The Spirit's work

When faced with suffering, where do we turn?  What do we say?  The Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness.

Full Text: 

The Spirit’s work

May 24, 2015 – Romans 8:18-39

 

            Fifteen young people publicly affirmed their faith last Sunday.   It was not the largest confirmation class I’ve had.  But I think it was the largest number who wanted to participate in the laying on of hands during the service.  We had so many people I had to ask the confirmands to take two giant steps forward!

            The service is the culmination of two years of focused ministry with them.  There are classes and sermon reports (everyone’s favorite!) and service hours and memory work.  And behind that stands Sunday School, as well as Sunday School teachers and pastors (although for most of them the only pastor they have had is me).  Even more, there is the faith of their parents and grandparents.

            Still, at age 14, their journey of adult faith is only just beginning.  Who knows what challenges they will face?  Who knows what obstacles they will confront?  Who knows what rough waters they will need to cross?  One year (not this year), when I presented the names of the confirmands to the council, one council member asked, “Are you concerned about any of them?” 

            I said, “I’m concerned about all of them!”  And I’m concerned about all 15 of this year.  But there is one thing that encourages me:

            No matter what degree of faith in God they professed – from clear and certain to full of doubt – nearly all of them said, “God is always with me and I can turn to God at any time.”  Even one student said, “I don’t know that there is a god,” also said, “God is always with me, no matter what.”

 

            This is the teaching of Paul in Romans 8.  While commentators often claim that Paul’s letter is generic in its address, it seems to me that the people to whom Paul is addressing his letter are people who are suffering.

            Yes, it’s present there in chapter one where Paul longs to be with the Christians in Rome so that they might support and encourage one another.  It’s reflected in his proclamation of the great good news that God’s power for salvation is for everyone.  But we begin to see it more clearly at the beginning of chapter 5.

            Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (5:1-5)

 

            We boast in our hope, but we also boast in our sufferings!

This is not the kind of thing you say to a group of people who are sailing along in life.  Paul speaks of suffering, not only out of his own experience, for his own sake.  He speaks about suffering to people who are suffering.  And anyone who has experienced suffering may find truth in these words.  As a friend of mine likes to say, “Whatever doesn’t kill you will only make you stronger!”  But the hope that Paul talks about surpasses whatever benefit suffering might provide.  It is the hope of sharing the glory of God.

            It is not only we who hope to share the glory of God.  It is also the whole creation.  The creation is suffering because God is holding it back from entering the full glory of God, so that all things – creation and creatures – can joyfully enter together.  So, the creation is groaning – not merely the groaning of suffering, but the groaning of anticipation – of birth pangs.

This is an expression of the Holy Spirit.  It is the same Spirit that speaks in us when we cannot speak, when we do not have the words – “When we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (8:26)

When we suffer, and we do not know the words or do not have the words or there just aren’t words, the Spirit speaks for us.  And God is working around us as well, taking the mess that we make – even the mess that we experience – and always shaping it into something good.  Which means that God is shaping us ever more into the likeness of his Son, Jesus.

What more is there to be said?  Only that God is always with us.  Let me read how Eugene Peterson renders this in “The Message:”

So, what do you think? With God on our side like this, how can we lose? If God didn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for us, embracing our condition and exposing himself to the worst by sending his own Son, is there anything else he wouldn’t gladly and freely do for us? And who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of God’s chosen? Who would dare even to point a finger? The One who died for us—who was raised to life for us!—is in the presence of God at this very moment sticking up for us. Do you think anyone is going to be able to drive a wedge between us and Christ’s love for us? There is no way! Not trouble, not hard times, not hatred, not hunger, not homelessness, not bullying threats, not backstabbing, not even the worst sins listed in Scripture…

None of this fazes us because Jesus loves us. I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.

 

This is what Paul has to say about suffering.  He doesn’t tell us to ignore it.  He doesn’t make it go away.  He doesn’t say that God makes it disappear.  Instead he proclaims the power of God for salvation.  Instead he describes the continued work of God through the Holy Spirit.  Instead he boldly assures us that there is nothing that can defeat us, nothing that can separate us from God’s love in Jesus.

            This is what nearly all of the confirmands expressed in their faith statements.  It is our prayer that that faith will stay with them through all the changes and challenges of life, and that it will also stay with us – that God is there – no matter what – and that God is faithful.