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Romans 15:4-13

The Challenge of Hope

Advent is the season of hope. Each season of the church calendar tells us what “time” we live in as Christians, refracting the contingencies of our lives through a particular moment of the gospel narratives. Advent tells us that no matter when or where we live, we exist in the gift of time between Jesus’ resurrection, which initiated the new creation, and our own resurrections, which will be the climax of the new creation of all things. In this way, Advent helps us to interpret the not-yet perfected state of creation. It is good and it has been redeemed in Christ, but not all of creation fully testifies to Christ’s peaceable glory. We still experience suffering. Wars still devastate nations and lands. Our insatiable acquisitive desires promote ongoing forms of slavery. And we clearly haven’t learned how to civilly and justly organize ourselves politically, as even the most well-intentioned political debate on social media attests. Through Advent, we remember that these painful realities are the birth pains of the new creation, tokens of the temporal distance between our present time and God’s promised future.

In Romans 15, Paul is responding in particular to the pain of communal divisiveness. We know this all too well. The Body of Christ bears several wounds—denominational divides, racial divides, abuses of power, complicity in violence. And in our own single congregation, there may be people we can’t talk to because we know they voted for the other candidate, not to mention all the other reasons we may harbor bitterness or emotional wounds.

What does it mean to hope in times like this? Although Paul can’t be said to give every concrete detail of what such hope looks like, what he does provide is pointed and challenging, giving us some sense of what Advent hope is and what it isn’t.

In the first three verses (4–6), we are given three marks of hope: it is given to us through the scriptures, it involves living in harmony with one another, and the goal is to “glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” “with one voice” (15:6). The second mark of hope—living in harmony with one another—is not what generally comes to mind (for me at least) when I think about the hope of Advent/Christmas. On the contrary, I find it difficult to know exactly how we ought to enact this form of hope right now.

However, I think it’s clear that there are several things that don’t contribute to hope embodied in harmonious shared life. First, Paul’s injunctions suggest that hoping in Christ does not permit us to turn our eyes away from the failures of community we now know. The future Christ promises is not one in which the difficulties of negotiating our differences are overcome through forgetting, ignoring, or dissolving our differences. In Paul’s context, this means that the Gentiles, as Gentiles, join voices with the Jews to praise and glorify God. With whom do we decline to worship and commune because our differences divide us?

“Living in harmony” with one another here and now requires that we recognize and confess the ways that we currently fail to let Christ bring our differences into harmony. Note that harmony is not unison, to continue with the musical language. When a choir sings in unison, all voice the same notes and the same words together. When we sing in harmony, multiple different notes are brought into mutual resonance. The range of possibilities for “harmony” is broad, including antiphony (with different voices in a kind of call and response), fugue (with overlapping lines and melodies interweaving), single-line harmony (all sing the same words together with multiple complementary notes), etc.

Paul closes this pericope with a kind of benediction:

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (v. 13)

Perhaps now we can see why this is something we depend on God for. When we try to “live in harmony” our natural tendency is either for unison and homogeny or for abstraction. We either try to force sameness for the sake of unity or we ignore the complicated differences we encounter to imagine a place or time free of them. Only by the power of the Spirit, through the service of Christ, and the gift of God the Father might be actually embody the hope of Advent as genuine harmony.