HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
July 23, 2017
Romans 8: 12-25 (CEB)
So then, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness. 13If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die. But if by the Spirit you put to death the actions of the body, you will live. 14All who are led by God’s Spirit are God’s sons and daughters. 15You didn’t receive a spirit of slavery to lead you back again into fear, but you received a Spirit that shows you are adopted as his children. With this Spirit, we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16The same Spirit agrees with our spirit, that we are God’s children. 17But if we are children, we are also heirs. We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.
18I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us. 19The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters. 20Creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—it was the choice of the one who subjected it—but in the hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from slavery to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of God’s children. 22We know that the whole creation is groaning together and suffering labor pains up until now. 23And it’s not only the creation. We ourselves who have the Spirit as the first crop of the harvest also groan inside as we wait to be adopted and for our bodies to be set free. 24We were saved in hope. If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? 25But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.
You know, it’s interesting the way life teaches us lessons. When I was in seminary, I took over 90 credit hours of classes, but hands down, the most important lesson I learned in those three years came in the cramped office of one of my professors. This was one of those lessons that really stuck with me. It has shaped my actions, and especially how I interact with other people, even as it has been a challenge to me to grow as a child of God and a disciple of Christ. So let me tell you what happened.
During my second semester of seminary, I was required to take a class on covenant discipleship. The core of this class revolved around involvement in small groups, and so we were required to form these covenant groups that would meet once a week for the duration of the semester, if not more. As you can imagine, forced small groups worked in some cases, and in other cases they didn’t. I got together with my closest friends and we formed a group of six. We began meeting weekly, but very early on there was a conflict in the group. Interestingly, I can’t even remember now what the in-fighting was about, but it was a big enough deal that our professor decided we needed to meet with him so that he could mediate and we could get the issue resolved and move on. So one warm Spring afternoon, we piled into his office, some of us in chairs, some on the floor, and folks started unloading. As the conversation progressed, complaints were flying all over the place, and at one point, one of my peers, seeking to defend her ally, said, “Well, yeah, she said that, but that’s just the way she is!”
Immediately, our professor broke in. He never raised his voice, but somehow he had this quiet authority that made everyone in the room turn to him whenever he spoke. Very calmly, he said, “Stop. Stop right there.” Once we all had our attention on him, he continued, and I will never, ever forget his words. He said, “That’s not an excuse. To say, ‘That is just the way someone is!’ is not okay, because Christ doesn’t leave us the way we are. Christ changes us.” Whatever else happened in that meeting is a complete blur to me. But those words, as simple as they were, continue to astound me.
You see, the thing is, we say this all the time. Whether about ourselves or others, we will often offer this explanation. “You may not like it, but that’s just the way I am.” “I know she seems angry, but that’s just the way she is.” “We think it’s wrong, but that’s just the way he is.” We say this kind of thing all the time. And it’s not just about people. We look at the world around us, and we draw the same conclusion; “that’s just the way it is.” The neighborhood’s changing, “That’s just the way it is.” The river’s flooding again, “That’s just the way it is.” People are stuck in the cycle of poverty, “That’s just the way it is.” People are oppressed by systems of injustice in our communities and all around the world, but “that’s just the way it is.”
Last week, you heard from Rev. Fred Dearing, who has spent the last six years working in South Sudan. He and his wife Libby have done great work there as they have helped the people grow congregations, build churches, and house orphans. But over the last two years, South Sudan has been in extreme turmoil. A civil war is rocking the young nation, and the government is imposing famine on the land. Yes, you heard me right, there is a man-made famine in South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of people will die as a result of this. The people that Fred and Libby are in ministry with are now living in refugee camps in Northern Uganda. The Dearings will return to that area next month to try and do whatever they can to help their flock. But just think for a minute how different things might have been for those pastors, congregations, and orphans, if at any point in the last six years Fred and Libby had looked at the hardships of the people in South Sudan and the fragile peace of that nation, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “Well, that’s just the way it is.” Christ doesn’t leave things the way they are. Christ came to change us and to change the world.
This morning, we listened in as Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome. And the basic message Paul delivers here in the heart of this letter is that the Spirit of God works in us, changing us. And in the same way, the Spirit of God is going to change the whole world, all of creation. So, Paul says, “We have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to live our lives on the basis of selfishness.” This obligation, or debt, grows out of the fact that we have been adopted by God and are called sons and daughters. This adoption changes us, enabling us to cry out with the Spirit, “Abba, Father!” But, Paul says, “If we are children, we are also heirs.” This is where that debt comes in; “We are God’s heirs and fellow heirs with Christ, if we really suffer with him so that we can also be glorified with him.” If we want to be glorified with Christ, we must also suffer with Christ. If we want the full blessing of the children of God, then we must allow ourselves to be shaped by God’s Spirit. It’s not okay to selfishly brush off our flaws or weaknesses with the passive explanation, “That’s just the way I am.” Following Christ means putting to death all those things in our lives that are inconsistent with the way of Christ. No more excuses. No more side-stepping the challenges of change. We have an obligation as sons and daughters of God to grow in Christ-likeness; to suffer with him so that we can be glorified with him.
And as much as such transformation might strike us with a sense of fear, it should also give us hope because just as God can adopt us as sons and daughters, saving us and changing us, so will God change the whole world. Right now, as Paul explains, creation is “subjected to frustration.” We can see the signs of this all around us. It’s why we often look at what’s happening in the world and feel a deep sense of despair. But just because that’s the way things are right now doesn’t mean that’s the way it will always be. Just because people are suffering in South Sudan right now doesn’t mean that God won’t hear their cries. Even though we live in a near constant fear of the breakout of war or even nuclear attack, that doesn’t mean violence will always be the way of the world. Just because people are struggling in the midst of addiction, or divorce, or debt, they can yet know redemption and restoration. Despite the fact that our churches, our communities, our countries, and the whole world are greatly divided, we can still be united as citizens of God’s kingdom. All that causes us so much despair now can be changed, redeemed, and restored. This is our hope, and it is a hope so great that Paul tells us, “The whole creation waits breathless with anticipation for the revelation of God’s sons and daughters.”
You know, as much as we would like to think otherwise, there are a lot of things that are out of our control. As individuals, we don’t really have the power to stop widespread famine in Africa, or negotiate peace between nations. And in our own lives, we can’t change the past, and the experiences that have shaped who we have become. But here’s the thing: if we are true followers of Christ, if we have faith in God in Christ Jesus, then we can also have hope that the worst in us and in the world will be redeemed. But that means living in faith now, even as we wait with anticipation for what is to come.
The strange thing about hope is that empowers us to confront the evils of this age, knowing that the way things are is not “just the way it is.” And that’s exactly what we must do. Our faith has to be living and active, as God’s sons and daughters, we must be a living revelation of God’s coming kingdom. We need to work toward the fulfillment of our hopes because in Christ we already have a glimpse of this greater future. Even as we open our lives to be transformed by Christ, we must join with our fellow disciples to live as an alternative community that defies the destructive ways of the larger culture with a message of healing and hope.
I have a great admiration for people who will boldly step out and say, “That may be the way things are, but Christ changes things.” And then they get busy being a part of the transformation that God intends for this world. Fred and Libby are working on just that thing in South Sudan, even in the midst of extreme turmoil. But there’s no requirement that we go halfway around the world, there is work to be done here too, in this community, perhaps even in our own homes, or even simply in our own lives.
I believe it is a universal truth that people everywhere are looking for reason to hope. Paul was exactly right when he said that the whole creation has been subjected to frustration and is breathless in anticipation of something better. But the good news is that there IS something better! And we need to look for every opportunity to reveal God’s kingdom and to speak the hope of Christ into this hurting world. We need to help people see, know, and understand in the very depths of their being that just because “that’s the way it is,” Christ is at work changing this world, and things are guaranteed to get better.