I had the opportunity to attend a couple events as a part of the Fringe Festival last week. For those who don’t know, it’s an arts Festival in Kansas City that follows the tradition of Fringe Festivals around the world that highlight artists on the fringe – those not in the big name acts or productions, but still do what they do “for the love of the craft.”
I got to see a friend in a play and watch an improve group with him afterwards. And one of the things that we talked about was the experience of being “on.” Of knowing that the crowd is with you and you are in the zone and everything is going well. Especially in small theaters like the Fringe Festival uses, you feed a tremendous amount from the crowd. And if it goes well, it is an amazing experience. If it doesn’t, it is the height of frustration.
And of course, as a part of getting to watch these talented actors and talking about their craft, I immediately thought of the eighth chapter of Romans. Wouldn’t anybody?
OK, maybe not anybody. But I did. Let me explain.
First, let me back up and tell you how I got there. I told the story last week of a fictional church member named Claudius and the very real context of the church in Rome and the changes that they were going through. Internally, there were struggles between the factions of the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians about who would be in charge and what practices they were going to require or not require. It was a difficult clash of generations and cultures. Meanwhile, externally, there were struggles from outside the church, namely with the Roman leadership. I mentioned in the story that there was a new emperor in town. What I didn’t mention was that the new Emperor was Nero.
Remember the guy from your Western Civ class? The emperor who fiddled while Rome burned? Scholars largely believe he set the massive fire and then blamed the Christians for it. Now this and most of his reported tyrannical acts took place after the book of Romans was likely written, but Nero was likely in charge by the time that the letter made its way into the hands of the Christians in Rome. So the victims of Nero’s early persecution are the ones who read Paul’s words for the first time.
Paul, aware of this and other persecution that Christians were experiencing, wrote with this in mind when he included this famous list at the end of today’s passage: “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” This was not just a generic list of bad things that he made up. This was like a journal entry from both Paul and the people to which he wrote.
And so Paul’s writing of the letter of Romans was not just a theoretical treatise about the nature of and response to suffering. It was a caring and pastoral letter to those who were hurting…and perhaps, Paul predicted, would soon be hurting even more.
That is the context behind the words that we pick up when we read the book of Romans. Paul is helping the church at Rome deal with the internal and the external chaos that they are facing. It comes to no surprise that the word that he uses in the first part of today’s passage is “groaning.” Is it any wonder that the church in Rome was groaning? They were dealing with significant physical and emotional and metaphysical challenges. And questions: Where was God in the midst of this? Could their young and fledgling faith survive such challenge? Why me?
Michael Gorman writes about the context of Roman church, contrasting their reaction to a common worldview in Rome: Stoicism. The Stoics believed that suffering was simply meant to be endured. The way we conquer suffering in our life and triumph is to stoically survive and endure. When we do so, according to the Stoic mindset, we will eventually be rewarded with relief.
“No,” says Paul. “We are more than conquerors…” We don’t see suffering as something simply to be endured. It is actually a part of the very self of God. The God who lived in Christ and suffered as Christ. And we participate in the self of God when we suffer. Not just gritting our teeth and making it through. But something more than endurance, it becomes a central part of our faith. We are more than conquerors!
And that alternative vision of Paul is the central theme of the book of Romans, especially in chapters 5-8. The verses we read today are really the summary and exclamation point to a larger argument. Again, it is more than a theoretical argument advancing a theological position. It was a word of pastoral encouragement for those in the midst of pain and suffering.
According to scholar N.T. Wright, Paul’s argument has three pieces.
One, humanity should have authority in the world. It’s how we were created. It was a part of God’s plan for us to have this authority.
But, two, we don’t. And the reason why, according to Paul, is our finitude. We are weak. Our bodies decay. We die. This, for Paul, is the reason for our groaning. We are weak and finite humans. He knew that those in the church knew this. But what’s more, this is an experience common to all who inhabit the earth. Thus, the groaning of the church becomes a double groaning along with all of creation!
So, one, we should have authority. Two, we don’t. So, what happens next? My new favorite Greek word: synantilambanetai
Basically, this multi-syllabic word is a word picture describing the process of coming alongside to help.
Think: a police officer pulling alongside a stranded motorist.
Think: a teacher bending down at the desk of a student in order to help with their math homework.
In the Gospels, remember the story of Mary and Martha? Remember what Martha expected her sister to do when the disciples came over for dinner? To help her with the housework? Cooking? Cleaning? To come alongside her to help? Guess what the Greek word is that is used? synantilambanetai
So in Romans, this is the word that Paul uses to talk about the Holy Spirit. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, coming along beside us, to advocate for us before God and to empower us before the earth. But this word picture is important, for Paul says that the Spirit comes alongside. Is with us. The Spirit is so closely associated with us, Paul says, that the Spirit groans along with us. Wright calls this a triple groaning: the church, the world, and the Spirit. In other words, we don’t groan alone.
In our groaning, God is coming along beside us, not simply to wallow with us in a pity party, but to bring value out of the middle of apparent emptiness, hope out of apparent hopelessness. Thus Paul’s words, that God is “working in all things for good.” In other words, this is where God rises to the occasion. This is God’s best performance. This is where we see, finally returning to the metaphor of the theater, this is where God is “on.”
Now, don’t get too caught up in the metaphor. Of course, the first sarcastic question one might ask of the metaphor is “does that mean that God can have an off night?” Sure, at some level, it is silly to say that God is a performer on stage. God is constant and consistent. But, the metaphor is helpful in the sense that it reminds us how important the audience is. What it helps us see is that in our suffering, WE finally invite God to come alongside of us and work in our lives. We finally realize that this is not a solo act. We are not dispassionate spectators in the drama of our own lives. We invite the very Spirit of God alongside of us: synantilambanetai . And when we do, this is where God shines!
Many of you know Cheryl Wonnell, long time member of our congregation, for whom we prayed a few minutes ago, is struggling against the ravages of leukemia, resting at home now in preparation for a bone marrow transplant in a few weeks. Of course, this is the kind of experience that shakes one’s physical well-being, but also one’s emotional and spiritual well-being. And the way that Cheryl has explained the experience to me, which of course I retell only with her permission, is that the first round of chemo shook her faith. She describes it like being in hole, spiritually and emotionally.
But there came a moment, she explains, in the deepest agony and despair, when it felt as though she was in a box, suspended only by a thin string. And in that despair, Cheryl repeated the same words again and again: “Jesus, hang onto me. Jesus, hang onto me. Jesus, hang onto me.” Suspended above the darkness, through that night and through her chemo, she felt the very presence of God, coming alongside of her, holding onto her against the agony of her pain.
How many of us can identify with Cheryl’s story? Maybe not in such specific ways, but perhaps we, too, have prayed a similar prayer, inviting God to come alongside of us, surround us, hold us up.
Barbara Brown Taylor recounts a similar experience about pain in the book that many of our women studied at the women’s retreat: An Altar in the World. A book about spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and Sabbath and reverence, she also includes a chapter about the practice of feeling pain. Early in the chapter, she addresses those who would wonder if pain is really a spiritual practice:
“Since feeling pain is not optional for human beings, I have some explaining to do. How can something as nonnegotiable as feeling pain serve as a spiritual practice? Like all other aspects of the human condition described in this book….feeling pain is something else that can be handled in a variety of ways. I can try to avoid pain. I can deny pain. I can numb it and I can fight it. Or I can decide to engage pain when it comes to me, giving it my full attention so that it can teach me what I need to know about the Really Real.”
The Really Real.
God’s best work.
Jesus, hold onto me.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8.35-37)
Which leads us up to the final verse. But before we get there, one last word of warning. Through the centuries, Paul’s words about suffering have been used in some incredibly violent and abusive ways. The line usually goes:
“Since Paul says suffering is righteous, then Christians should simply to endure the pain.”
“Slaves, endure your masters’ violence, because Christians should endure the pain.”
“Wives, endure your husband’s abuse and stay in the marriage, because Christians should endure the pain.”
“Blacks (in the South in the 60’s), why don’t you just stay quiet and survive your lot in life, because Christians should endure the pain.”
And minorities and women and victims through the ages have been asked to grin and bear it for the sake of the cross – usually by people, mind you, who are NOT experiencing the same suffering and pain that they are, but on the outside looking in. But that is NOT the Christian perspective, and that is not what Paul is saying here. We are not Stoics, simply here to endure. We are more than conquerors.
Paul sings out that we are God’s renewed people. We are image-bearers of Christ and of God. We bear the image of God in the demanding of justice, in the bringing of beauty, in the insistence upon peace. And we are never asked to grin and bear it. When our suffering is righteous, it is righteous in the way that brings about change and transformation – in our lives and in the world.
One final challenge from Wright: “The Western church is in danger of becoming so concerned with Christianity as a way to further its own goals of self-advancement that it has forgotten what its siblings in many other countries know day by day, often literally in their broken bones; that the gospel confronts the principalities and powers with the news that their time is up, and that the true way to Christian joy lies in discovering in practice that this message is true.”
And that is the life that Paul wants us to live out of, the place of grace from which we will live, and the triumph of transformation that rings from our lips. And so, Paul’s final exclamation point is a word of hope. A word that I have read in countless hospital rooms over and against the disease and brokenness that resided there. A word that I have read over the bodies and ashes of countless sisters and brothers in Christ, in the presence of countless mourning friends and family. A word that gives hope to us today, regardless of where our pain comes from or how deep we find ourselves in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. It is the exclamation point of hope and the promise that the Spirit comes along beside us. Hear now, Paul’s word to the suffering saints of Rome, and to all who have suffered since:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.