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Pentecost Sunday 2nd Reading

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It is easy to overlook the nuances of things that we assume to have figured out. Having been read and gleaned just as much as any biblical text in the modern era, Romans chapter eight is no exception to this rule. Romans 8:22-27 is a passage of scripture that has serviced the ends of a multiplicity of theologies in our time. For theologies of liberation, adoption, redemption, and restoration, this passage has served as a cornerstone. The image Paul invokes here by using the analogy of labor pains is one of embracing pain with the hope of producing something new. Imagine the extent of what Paul is proposing here – the rebirth of a planet – God’s recreation of all things! For Paul, this idea is central for an understanding of the world moving forward from the Christ event. Although the author does imply great hope with this beautifully constructed text, the often overlooked aspect of this scripture is its most obvious and inherent element: childbirth.

Paul is a thoughtful author, and I do not think that he uses the metaphor of birth lightly. Childbirth is a process of pain and evolution for both the mother and the child. These elements, however, are the inherent elements of Paul’s theology that have been greatly missed in our popular understanding of his work. Both of these words are equally offensive in our current context, and I hope to redeem them and bring this passage to light in a way that both can be embraced as Paul would challenge us to embrace them. All metaphors or stories break down at some point as maxims for reality. I don’t mean to imply some sense of antiquated allegory with assigned roles for parent and child, nine months of a full-term pregnancy, or other unknown elements of this word-picture. I simply want to bring to the fore two neglected elements of Paul’s literary device as commentary on Romans chapter eight: pain and evolution.

Regarding present popular Christian understandings of the condition of humanity, Paul’s work has been hijacked to produce, in the West, theologies of original sin and total depravity that I believe limit Paul’s ontology. I propose that it is in this passage from Romans that we find one of the most helpful and corrective anecdotes to our sin-obsession in our anthropology, and our fascination in the holiness movement with entire sanctification as instant eschatology. These are significant shortcomings in our current state of pastoral theology, and I hope to provide helpful correctives with pastoral implications for preaching and care in this commentary. If you are looking for some good comments on the original Greek or some comments on this passage in terms of literary and historical criticism, I suggest you pick up Douglas Moo’s classic work on Romans, or read Soderlund and Wright’s Romans and the People of God (Eerdman’s, 1999).

In our current religious milieu, we have a very difficult time dealing with pain. Pain serves as the impetus of theodicy in our time. Even as we lift up the cross of Christ, we do away with the problem of pain by suggesting that Christ suffered on our behalf or in our place so that we do not have to. This idea is based on a penal substitution understanding of atonement and could not be further from the implications of Paul’s theology here. In Paul’s theology, identification with Christ is pain (Galatians 2:20; 1 Cor. 9:27; 2 Cor. 11:25; etc.). I want to suggest that for Paul, pain is not an arbitrary vehicle for a philosophical problem of evil, it is the Cadillac of sanctification. You don’t get Christ without a cross – and you don’t get a new heaven and new earth without the pains of childbirth. We who have the first fruits are all groaning! If you’re not groaning, you’re not a part of Christ’s redemptive action in the world.

Thinking critically about our shared life and shared destiny as rebirth – I realize that my lack of pain as a part of my religious culture in North America is directly tied to our indifference to the suffering and pain found in our own communities and in the world around us. If we were convinced that our shared vocation was to be about the work of rebirthing all things, however, we would more readily embrace solidarity with the suffering around us. It is only as we, the Church (Christ’s body), enter into the suffering of others, as we suffer with them and for them, that somehow we are a part of God’s redemptive plan of rebirth in the world. I do not have a mathematical equation or theological formula for this reality, as this is more of an existential revelation. Furthermore, we must not only embrace the suffering of others, but we must learn to embrace our own pain. According to Paul, it is in our weakness that the Spirit is able to help us. Too often, saints are guilty of claiming sanctification as liberation from pain. Paul would suggest otherwise. He would suggest that sanctificati