I have often told you about the Apostle John who penned the wonderful gospel of John that celebrates our relationship to God as adopted sons and daughters. That affirmation forms the foundation for John’s great hope and faith. For John it is a wonderful gift of God to know that being accepted by God and loved by God requires no special manner of birth in this world and depends not on how wealthy or influential our earthly family may be. He knows that no one can become a child of God except those who accept the Word that has come from God in the form of Jesus, the Christ.
Paul echoes the words of John in Romans chapter 8, verses 14-17 when he declares that all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons and daughters of God. He knows that the Spirit we have received from God is not one of slavery, leading us to a fear of God but a Spirit of adoption and so we can call God “Abba, Father.” Further he knows that the Spirit of God affirms to our spirits that we are God’s children. And as children inherit from the parents, so we will inherit from God the life that was promised through Jesus – the eternal life lived in the kingdom of God, not as slaves or servants but as children who are loved and cherished.
But Paul recognizes that if we want to be the children of God, if we want to inherit the kingdom that is promised to the children of God, then we need to be prepared to suffer as well. In spite of the fact that Jesus many times told his followers that they would suffer for their decision to believe in him and the message he brought from God the Father, many still see suffering for the gospel as not part of the plan. Certainly we understand that the coming of God in Jesus Christ, his suffering, death and resurrection have brought about a change to our ultimate end; but we can forget that we still live this life with the same challenges that faced Jesus and those first disciples. The world in which we still live is not perfect; it still holds people who seek to destroy life; there is still illness, hatred, war, oppression. The people of this world still have the right to accept or reject the promises of God. The interaction of people and events in this world can bring us to places and times where our faith in God will be challenged.
Paul pulls no punches. He does not pretend for a moment that our life as disciples and followers of God in Christ will be sunshine and roses all the way. He sees great hope and great promise for us in this life because of the presence of God’s Spirit with us but he also sees challenges and wants us to aware that we cannot expect our lives to be without trial or tribulation or suffering. Jesus never said that the disciples would live idyllic lives. He knew that suffering would be part of their lives if they remained true to his revelations about God and the life to which they were called. So suffering is not optional for us. What is optional is how we choose to respond to that suffering.
Paul knows that the final coming of God in Christ has not happened and that he was living in a time when the knowledge of what was coming was not yet revealed in its fullness. For Paul it was most critical that the believers understood this so that they would not lose faith or give up hope. How do we reconcile the suffering of this present time? We can reconcile it in part by recognizing that the suffering and death of Christ mirrors our own suffering. We may never feel the sting of a whip or the pain of nails but we are still subject to the ways in which the people of this world can inflict pain in word and action. We may not die a death like Christ but we know that this life will end one day.
For now we make a choice – the choice to live this life by the will and commandment of our God, the one who has chosen to adopt us as his children or the choice to live this life according to our own will and design. If we choose the former, says Paul, then we need to know that the time of our final liberation from sin, suffering and death has not yet come. For now we have the hope that God places in us by faith to know that God’s actions – past, present and future – will bring about that full liberation not only of our spirits and bodies but that of the whole created order.
We may know that we are adopted by God – and nothing can take that hope away from us – but the world still cannot fully see that adoption. And so Paul encourages us to continue to hope for and expect that day to come when all the world will come to see what will know to be true by faith.
Paul then goes on in the last verses of chapter 8 to make one of the strongest statements about Christian hope. If God is on our side – who is the Creator, Sustainer and Redeemer of life – then who could ever be against us with any power over us? Paul knows that there is no condemnation, no judgment that can ever be held against us for the only one who could ultimately judge or condemn us is God and God has already decided to accept us as his adopted children.
Paul then makes his ultimate statement of hope and faith.
“Then what can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or hardship? Can persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger or sword?
For I am convinced that there is nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths – nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39)
This is the day in the Christian calendar when we celebrate the coming of the Spirit of God upon the disciples as recorded in the book of Acts; but the coming of the Spirit – be it in tongues of fire or not – is only the beginning of the next chapter in God’s plan for the people of this world. For it is not the gift of the Spirit of itself that is most critical, it is what the people who receive the Spirit of God allow to happen in their lives.
We may never be a Paul or a Peter or a John or a Mary, but each of us can be faithful to the hope that God has given us through our faith in the revelation made in Jesus Christ, by allowing the Spirit of God to guide us in our lives and so realize the love of God for us that nothing can take away!