The Epistle appointed for today is a preview of a long series of readings from Paul's apostolic letters. (Calling Paul's writings "letters" obscures their importance as the official correspondence of an Apostle, which makes the traditional term "Epistle" far more accurate.) And from Romans 8, we have one of the most challenging passages which the "prisoner of the Lord, ambassador for Christ," ever wrote.
Coming precisely at the middle of his longest writing, the Epistle in which Paul founded the science of Dogmatic Theology, Paul addresses the profound contrast between present and future, the time of suffering and the time of glory.
We must understand that "the sufferings of this present time" were not the temporary sufferings of a by-gone age. He was not referring exclusively to the hardships and persecutions of the early Church. He was speaking of the human condition, the predicament of our sinful nature. When he goes on to write, "the creation was made subject to vanity," and speaks of "the bondage of corruption," Paul is thinking of the dire consequences of man's first disobedience and the tragic fall which casts a dark shadow over all history to the end of time.
But the story did not end there. Whereas the fall of Adam with its resulting fall of the human race is told in a very few chapters, the rest of Biblical history presents God's incessant and invincible campaign for our redemption. Today's Epistle teaches us that we live "between the times," the time of God's saving event in Jesus Christ and the time of the final revelation, "the unveiling of the sons of God."
Can you imagine opening a history book written, say 200 or 300 years hence, and finding your name in it? This is the picture Paul paints for us and (indeed of us!) The "sons of God" are those born-again souls who have been adopted into God's family. For the present time, with all its anguish, pain and disappointment, this is a secret known only to the few. But we look forward to the Event in which the secret shall be told publicly and our true identity will be made known to all the universe.
The opening verse contains an interesting translation problem. Is it the "glory which shall be revealed in us" (as our AV and Prayer Book have it) or "to us" (as many modern translations render it). It is attractive to think of the "glory" mentioned here to be the wonderful moment when the returning Lord suddenly becomes visible in the skies as He returns to earth. The NT surely promises such an event of glory. But the larger context here, the futility of creation under the curse of thorns and thistles, the wrap-up of history with the redemption of our bodies in the General Resurrection, the believer's special status as "first-fruits of the Spirit," compels us to think the old translation is correct. We ourselves will be part of that glorious event when Christ comes again and shares His glory with us. LKW
In the second half of the liturgical year, the series of approximately twenty-six Sundays, the persistent theme of our Epistles and Gospels is how to live the Christian life. From Advent through Trinity Sunday, we are taught what God has done for us. Now we must learn (to borrow Francis Schaeffer's book title) “how then shall we live.” Our Savior's mighty work for us cannot leave us unchanged.
Today's Gospel comes from a long passage in Luke called “the Sermon on the Plain,” roughly equivalent to Matthew's “Sermon on the Mount.” What should be immediately obvious to us is that Jesus spent much of His time in ethical teaching, instructing His disciples in a distinctive way of life. Christians are set apart, Jesus teaches us, not just in what we believe or how we worship, but by how we behave ourselves.
Three things are obvious in this passage. First, the Christian life is outstanding for the quality of inter-personal relationships. Everything Jesus has to say here involves how we treat, and get along with, other people.
Second, the moral principles of the Christian life are so utterly simple. Jesus does not speak of “gray areas,” or ethical dilemmas.” When He speaks of being merciful, or not judging, or being generous, we have before us some very straight-forward material. No one can say rightly, “This is too hard for me to understand.” (Today's Epistle from Romans 8 is another matter!) We know only too well what Jesus means.
Third, in the two great passages in Matthew and Luke (Matt 5—8 and Luke 6:20—49), Jesus is not speaking (like Socrates or Emmanuel Kant) in the manner of an ethical teacher, speculating on the nature of right and wrong. He spoke and still speaks as King and Law-giver. When we hear His voice in these simple commands “Be ye therefore merciful, ...” we recognize His authority over us.
And sadly, we instantly recognize that this is a Law which we cannot yet fulfill. Can anyone of us read today's Gospel and say, “Oh yes, I have done all that, let's move on to the next topic.” It is significant that this sermon, as Luke narrates it, was preached by Jesus to “a great multitude of people ... which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases.” Disease in the Gospels is the symbol for sin. As the disease of our innate sinful nature is progressively healed in us, so it is that our daily lives are gradually refashioned and transformed. The royal law of Jesus will become the picture of the redeemed Christian. LKW