Commentary on Romans 8:22-27
What if, for a moment, we were to set aside the fact that our text comes out of Paul’s theological magnum opus, and instead, hear it as our people will hear it on Sunday morning?
What if we ignored theories of Romans or reasons for Romans or narrative substructures of Romans and listened, instead, to the movement of the Spirit on this day of Pentecost?
Don’t get me wrong. I am a firm believer in the importance of literary context, and I like a good narrative (or the hint of a narrative, or at least a narrative sub-structure) as well as the next preacher. But on Pentecost, perhaps it serves well to attend to liturgical context, where the appointed readings paint three very different pictures of the Holy Spirit. It blows through the house like a violent wind and dances on heads like tongues of fire, empowering people to speak in other languages so that all might hear what God has done in Jesus Christ (Acts). It stands beside us as the Advocate who speaks from God in order to guide us into the truth (John).
And when all those words are inadequate, when all that speaking cannot express what is deepest within us, the Spirit intercedes on our behalf with wordless, inexpressible groans (Romans). It was true in the time of Paul and the Gospel writers, and it remains true today: the Spirit is as close as wind and words and no words. One task of the preacher is to help people to experience — to see and hear — this powerfully intimate work of the Spirit in their midst.
Already and Still
The Spirit in this passage hovers over two equally true realities. On the one hand, our adoption papers have already been served; we have a place in the family of God. Together with the whole of creation, already we are caught up in God as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). Already we have tasted the fruits of the Spirit, the life-giving, life-altering reality of living within God’s embrace. How might you name that reality for your congregation? What does this “already” look like in their own experience, not just in church at the festival of Pentecost, but in the Monday through Saturday realities of their lives?
At the same time, although the adoption is sure, life on this side of the eschaton still is characterized by suffering, not only for us but for the whole of creation. Paul names creation’s suffering by comparing it to the groans of a woman in labor (sustenazō, verse 22), painful cries from the depth of her being during that time between times when she does not yet know whether the outcome will be life or death. He does not name concrete examples, but the preacher can, whether it is global warming, the devastation of war, pollution-dumping industry, or any of the other myriad ways that the earth groans under human bondage to sin.
We, too, suffer in ways large and small as we groan inwardly (stenazō, verse 23) while we wait for the fulfillment of our adoption, and even the Spirit groans (“sighs,” stenagmos ,verse 26) as it gives voice to our deepest longings. This shared “groaning” is testimony that God is present in the midst of our greatest need, even when we do not have the words to name it.
Standing at the center of the passage is hope. For Paul, hope is not pie-in-the-sky optimism that disavows the reality of sin and suffering, as if one simply needed to stop worrying and be happy. True hope is born out of the assurance that what we see and experience — the groaning reality all around us — is not the end of the story. This is hope as a woman in labor hopes: breathing through the pain, holding tight to a companion, looking ahead to what cannot yet be seen, trusting that a time will come when this pain is but a memory.
The preacher must be aware of those in the congregation who have lost hope but do not dare to admit it. Whatever their circumstances — financial crises, broken relationships, devastating illnesses, unending losses — they have landed in a place where there is not one ounce of strength left to endure what is before them. For these the promise of God is a lifeline: when we cannot hope for ourselves, the Spirit hopes on our behalf, the church endures with us, the whole creation groans in solidarity. We are not alone.
Waiting with Endurance
Many a pastor learned in CPE the importance of a ministry of presence; that is, those times when a pastoral visit is less about what is said than it is about being there. This seems to be the thrust behind the Spirit interceding for us with sighs too deep for words: a sign that the Spirit is present in our midst, even when no words are exchanged. That presence can make it possible for us to endure.
The NRSV translates the end of verse 25, “we wait for it with patience,” but the Greek is hypomonēs, “endurance” — we wait with endurance. Another verse from Romans illustrates the reality: “[S]uffering 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.” (Romans 5:3-5)
Knowing that God is present in the midst of our greatest need is good news that enables us to endure. What does that look like where you are? Sometimes the Spirit might be with someone in her/his suffering in the form of a brother or sister in Christ by their side. Narrating that presence for the gathered community is one way the preacher can make visible the ground of our unseen hope.
Finally, a benediction postscript: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)