Creation Groaning in Labour Pains
Paul in today’s second reading from the Daily Office Lectionary is encouraging the readers/hearers of his Letter to the Romans to live by the Spirit, as he himself does. The benefits are significant, in his mind: one escapes the consequences of living the depraved life of the body, namely death. God adopts you as a child of the divine, through participation in Christ.
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you 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!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and 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.
However, the forces that rule this fallen, broken world are not pleased with God’s redeeming work in Christ. The powers and dominions that rule are callously indifferent to the harm they cause humanity and creation. The idols worshipped by them are manifestations of power, wealth, and dignitas, and so they have little concern with slaves, orphans and widow, conquered people, and the poor. And so they persecute God’s children.
The Roman historian Suetonius (69-122 AD) wrote in his biography of the Emperor Claudius: Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultuantis Roma expulit which may be translated He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus. While scholars are divided on whether this is a reference to Jewish Christians, it sounds probable to me especially when one considers the report in Acts 18.2 that Paul found in Corinth a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. They are mentioned in the greetings of chapter 16.3-4, so obviously they moved back to Rome: Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles.
Paul mentions sufferings in his letters, and a generation later The Acts of the Apostles describes the persecution suffered by Peter, Stephen, James, and Paul. He probably knows of painful events in Roman which he does not need to elaborate to his recipients. To be a follower of Jesus Christ was a risky business. People saw it as a dangerous cult, a perversion of the usually peaceful region of the Jews. The same Empire that crucified Jesus also persecuted his followers. So why would one be a Christian? Paul writes:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that 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.
There’s the payoff. Glory is about to be revealed and the children of God will be part of it. Paul, like most Jews of his time, expected an apocalyptic breaking in of God into history. It was predicted in the last few chapters of Isaiah, the Book of Daniel, and the last few chapters of Zechariah; there was also a slew of non-canonical Jewish texts written closer to the time of Jesus which described the coming Day of the Lord. The common themes involved the return of the Messiah and a divine figure “like a son of man” who would come and destroy all the evil in the world. These themes of things being made right – the humble and meek lifted up and the rich and well-fed being pulled down from their thrones – carries right on through the gospels (especially the synoptics), the letters, Acts, and especially the Book of Revelation. Paul bleived that in the Resurrection of Jesus we see that breaking in, and he is revealed as both Messiah and the Son of Man, as well as being the Son of God. Now, the Day is delayed while Paul and others preach the gospel to the ends of the earth (hence his desire to go to Spain, which for him was the end of the world), so that the Gentiles might also have a part of the kingdom. Meanwhile, the powers of futile depravity continue to reign.
Who subjected creation to futility? Paul seems to be alluding to Adam again, which means the sentence then makes logical sense. Jewett points out that creation under the pagan rulers tended to result in environmental degradation. Cities were massacred and forests cut down. The log term result in this pre-industrial society is that soil often became exhaused and infertile; only Egypt was a reliable producer of wheat and other grains because its soil was replenished by the flooding of the Nile. Much of the previously rich countryside of Italy became a wasteland. Topsoils were washed away, creating malarial swamps on the coasts and silting up ports. Paul is seemingly aware of this decay, and ties it to the cosmic fall in Adam and the ongoing perversity of his pagan descendants. So he writes, using the metaphor of childbirth:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now; and 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. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Paul links the groaning of creation – the true Spirit of the World? – with the Spirit groaning within the believer in the speaking in tongues. the persecution that believers are experiencing is paralleled by what is happening to the environment.
Given the current events in the United States, I think it is fair to say that Paul would not be pleased with the roll-back of environmental protection. He would be shocked at the number of Christians who have made idols of power, security, and wealth, and justifying their approach through his writings. All the more reason to bear down on biblical interpretation, and challenging the powers and dominions of our day, as he did in his.