by Andrew Stephens-Rennie
A reflection on Romans 8:18-39
Wine Before Breakfast
Originally Delivered November 21, 2006
Dishes clanging, water splashing, people yelling up and down the hallway. As the floor is finally mopped clean, the instruments put away and the water let out the drain, the chaos is suddenly intruded upon by a mournful silence.
Silence is never to be found in this city, and yet today silence has found us here. Patients gather ’round the bed, prayers are lifted like incense to heaven as tears roll drearily down our cheeks. A father. A son.
From the centre of the semi-circular crowd, a young man leads in a prayer of thanksgiving. He leads us in a prayer of lament, for this our dearly departed. Lying in our midst, body covered in hand-woven linens, flies circling and spirit fleeting, we remember who he was to us. We recall the few things we were able to do for him while he breathed his last breaths in this place.
My throat chokes up. A tear traces my cheek like so many others. I did not know this man, and yet at the time of his last rites, I recognise in him, myself. I too am frail. I too will die. Whether indistinctly in a hospice bed or in a blaze of glory, my life, too, shall pass.
In the face of death, persecution, and futility, our correspondent declares that these sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory about to revealed. A glory will be revealed, he tells us.
And yet what could he know? Paul’s ideal is not our reality. The reality of The Way in first century Rome was this: hardship, peril and sword. It is in the midst of these hostile surroundings that the best minds of a generation were being destroyed, left starving, hysterical, naked.
What place is there for glory in the midst of this oppression? Why call for celebration when what’s at hand is cause for lament? If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times – there is nothing new under the sun.
Do you remember the disciples?
The disciples had been waiting. Watching and waiting and endlessly praying. Praying for the one to come. The one to set them free. To break them out of tyranny. The one who would overthrow, let them know that they were chosen, they were saved, and that they would rise in triumphant victory.
Even then, all their master wanted, was to make blind men see.
The disciples were waiting on something and someone to overcome, to outlive, to outlast to outplay the imperial hand, to finally conquer the band of thieves who were killing, cursing, crushing them at every turn. They wait and they long. They long for the dawn of a new age, a new page, for Jesus’ fire and rage against the Roman machine swallowing them whole.
And where are we now? I hate to say it, but it looks like nothing much has changed.
A poet of this generation puts it something like this: Sorrow is constant and the joys are brief. The seasons turn, bringing no sweet relief. And time, it’s a brutal thief, time takes our lot and leaves us with nothing but grief.
It’s hard to hope when you’re assaulted from all sides. When abuse is the norm and your street corner a marketplace for crack; when homelessness abounds and your murdered neighbour’s just another stat. Smog fills the air, fish stocks deplete, ice caps melt, and farmers’ fields are traded for a field of broken suburban dreams. Yet, in the midst of it all, we hear Paul say:
“For in hope we were saved.”
“In hope we were saved.”
“We were saved.”
Saved through the salvific work of Christ, saved from our sufferings, and saved for the life of the entire world. It’s almost as if he wants us to believe that such salvation is possible even as we stare death in the eye.
And looking death in the eye, recalling the state from which we were delivered, it’s almost as if he wants us to remember those ancient words of a story once told: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”
In a new Egypt, under a new Pharaoh, Paul’s words talk of a new exodus. In hope we were saved. Hoping for what we do not see, we wait with patience.
In patience, we remember that all things work together for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose. Recalling exodus, we remember echoes of a promise:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
We remember these words in the midst of our weakness. We groan for resolution, as all creation groans in desperation.
Creation groans, and we look to Christ – the new Moses. In Christ, the one in whose image we are created, to whose image we are conformed, we are called to living sacrifice. In Christ we find our hope, and through Christ, we embody hope, as we, his church are conformed to his image.
As we celebrate the Eucharist today, we acknowledge our own implication in God’s mission of reconciliation on earth. We stand in wonder, us martyr Christians, before the specter of our wretched cities. We see their soot, their desolate parks, their crumbling bridges, and hear their groaning in travail.
And if we have ears to hear, we have no choice but to act. The Eucharist itself re-enacts the story of Creation’s salvation, and we, with Christ are the actors. In the Eucharist, we acknowledge this story’s cosmic scope. We must seek peace, and no longer war – with all of creation. And in the final reckoning, we must recognize that peace is achieved through nothing but the broken body and the spilled blood of Christ and his Church on the Cross.
The tears flood my eyes, for while I did not know this man, I recognise myself in him. I too am frail. I too will die. My life, too, shall pass.
And yet, in this, there is hope. In life and in death, we have opportunity to care for God’s creation – all of it gift. We were planted, once, in a garden, and given responsibility over it. In the beginning, so the story goes, God created the heavens and the earth. And in the beginning, God trusted us to keep creation in our care.
Is it strange that all along while we’ve been awaiting a saviour, Creation has been waiting for the same thing? The words of Jeremiah ring true, whether in the city, or in the forest, and we do well to consider them here today, in the face of our frail humanity:
Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf; for in its welfare you will have welfare.’
In the chaotic city streets and meadow roads. On mountain tops and in valleys below. Wherever we are, wherever God has called us, creation groans, and we must listen, until our final breath.
His eyes are made to be closed. The linen bedclothes raised over his head, flowers placed lovingly, one by one upon his chest as we pay our last respects to one like us. A human being. A member of God’s good creation. One of our kindred. And as the last of us walk by, as we prepare to leave this silence for the chaos outside, we commit his spirit unto Your care…
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.