Day of Pentecost (Year B)

New life emerges out of struggle

tongue of fire on black background
Photo by Paul Bulai on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

May 23, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 8:22-27

While the text in Acts 2 for the day of Pentecost celebrates the initial arrival of the Holy Spirit, Romans 8:22-27 describes the ongoing reality of life in the Spirit. 

At first glance, we might prefer Acts’ portrait of the Spirit spontaneously uniting a diverse crowd of people into an idyllic community to Paul’s description of groaning, pain, and weakness. But sitting with Romans  8:22-27 reveals an equally powerful portrait of the Spirit’s work that both challenges and comforts the contemporary world.

The text comes in the midst of Paul’s assurances that God’s gift of Christ has already freed humanity from the powers of sin and death that held them in bondage (for example, Romans 8:1-4). The Spirit of the risen Christ is available to all now, bestowing true life through union with Christ (for example, verses 9-11). Like Peter in Acts 2, Paul declares that God’s eschatological era of salvation is presently upon us. 

But Romans 8:22-27 clarifies that the full realization of this redemption still lies in the future. In the meantime, there is groaning.

The entire creation is personified as groaning in pains of childbirth (verse 22) because it still experiences the detrimental effects of people behaving as though the God of all creation has no claim on their lives (for example, Romans 1:18-25). Christians are also caught up in this groaning, longing for their full participation in God’s restored creation (verse 23). Even the Spirit groans while interceding for these saints in their weakness (verses 26-27).

A couple of themes in Romans 8:22-23 are worth highlighting. First is the interconnectedness of human creatures with all creation in both the struggles of the present time and the longing for God’s promised redemption. Just as Romans calls people to recognize that they are not independent from God, it also calls Christians to recognize that their lives and ultimate destiny cannot be disconnected from the fate of the entirety of God’s creation.

A second, related theme is that the realm of the Spirit’s redemptive activity is the created world, in all its imperfection. The Spirit’s work is not to lift Christians out of embodied life in this world to dwell in some ecstatic state, but rather to continually transform human life—together with all creation—into the fullness of God’s intentions. This process is painful and often messy, as the image of the creation in labor pains implies. The gift of new life is beautiful, but it emerges out of struggle.

In light of the events of the past year, these themes provide timely possibilities for preaching. Amidst a global health crisis and urgent struggles for social justice, there is increased awareness that things are not right. Our text’s affirmation that God is not yet finished with the world resonates with our experiences, opening up space for our collective groaning and longing for something better. It also gives hope that we are not on our own in the struggle—God’s Spirit is groaning right along with us, expressing our pain, fears, and dreams to God as petitions too deep for us to put into words. The text also invites us to consider the ways in which life in the Spirit empowers us to deeply engage a hurting world, trusting that the Spirit is constantly working in human weakness to bring about God’s full liberation and wholeness.

Circumstances have also forced us to recognize the interconnectedness of all people and creation, which can move us to embrace the other-centered life in the Spirit that Paul describes throughout his letters. For instance, when daily life as we knew it largely came to a halt across the world early in the pandemic, air pollution dropped in dramatically visible ways that demonstrated the human capacity to impact God’s creation—whether for good or for ill. Romans 8:22-27 reminds us of the ongoing groaning of creation even as we start to embrace a return to “normal” life.

We have also seen that one country or community’s health and safety depends on that of all of its neighbors, so that equitable access to health care and other resources is essential for everyone to flourish. This presents a challenge to those of us who experience some degree of privilege—how might the Spirit be leading us to work for change that benefits those who have been denied such privilege? What would it look like to walk in solidarity with everyone in our communities, recognizing that God is committed to the wellbeing of the whole world?

The Romans text also invites us to reflect on both the beauty and frailty of embodied existence—realities that are accentuated amidst illness, isolation, and the accompanying longing for human touch that was prohibited for so long. We are reminded that the Spirit’s redemptive work encompasses all aspects of who we are, including our bodies. The text thus presents a holistic vision of life in the Spirit that calls us to care for ourselves and each other in all aspects of our lives, as we wait in hope for the fullness of divine redemption.