12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—
13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
15For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’
16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.Romans 8:12-25
19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God;
20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope
21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now;
23and 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.
24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?
25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
What difference does the future make to the present? What impact can be made now by knowing a bit about the future? At the level of basic physics, the future doesn’t seem to make any difference to the present. However, in our minds our experience of the present can be transformed by such predictions.
When I was a student at university, I spent a lot of my time queuing at bus stops and train stations as I made my way back to Lincolnshire for the holidays. When I started university, most bus stops and train stations only had a printed timetable to predict when transport would arrive. If it was late, you had no way of knowing how late it was going to be. It could be 2 minutes or 30. Towards the end of my time as a student, real-time displays became the norm and not the exception. When you were stood waiting you could look up and see exactly how many minutes were between you and your bus or train. I can say with confidence that knowing with precision how much longer I had to spend on a windswept platform on a cold December made a lot of difference to my suffering!
What is relevant about this development is the difference it made to the experience of waiting. The buses and trains didn’t get more punctual, but the quality of time spent waiting was improved by this innovation. It made a difference to know a bit about the future.
In our reading today we see that Paul also wanted to reveal something of the future to console those who were struggling in the present. In verse 18 he says:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.Romans 8:18
In this verse Paul builds on the message we heard last week, namely: there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
By this, Paul attempts to reframe the sufferings of the present within the wider picture of eternity. So often in our lives, when suffering comes, it fills up our perspective. It becomes all that we can see and we cannot see anything else beyond it. In this situation, Paul cries out to us to step back and look around. Yes the present is full of suffering, but it will not last forever. This pain, no matter how sharp, does not even begin to compare to the eternal glory that is coming.
When we learn that no suffering lasts forever and that there is an eternal glory, then our experience of the present moment can be transformed and we can find consolation in the hardest of circumstances. In this way, hope transforms lives.
Last week we looked a bit at the existential anxieties that overshadow every human being. We looked into the abyss of a universe that is inevitably tending towards death, disorder and nothingness. We looked at how even in our own bodies we can see the relentless plod of time as we all move closer to death. Now, apart from our text, one can see how easy it is to fall into a life without hope. Perhaps you have seen the effects of hopelessness in yourself, others, or our society at large.
Knowing something positive about the future transforms the present. This not only feels true in our subjective experience; it really is true! In scientific studies, it has been discovered that those who are hopeful have better problem-solving abilities (Change 1998), are more cognitively flexible, and are better able to mentally explore novel situations (Breznitz 1986). Hope really makes a quantifiable difference in our lives.
So, what is our hope? Well, most obviously we hope for a reality beyond death. But the life described in our passage has slightly more detail than that. In verse 19 we are told that creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. In verse 21 this is described as the freedom of the glory of the children of God, and in verse 23 it is referred to as adoption and redemption.
So what does this mean, the revealing of the sons of God, the freedom of the children of God, our adoption and redemption? In a word it means glorification. Glorification is the final stage of salvation. Intuitively we all know that there must be another stage beyond our current experience. When we first believed, we became adopted sons and daughters of God, we received the Holy Spirit and our future hope was secure. However, we all know there is still work that needs to be done. As we have seen in previous chapters, we continue to struggle with our weakness, sickness, mortality and sin. We are not yet the people God has made us to be. It is this tension between what we are and what we will be that is referred to here. Creation waits with eager longing for us; and this tension is what causes the inward groaning of all who experience the first fruits of the Spirit. We, and the whole of creation, look forward to the time where the sons of God are revealed. That is to say, when those who have the first fruits of the Spirit are revealed in glory as perfected and fully regenerated children of God. There will be a day of glory when all who belong to God will be resurrected as sinless people in deathless bodies; and creation will rejoice with us.
Some may say ‘that may all be well and good – but how do we know this will happen?’ What is our hope based on? The short answer is the cross. If it is the case that Jesus died on the cross as a human being and rose again from the dead, then there is hope for all human beings. We already have accounts of a glorious resurrection body: and it’s Jesus’ body. If this can happen with one human being then it is possible for all human beings. This is our hope. The cross is our symbol of resurrection. And when our perspective includes the cross, our experience of suffering is transformed.
So our hope transforms our experience of suffering. But that is not all Paul says in our passage. He also encourages us to resist sin and choose life. In this way we can see the blurring of the boundaries between the old era of sin and death and the new era of grace and life. Paul cheers us on to put sin to death in our lives. That’s what mortify means – put to death. If we are successful in our mortification then we can taste some of the sweetness of the future glory that awaits us. Now this could be the topic of a sermon itself, so if you would like to know in more detail how to combat sin, I’ll be writing about it in my weekly reflection. If you want to receive it, just send me an email. My address should be at the bottom of the page (firstname.lastname@example.org).
So to draw all of these strands together, we can see that present suffering can be transformed by future hope and a taste of that future hope can be experienced now for those who turn away from sin and follow the Spirit’s call in their lives. Because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, we also have a hope of eternal glory; and we join with creation as we look forward to that day when suffering is no more and we are free from the taint of sin. And I pray that that glorious future comes soon. Amen.