A very thoughtful and perceptive friend recently asked me, "Have you in your life personally known an America that was morally superior to our own? He was articulating the anguish which many of us feel as we see a culture in shreds, values abandoned, a nation in ruins, a world gone berserk.
I have to answer my friend that from a Biblical perspective: the Fall of man did not take place in our lifetime nor in the lifetime of our parents and grand-parents, but at the very beginning of history, the edge of time itself. If the world seems to be a terrible place, it is not because things are getting worse but because our moral perceptions have become more acute.
St Paul addresses this issue in the passage from Romans 8 which we read today, when he elaborates on "the sufferings of this present time" which certainly will be reversed in the "glory" to come. This truly monumental chapter begins with the thrilling statement "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." The key-word of that text and perhaps for the whole chapter is the word "now," which tells us that in the earth-shattering event of Jesus Christ, there has been a decisive and permanent reversal in the world and the relationship between God and His creation.
But this reversal is not obvious to all and sometimes even Christians see it dimly. The Bible is honest about the intensity of "the sufferings of this present time." And those words, "this present time," do not refer to the current generation or even to our brief lifetime. "This present time" is the entire chunk of history between the two Comings of our Redeemer.
Paul reminds us that for the time being, until Jesus comes again, we live on this planet with the residual effects of Adam's Fall. "For the creation was subjected to futility, ... the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now." When secular talking-heads try to alarm us with daily recitals of how bad the world has become, the Christian's response should be, "Yes, we have known all this for a long time, but we have already read the final chapter and we know the end of the story. In fact we have the solution to your pain."
"The glory which shall be revealed in us" is Christ's coming and the resurrection of our bodies. But within the here and the now, we already enjoy "the first-fruits of the Spirit." Here we have an interesting word. Usually, "first-fruits" meant the initial part of a harvest, which had to be rendered up to God in sacrifice. But here, the word instead refers to God's gift to us. Paul seems to be thinking of a special meaning of the term, in which it referred to a birth-certificate. The presence of the Holy Ghost within the life of the Christian is his birth-certificate as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven, the certification of his new birth. This is the great fact already in effect. The "present evil age" can never undo it.
Concerning the Gospel:
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 were taught what God has done for us. Now, from Trinity Sunday until Sdvent, we must learn (to borrow Francis Schaeffer's book title) “how then shall we live.” Our Saviour's mighty work for us cannot leave us unchanged. But what are we being changed into?
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 rightly say, “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 Lk 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 fulfil. 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 re-fashioned and transformed. The royal law of Jesus will become the picture of the redeemed Christian.