Hope confirmed – The Message of Pentecost

The gift of God’s Spirit assures us that there is a new world coming, when Paradise will be restored and this world’s sufferings will be no more. Hence Rom 8.22-27 is one of the lectionary readings at Pentecost. It is, however, a complex passage, particularly when read in the NRSV or NIV. My blog today will therefore be based on the Good News Bible.

We suffer at the present time (8.18). Suffering has always been an issue, but over the last year we have seen suffering on a grand scale. Here I have in mind not just the vast number of deaths, but the damage done to physical and mental health, to the long-term future of children and young people, to businesses and incomes, to family life and to relationships in general. Paul too knew what it was like to suffer, both from physical disability (2 Cor 12.7) and in particular from being a follower of Jesus (“we share in Christ’s sufferings” 8.17). Christians have never been immune to suffering. When we become Christians God does not promise to wrap us in a plastic bubble. The health, wealth and prosperity teachers are wrong: Christians are as likely as anybody else to die of Covid or suffer from its long-term effects.

We know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain (8.22). The whole sub-human world suffers. Creation in its widest of sense “groans with pain”. Perhaps not literally: I don’t think that Paul had in mind the rumbling of a volcano or the howling of a wild wolf. He was speaking poetically and through the use of metaphor was saying that there is something fundamentally wrong with our world. Through our selfish stupidity we have spoilt our world. Factories and cars belch toxic fumes into the atmosphere with the result that even the lungs of a non-smoker are lined with grime and dirt. The Mediterranean is swamped with sewage so that the south of France may be good for a suntan, but for little else. The affluent society has become the effluent society. What a mess we have made.

We know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth (8.22). Even in these days when epidural and other drugs are freely available, childbirth is not the most pleasurable of experiences. It is not for nothing that we speak of ‘the labour ward’. Nonetheless many mothers are happy to have not just one child, but two, three, four or even more children, for there is life beyond childbirth. What is true of the pain of childbirth is true of the pain and suffering of creation. One day our disjointed and frustrated world will be liberated from death and decay.

We wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free (8.23). Our present bodies are weak, fragile, and mortal. They are subject to fatigue, sickness, pain and death. When we are young, we take our good health for granted: aches and pains are only something you get when the rugby scrum collapses. But as we get older, many of us become conscious of our physical frailty. The good news is that the day is coming when we shall be set free from our physical frailty to experience what the NRSV calls “the redemption of our bodies”. Drawing upon an analogy developed by John Polkinghorne, Tom Wright wrote of how “God will download our software onto his hardware, until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again”!

We who have the Spirit as the first of God’s gifts… hope for what we do not see (8.23, 25) In one sense Christians are as frustrated and unfulfilled as anybody else as “we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (NRSV). Yet – in an amazing way – the future has already begun to invade the present. Already we have begun to experience something of what God has in store for the future. We do not just “groan” we also rejoice in our present experience of the “hope” (8.24) that is ours, because of the presence of God’s Spirit in our lives. Paul uses an agricultural term (aparche) to describe the gift of God’s Spirit: literally, we have “the first fruits of the Spirit” (NRSV). To understand the metaphor we have to realise that the Jewish Pentecost was primarily a harvest festival, sometimes called ‘the day of the first-fruits’ (Num 28.26), when “the first fruits of the harvest” (Ex 34.22) were presented to God. These first fruits were a promise of the harvest to come. The gift of the Spirit is therefore only the beginning of the harvest: as Neil Hamilton put it, “the centre of gravity lies in the future”. The Holy Spirit is a gift promising much more to come. In the words of Keith Warrington: “He provides a glimpse into the life to be experienced in its fulness… He is a flavour, a whisper, a breath of the future in the present.”

It was by hope that we were saved (8.24). Literally, “by hope we have been saved”. Paul is using a Greek aorist which refers to a one-off act. Our salvation is rooted in the past, and yet it has a future dimension. Our “hope” for the future is secure because of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesu. Therefore we have what James Dunn described as “a firm confidence in God’s purpose and power”. Although “we hope for what we do not see (8.25), the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts reinforces our confidence.

We wait with patience (8.25). The NRSV also talks of waiting “with patience”; similarly the NIV. However, these translations do not do justice to the underlying Greek. Firstly, the verb Paul uses (apekdechomai) means to ‘wait eagerly’. It is found used earlier in this passage where it is combined with an unusual Greek noun (apokaradokia) which literally means a ‘stretching of the head’ or a ‘straining of the neck’. The GNB and the NRSV speak of the creation waiting “with eager longing”. But that is not strong enough: the creation is ‘on tip toe’ as it waits with “with eager longing” (8.17). Secondly, the underlying Greek noun (hupomone) translated as ‘patience’ is a strong word: the New Revised Jerusalem Bible speaks of “perseverance”; but ‘patient endurance’ is a better translation. Along with‘eagerness’, there has also to be ‘patient endurance’ as we wait for our “hope” to be fully realised. As Grant Osborne commented: “Even as we know the final result and the glory that awaits us, the troubles of the present are almost more than we can bear”.

In conclusion, our “hope” has been confirmed by our experience of God’s Spirit in our lives. At Pentecost we celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit, who brings about God’s new creation. In the words of the Tom Wright:

The Spirit, who brooded over the waters of chaos, the Spirit who indwelt Jesus so richly that it became known as the Spirit of Jesus: this Spirit, already present within Jesus’ followers as the first fruits, the down payment, the guarantee of what is to come, is not only the beginning of the future life, even in the present time, but also the energizing power through which the final transformation will take place. The early creed spoke of ‘the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life’. That is exactly true to the New Testament.

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