slavery has historically been used by some white preachers to support it. And it’s easy to read Paul’s household codes and skip the parts about mutual submission and mutual care. If we want it to be so, it’s easy to find in Paul’s letters a recipe for maintaining old hierarchies. But what Powery sees here is something different: Paul groans for change. Here, Romans 8, Paul tells us that things are not as they should be.[1]

In this Paul’s vision is as wide as possible: he hears creation itself groan, he hears us groan, he hears God’s Spirit groan.

Emerson Powery says that his father was a groaner. As a boy he would hear in his father’s wordless prayers, the demand that God act on behalf of those who were shut out and pushed down. What we see in Romans is that God doesn’t push us away when we have no words and we can only groan.

We see that God’s Spirit joins us in our deep yearning for something new to be born. Creation is like an instrument that vibrates with a God-given the sense of incompleteness. Creation vibrates with the sense that something new will be—must be—birthed.

Today we celebrate Pentecost. In that context or congregation is also celebrating a baptism and the fact that God has brought us more people committed to our community. In all this, we are celebrating the presence of God’s Spirit in our midst. We are praising God because God hasn’t left us alone.

We’re celebrating the fact that God doesn’t leave us alone to face the entrenched challenges of our day. God does not leave us alone to face the consequences of our unwillingness to rightly keep and tend creation. God does not leave us alone to face the evil of racism. God doesn’t leave us alone to address the scourge of nationalist idolatry. God doesn’t leave us alone to combat the consumerism of our age. God doesn’t leave us alone to face this epidemic of mass killing spreading like a virus. And neither does God leave us alone to face the demons of our own internal life.

God does not leave us alone. God has sent an advocate, the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God intercedes for us with “sighs too deep for words.” Wherever we are in the journey of our lives, near the beginning, at some midpoint high, lowdown like we’ve never been before, or right peacefully near the end. It doesn’t matter. God does not leave us alone. The Spirit is with us. The Spirit intercedes for us.

But how do we know this to be true? How do we know that there is something better to come? Why do we think that our care for creation can be interwoven with God’s? Why do we think our past need not determine our future?

The biblical answer is this: because God’s Spirit is among us as a garden’s first produce. The presence of the Spirit whets our appetite, pointing toward more. On Pentecost Sunday we read remember the dramatic story of the Holy Spirit changing a little group of disciples in ancient Jerusalem. We know how far that has gone, hurdling national borders, leaping oceans, vaulting barriers of language and culture. And we see it here too, in our congregation. New member join. God’s Spirit reshapes lives before our eyes—maybe, hopefully, even our own. We are right to believe this will continue. Creation groans. We groan. In faith. In hope. Anticipating the birth of something new.

[1] Thinking of an article Powery wrote in Word & World, Summer 2004.

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