15th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Harmony in the Kingdom of Heaven

Man Holding Basket, Duong Tri, Unsplash

15th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 8:18–23
July 12, 2020

No other letter of St Paul is read as much as Romans in the liturgy and no part of it as intently as Romans 8. As we saw last week, it answers the question:

Wretched man that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
(Rom. 7:24–25)

Paul boldly told us that it was Jesus and him alone. He will rescue us not by a decree, but by joining his life to ours. We will live “in” his Spirit. Paul, ever the good Jew, believed that the human being had two inclinations: abandonment to God and reliance on material things. They did not play well together. He begins today with:

Consider that the sufferings of this present time
are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us.
(Rom. 8:18)

This is not only nor even principally a conflict with Rome or indeed with fellow Jews but a battle within us. Which inclination will guide us, will we choose God or the world?

It was a great insight of the Jews that this was not merely psychological or even sociological and political but cosmic in nature.

For creation awaits with eager expectation,
the revelation of the children of God;
(Rom. 8:19)

The Jews saw the connection between the fate of humanity and the entire cosmos.

Let us look at a few passages from the Old Testament. It is obvious to us that there is a creation and it is out of love. This is a radical thought and we need to come back to it repeatedly throughout the year. If we look at the world, it may not immediately seem as if it came to being by an all-powerful God who loved it. Also, in some origin myths, humanity was not formed by the same being or beings responsible for the rest of the universe and often humans were formed out of hate or by accident.

We are very familiar with the creation story of Genesis 1:

Then God said: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.
Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the cattle,
and over all the wild animals and all the creatures that crawl on the ground.”
(Gen. 1:26)

But let us complement this with Genesis 2. There is a wasteland and from that God creates a stream and from its mud Adam.

The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden,
to cultivate and care for it.
(Gen. 2:15)

Humans are not only part of nature but are expected to play a key role in it. In Eden, humans worked together with and in nature. When Adam and Eve sinned, that bond was broken, and we read:

cursed is the ground because of you;
in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face.
(Gen. 3:17b–19)

Paul writes next:

For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God;
for creation was made subject to futility,
not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope
(Rom. 8:19–20)

Clearly humanity and “all creation” are still connected. Creation was made subject to futility, because humans were subject to the law which could not free them. Yet God was using creation to support not humankind as much as his chosen people. To take two examples both from the book of Wisdom.

For creation, serving you who made it,
exerts itself to punish the unrighteous,
and in kindness relaxes on behalf of those who trust in you.
(Wis. 16:24)

For the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew,
complying with your commands,
so that your children might be kept unharmed
(Wis. 19:6)

Indeed, creation itself would need to be reborn. The Jews knew that the world was not the way God wanted it. It was too broken to fix and needed to be transformed:

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever
in what I am creating;
for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy,
and its people as a delight.
(Is 65:17–18)

This is now coming to pass in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
(Rom. 8:22)

Groaning is a very well-chosen word with an excellent pedigree.

After a long time the king of Egypt died.
The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.
Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God.
(Ex. 2:23)

Groaning was considered a cry for salvation and completion.

In this we participate.

and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves
as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
(Rom. 8:23)

Paul told the Romans that they lived in a strange in-between time. They are connected in this present age with Jesus “in” the Spirit. They have the first-fruits but they know that there is more do they groan—as did the Israelites of old—for that completion. They are already his sons and daughters, but the new age is not fully here, and they must wait for its fullness to arrive.

But now it is time to turn from “they” to “us.” The definition of the kingdom of God is perfect harmony between God and humanity, humans ourselves, and between humanity and nature. I first heard this description in 1974. It was in the course I mentioned last week “Theological Anthropology in Scripture” (A gift that keeps on giving.) I thought that the last part was just tacked on. The really important statements were the first two. History has proven me wrong.

Our land is polluted, our resources depleted, and our weather just plain weird. Pope Francis addressed this with the first encyclical on creation care, “Laudato Si”. Joe Genova gave us a brief overview of this encyclical in our weekly emails for 4 weeks. They are well worth reading. We not only get an introduction to the Pope’s thought, but Joe conveniently includes in Part 4 an appendix of prayers written by Pope Francis. Prayer number 2 is for Christians and note that Pope Francis joins the poor and the earth in a common groan to God:

The poor and the earth are crying out,
O Lord, seize us with your power and light,
help us to protect all life,
to prepare for a better future,
for the coming of your Kingdom,
of justice, peace, love, and beauty,

The poor as we have seen in this time of pandemic live closer to the realities of shortage and want. The world has failed them, so they are more likely to take a chance with God. Pope Francis, like his great Patron Francis of Assisi, realizes that they are the connection between harmony with each other and nature.

The kingdom is a gift from God. It has begun but its fullness will be revealed only in God’s good time. When it is revealed, we will find that the prayers of the poor and the earth will be fulfilled. They were of abandonment. What of our prayers?