“I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”
I want to begin by saying that I do not intend to confuse anyone or to caste any doubt over the state of being of Christians who have died or who will died before the Kingdom of God comes upon this earth as it is now in Heaven. In the case of those who die before our Lord returns, the clearest and most frequently cited scripture is this:
“We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord.”
II Corinthians 5: 6-8
But there are plenty of texts in the New Testament showing that the Church universally expected Jesus Christ to return from Heaven in their lifetime and furthermore the fullness of the Kingdom that followed his coming included their bodies of flesh that would be transformed like his resurrection body. However, concerning those who died before Jesus’ return, they believed their life, their souls to be with Christ in a state of blessedness and at the coming of the Kingdom they too would live in bodies of flesh, transformed and resurrected.
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Revelation 6:9
“For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you.” Philippians 1:23
This was the universal belief of the early Church. Where did they get that idea? They got this from the teaching of Jesus himself and in particular from the living tradition of the first generation Church in Jerusalem concerning the thieves who were crucified with him. All four Gospels report the crucifixion of the thieves, but Luke specifically preserved an additional tradition:
“And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”
So there you have it; the first generation Church in Jerusalem understood this promise of Jesus to the thief on the cross to apply to all Christians who died before his coming again.
Now I want to get to the text for today. Remember from last week that St. John’s vision puts the finishing touches to Paul’s thought concerning just how Christ will “subject all things to himself.” That reference to subjecting “all things to himself” brings us to the creature reference in our text for today. Remember that creation’s subjection by Christ will not be accomplished by wrestling creation into submission. That entirely misses the point. Anyway, creation is not in a state of rebellion, it is sick unto death because it is joined to Adam:
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity (futility), not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.”
Thus Jesus’ action will not be an exercise of crude power and domination; it will rather be the final application of his of redemptive love. Paul uses his considerable poetic gifts to get this picture across to us. The Psalmist sings that the hills of Zion skip like rams and he declares that the “rivers shall clap their hands and the little hills will be joyful together.” In like manner, Paul is using the poetic devices and skills he has learned from the Old Testament and the Greek poets to open up the mysteries of things to come. Paul is not suggesting that trees and streams, mountains and oceans have some form of self-consciousness or intentionality or feelings. He personifies the nonhuman creation casting it as different characters – for example, as a woman giving birth, groaning and heaving and yet full of expectation and hope.
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”
The language “the revelation (or manifestation) of the children of God” means the children of God, both the living and dead, resurrected, united, embodied, transformed and taking our place in the Kingdom of God on this earth. That’s important to remember and it is all of one package. Paul says that creation is intently expecting, keenly watching and waiting in full confidence for this finality. He mixes the metaphors all up – the word that we have translated “earnest expectation” is one Greek word that presents creation now as an Olympic runner completely focused, straining with his head outstretched toward his goal, which is literally what the word means. That imagery would have been very strong for the Romans in Paul’s day who would have understood that the watching and waiting never stops, never weakens until the thing waited for finally appears.
And then again one may take it that God’s creation is, in a manner of speaking, the audience awaiting the final curtain call of this drama of time and space. Paul piles metaphor upon metaphor, image upon image to get at his meaning. The end will soon come and there will be an unveiling, a final scene played out upon the same stage where it all began, in the garden of creation. Creation is likened to a woman giving birth, an Olympic athlete, and an audience eager for the last act, eager to see the children of God takes their place in God’s Kingdom. The audience is on the edge of the seat in anticipation:
“For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God.”
The idea that Paul is opening up in Romans reaches its conclusion here in chapter 8: all of God’s creation was from the very start bound to man, bound to Adam – not at all free and self-governing but wholly dependent upon man. Creation’s destiny is one with our destiny with a qualification: since the fall creation and its ultimate destiny has been bound up, not with the ungodly that have rejected Christ, but with the children of Light, with the children of God and their taking up their rightful place in glorious Kingdom of God.
“For the creature was made subject to vanity (futility), not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
But this anticipation is all the more poignant because creation is suffering in existential bondage to death, a state of “futility” and corruption, entirely because of its existential bond to man and his destiny. The word we have translated “vanity” is better-translated “futility.” “Futility” is the use of an object for an end for which it was not designed. Airplanes are designed to carry passengers from one part of the world to another, not to be flown into buildings. Man’s futility and creation’s futility began with Adam’s distortion of his God-given work to husband creation. “Man the Gardener” became “man the manipulator.” The futility to which Adam subjected creation was his attempt to snatch for himself what could only belong to God. Thus he drew all of creation into his own world of death and corruption.
“And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our bodies.”
We too wait and groan within ourselves along with creation, as we anticipate the victory of God and the redemption of the material creation. We wait for the “redemption of our bodies;” we do not look for an eternal vocation apart from our bodies. The material world is not our enemy, nor is it a prison – it is our home. We sigh, we groan together. There is an oneness, a unity, and a sense of belonging – of “being-at-home” with the material creation that we know deep in our bones. This sense of oneness with the creature is sorely impaired, but the longing is profound and we have a revelation from God affirming the truth of that intuition that we feel within ourselves. And so Paul gives us a vision of our destiny as children of God that includes the destiny of this earth – from whose own soil and substance the hand of God sculpted our bodies in the beginning. And from her gardens and rivers and steams, from bird and beast and reptile – a redeemed order will come together as a fit habitat for the children of God. And the Gardener, the Last Adam that creation breathlessly awaits, will return to his Garden with his siblings in tow.
“… but we ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit… grown within ourselves awaiting the redemption of our bodies.”
We live in this “Already/Not Yet” tension of hope and loss, of faith and death, of love and broken hearts. We share this existential bond with the first generation Church and for that matter with all of humanity, Christian or not. The dearest people in our lives leave us eventually or we leave them. Death breaks the circle. And yet we continue to know the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” that green hope that Paul likens to the firstfruits of a harvest, the first wine of the season, the first grain scattered about the threshing floor. The Holy Spirit succors us and we know that the harvest has begun and the final fruit, the resurrection, is sure to come. But the Spirit does not free us from the tension of living in this veil of tears. In fact the Holy Spirit actually heightens the tension and brings it to an anguished expression as we sigh within waiting not for deliverance from the material world but our transformation, knowing that our transformation will bring about all of creation’s transformation.
We live in the time between the two chief moments in history that will culminate in a new earth filled with God’s own children. The first moment was Pentecost when the Father sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Church. The one-hundred-and-ten souls in the Upper Room were all born again as children of God and filled with the Holy Spirit that morning. That great action of the Holy Trinity was personalized and effectually applied to your life when you were baptized. You were personally integrated into God’s plan of the ages at that moment. This is what Paul refers to as the “firstfruits of the Spirit,” the beginning of the harvest of which we are a part – we are folded into God’s corporate action that will culminate at the end of history.
“The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but we also… groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our bodies.”
The second great moment will be “the redemption of our bodies,” our resurrection and the deliverance of creation.
“… the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
Remember this is where St. John’s vision puts the finishing touches to Paul’s thought concerning just how Christ will “subject all things to himself.” The final vision takes shape: creation will be eucharized, resurrected, and transformed, arrayed like a bride dressed up for her groom! The material world will be born again and burst into blossom as the redeemed children of God begin our reign upon earth. And we will all live forever.