If we were to be offered the choice of sitting listening for half an hour to either Jesus or Paul as they addressed their hearers on a particular subject, I suspect that most people would opt for being with Jesus, not just because of who he is, but because Paul’s teaching can be extremely challenging and abstruse. But there again, we see in the Gospel reading this morning that the disciples had difficulty understanding the meaning of Jesus’ parables on more than one occasion. So let us take our courage in both hands, and plunge into a reflection on Paul’s glorious words in our epistle this morning. They come at the end of a very long and closely argued exposition which we have been working through week by week, and here we are at the climax.
Paul elaborates on our understanding of the hope we have been given as a result
of all that he has been saying previously. It takes us on from the passage
which formed the basis of a sermon I provided a month ago. On that occasion we
were looking at Romans 6, and the fact that we have been freed from the power
of sin but made alive to God through the work of Jesus. And it spoke of our
situation in a way that
may have seemed slightly odd, in that Paul says, we are no longer slaves to sin, but slaves to God, and we saw that serving God springs from a joyful whole-hearted acceptance of all that he has done for us.
Paul picks up on it here in v15: “You did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” In other words, we are not God’s slaves in the way that that is usually understood, but God’s children, our adoption having been accomplished through the work of Jesus. The difference between slaves and children is not to do with obedience, since that applies to both, nor even the closeness of the relationship, because, with a good master, it might be possible for the slave to enjoy a positive relationship.
The real difference has to do with the future, because we will come into our inheritance which would never be possible for slaves. That is not an inheritance of valuable possessions, but as children of God it will be a sharing in the glory of God, which will be unveiled when the new creation is completely established.
And the means by which this all comes about is the work of the Spirit of God within us. He confirms in us that we are God’s children and heirs with Christ, giving us confident hope of our redemption amidst all the challenges of this life even when we are struggling and tempted to doubt what the future holds. Paul ends this section with a statement about Christian hope: “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.”
Hope by its very nature looks to the future for something, and human hope has a feeling of uncertainty about it, as to whether the desired thing will ever happen. On the other hand, Christian hope is for something which we have seen beginning but it has not been fully achieved yet. It is based on the nature and reliability of God, and therefore there is no doubt that it will happen; the outcome is completely assured.
While we wait for the fulfilment of the perfect will of God in the future, it is also true that for Christians living in the present need hope. Otherwise it would be all too easy to succumb to despair, and that is something which does not come from God. Karl Rahner has said that, “Hope is not simply the attitude of one who is weak and at the same time hungering for a fulfilment, but rather the courage to commit oneself in thought and deed to the incomprehensible and uncontrollable which permeates our existence,” in other words, God. It is a gift from Him to us, but like all gifts, it has no value unless it is accepted and used.
“The gift of hope is woven into the texture of our daily life. It is present whenever we minister to one another and to those whom God gives us to serve. Hope assures us that every act of witness, prayer and service that draws others into the life of the divine love builds up the eternal city of God. — Our hope lies not in what we have done for God, but in what he has done for us.” (Martin Smith SSJE)
Christian hope consists of the knowledge that, through the work of Jesus, the Kingdom of God is an established fact even though it is not fully revealed yet; that we have been adopted as children of God so our present and our future are assured; and that the faith of the followers of Jesus grows like the hidden good seed that we heard about in the parable Jesus told. So, living in hope in this life, our developing faith will convince us more and more of the incalculable value and undeniable priority of the kingdom of God. Having been given this immeasurable gift, we must never allow ourselves to underestimate the eternal significance of it, nor to slip into the error of taking it for granted.