Living in the Tragic Gap

A sermon on Romans 8 preached at Wine Before Beer
21 July, 2015

How did they hear it
those early followers
of Jesus?
The ones who lived in Rome,
as slaves to the wealthy.
The destitute stoneworkers,
tile workers,
women and men,
some homeless,
some housed, just.
Jews from the ghettos.
the few Greeks from the hillsides,
with slaves of their own.

How did they hear
the gospel of Jesus?
The words of new life,
life in the Spirit?

How did they hear the promises of Romans:
the reign of justice has come,
new life in Christ has come,
the Spirit has come.
When they looked around and saw
the crowded streets,
the slums with migrants,
the hungry workers,
the slaves
abused for sex,
or just their labour.
Rome, filled with the teeming
smells of death and poverty.
Except, of course,
at the centre,
the still, marble centre,
a city
of imperial temple,
palatial homes,
calm wealth and
serene honour.

How could they believe that
God’s justice,
new life in Jesus,
that the Spirit of peace and love,
had come,
when even those who lived
in the beauty of the centre
could do so only because
of their own slaves,
and toy boys.

How, in fact,
could Paul write these things?
How could he write of the hope of creation,
of God’s reign of justice,
how could he tell those
followers of Jesus in Rome
that they walked in newness of life
when he knew
that they were suffering from abuse,
and hunger,
from homelessness,
lack of clothing,
state sponsored violence,
mistreatment from the cops,
from derision by others in the community.

It seems that Paul knew
there was a disconnect.
He knew that his words sounded too good,
too good to be true.
There is no condemnation!
You are set free!
Life in the Spirit!
Heirs of the divine God!
Yeah. Right.
So Paul inserts an “if.”
A big “if.”
If, in fact, we suffer with him,
so that we might be glorified with him.”

Paul knows,
how he knows,
the tension between the vision
and the reality.

The vision is creation set free.

The reality is oil spills,
pavement everywhere,
bees dying,
earth barren
and blowing
in the winds of drought.
The reality is creation groaning in bondage.

The vision is every woman,
every man,
every child,
a child of God,
a child with glory,
a child living
in the peace and love,
of the Spirit.

The reality is slavery,
and loneliness.

The vision is a community
where the burdens of the weakest
are carried by the powerful.

The reality is
bigger homes,
bigger cars,
better holidays,
on the backs of
a low minimum wage
migrant workers,
and aboriginal impoverishment,
The reality is powerful countries,
punishing the weakest.

The vision is the redemption of our bodies.

The reality is illness,

The vision and the reality.
The tragic gap between them
is the heartbreak of Paul,
the heartbreak of the earth,
the heartbreak of God.

And heartbreak can only
come to expression in pain,
in groans of pain,
in tears of sorrow.

So creation groans,
groans in the labour pains
of something new.

So we groan.
We who have the Spirit
—the Spirit!
who was supposed to bring peace
and love and life—,
we who have the Spirit
groan with those same tears,
in that same heartbreak,
in that same hope.

And—incredibly— the Spirit groans,
the Spirit of God,
searching but not finding words,
the Spirit groans with the same sorrow,
the same heartbreak.
God’s very self crying out in sorrow,
hoping for what could be
but seeing only what is.

When we begin to talk about the kingdom,
when we begin to dream dreams
and have visions,
when we begin to imagine a new world
where the land can flourish,
where the hungry are fed,
where the sick are healed,
enemies are forgiven,
and all are welcomed,
when we truly begin to live
in resurrection hope,
well, it seems that our lives
will then be shaped by lament.

For once the kingdom vision
has grabbed ahold of us,
once we want nothing more
than the new creation,
we can’t help but live with heartbreak
over the reality of how things are.
We can’t help mourning the world
that hasn’t come into being,
we can’t help seeing the pain
of our world.

Indeed our hope exposes us to that pain,
it uncovers the pain,
it says, “this is not how the world should be”
and all we can do is grieve.

And that grief,
that lament,
that mourning,
becomes the place that we must live,
the tragic gap
between the hope and the reality.

And this, I suggest,
this is what it means to live in the Spirit of Jesus.
Not the place of a spiritual high,
not the place of continuous joy,
(although joy will come),
not even the place of unending and deep peace
(though that will come, too).

No, in the heart of empire,
in the midst of a culture of death,
in a world where powerful countries
inflict deprivation on poor Greek pensioners,
and oil leaks by the million litres into the muskeg,
where aboriginal women continue to disappear,
and Palestinian teenagers weep over their future,
in that world,
living in the Spirit
looks like the agony of childbirth.

Living in the Spirit
looks like the tear stained face of someone
who can’t quite believe how bad it is,
and who knows
that this isn’t how it is meant to be.

Living in in the Spirit
means holding the tension
of the tragic gap,
living in the tension of hope and reality,
and allowing that tension to break our hearts open,
so that the heartbreak of God,
becomes our heartbreak as well.

So how did they hear it?
Those early followers of Jesus,
hearing the words of Paul,
shared around bread and wine at a meeting,
or whispered among the slaves,
read by Phoebe to destitute Jews
and to wealthy Greeks,
how did they hear these words of
hope and heartbreak?

We can only imagine that they
knew the terrain of the tragic gap already,
that they knew suffering and sorrow,
that they knew the tears that accompany life
at the heart of empire.

We can only imagine that Paul’s words
provided, not the cheap hope of escape from
the place of lament,
but rather that Paul provided
the only comfort that could make the tragic gap
a place of deep hope.

For Paul’s promise is this:
Those who live in that space of mourning,
live the life of the Spirit,
live the life of Jesus
live the heartbreak of God.

Those who live in the tragic gap
are living pentecost lives,
because the tragic gap between hope and reality
is where the Spirit of God finds her voice,
and where, as followers of Jesus, we find ours.

But there is one more thing that
Paul wants this community to know.

Those of us who live in this place of lament,
in this place of mourning
do so with deep longing.
Eager expectation—
like a kid waiting for their birthday present—
that’s how Paul describes creation
as she waits.
Longing for the redemption of our bodies,
for resurrection,
that’s how Paul describes the believer
as she waits.

In hope—that’s how Paul describes the waiting
of the earth,
of the earth creature,
of the earth maker, in hope
for new earth,
new bodies,
new community.

In hope of, dare I say,
where earth and earth creature
finally live into the vision
of the earth maker.

So we live as people of pentecost,
as people of the Spirit
in the tragic gap.

And we can do so because we believe,
we hope,
that mourning and lament
do not go all they way down.

Only one thing does that.

The love of God,
which holds us in our sorrow,
surrounds us in our sorrow,
and promises, one day,
to bring us beyond the tragic gap,
to bring us home.


Sylvia Keesmaat
Sylvia Keesmaat is a biblical scholar-activist whose passions are teaching the Bible, heirloom tomatoes, and permaculture. She explores radical discipleship and resilience on an off-grid permaculture farm with her husband Brian Walsh and a fluctuating number of people and animals.

Sylvia is the author of Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire and Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice, both co-authored with Brian Walsh. In her down-time she teaches part-time at Wycliffe College and Trinity College in Toronto.

One Response to “Living in the Tragic Gap”

  1. Sherry Coman

    Thank you Sylvia! A good reflection to start a day of hope.


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