12Brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh — 13for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body and you will live. 14All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what is seen? 25If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Text ©The New Revised Standard Version, alt, Used with permission.
Through his promotion of, and respect for, women in the churches he formed, Paul was clearly as inclusive of women as he could be in the very patriarchal society of the first century. It is thus appropriate, given that political correctness and the feminist movement now deny us the long-established use, in English, of male pronouns in a generic sense, that the Greek word αδελφοι (adelphoi) is translated in the NSRV as “brothers and sisters”. I have no doubt that Paul would have been including the women as well as the men.
Paul declares that we are debtors; but despite telling us what we are not debtors to, never tells us what he considers we are debtors to. Just like a good educator, leading people towards an answer but never giving it to them, he leaves it to those in the audience to ponder over, and to work out for themselves, where that debt lies.
We are made of body and spirit. The body, the flesh and blood of our mortal appearances, can lead us astray. We are tempted to seek and acquire things which are transient and please us, without consideration for others, and too often we succumb to those temptations, in the process separating ourselves from God. Paul’s reference to dying has nothing to do with the cessation of the processes which keep our bodies functioning, but to the death which comes from being separated from God. On the other hand, if we allow God’s Spirit, working within us, to direct us, then we will nurture that relationship with God who continues to feed and nourish us. Those who had become Christians in the early churches, and even some of us in 21st century churches, might feel as if we have bonded ourselves in slavery because of the rules and regulations which being part of a particular church might impose on us – you must dress like this; you must speak like this; you must address the priest like this; you must like music like this; children should be seen and not heard. The list goes on, but that is not what Paul wants his audience to think. Far from being forced into a restrictive relationship with “the owner”, becoming a Christian is like being adopted into an unconditionally loving family, with God as the head. Many of us have never experienced unconditional love; some even deny it is possible for humans because their own experiences are far from the love which God quite willingly gives us, but God is love, and loves all of us unconditionally.
Being adopted into God’s family allows us to call Him “Father”, and to share with Christ in the abundances which are offered, but it doesn’t give us the right to avoid temptation, or hurt, because of the evil which abounds where God’s love isn’t allowed to enter. Yes, we will suffer for the sake of the Good News, but not in the same way as Christ Himself suffered. Commenting on the restrictions which Covid-19 has required of us, a young male from Broadmeadows (in the north of Melbourne) revealed an appalling lack of appreciation and care for older people, as if they were dispensable because they were passed their “use by” date. People continue to suffer and to die because of the lack of concern for others displayed in such a comment. I’m sure that God is crying because this suffering and these deaths would, to a large extent, be avoided if people around the world stopped thinking of themselves more than others. Let’s turn that around and tell Satan to leave everyone alone.
Throughout our lives we strive to do ‘better’ and we tolerate suffering and pain when we can see the ‘better’ future. That is precisely what Paul is picking up on when he says that the sufferings of the present time pale into insignificance when compared with the glory in the life hereafter. Just as growing up from being a newborn baby through the toddler stage and on into spiritual adulthood our eyes are opened to the wonders of this world, what the Spirit foresees is our discovery of what it is like to be ‘children of God.’ Several respected commentators note Paul’s reference to labour pains. Why is that surprising? Not only are there many references in scripture to feminine images of God, but also Paul’s churches had a significant number of female leaders.
Have you ever yearned so much for something you expect to occur that you groan, outwardly or inwardly, in anticipation? That is what it was like for the early Christians, looking forward to the second coming of Christ, which they expected in the their own lifetimes. Just as last week’s reflection on the Parable of the Sower made a distinction between hearing and listening, so, here, Paul makes a distinction between hoping for something and anticipating it. Let us be patient in our hoping that we might return to a society where we are all concerned for each other.
If you want to read the reflection on Matthew 13:24-30 and 36-43 see http://frends.biz/reflections/23rd-july-2017-trinity-7/