16th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Everlasting Hope for Our Restless Hearts

Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash

16th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 8:26–27
July 19, 2020

Last week’s reading began with

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth
comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.

(Rom. 8:18)

This is a common theme in the New Testament. We saw when reading the 1st Letter of Peter that his community suffered from the scorn of family and former friends. We will see in Matthew’s Gospel the suffering of internal divisions. Each of these authors use these experiences to relate the present situation of that particular community to Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection. Paul does the same, but he broadens the perspective to the whole of creation and indeed God himself.

Jewish law was evidence-based. Testimony was always required. To prove that today’s sufferings are insignificant to the glory for which we are intended Paul gives us three witnesses:

The first, as we saw last week, was creation itself. God created the world to reflect his glory and due to human sinfulness, it did not fulfill its destiny. Human failure frustrated the purpose of the entire universe. Thus, creation groaned (Rom. 8:22) as did the enslaved Israelites in Egypt (Ex. 2:23). The universe can only be “free” when humanity has been freed.

The second is humanity itself. We too “groan” as we know that we need to be completed, saved, and that this can only come through Jesus. The flesh, our inclination to fulfill or save ourselves cannot complete us. This is true hope.

For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.
For who hopes for what one sees?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait with endurance.

(Rom 8:24–25)

Hope is also a common theme in the New Testament. The need for hope was clearly seen in our Easter readings of the first letter of St Peter. We saw then that hope in the New Testament is not optimism. It does not depend on circumstances but is much deeper. (A further discussion may be found here.)

It is the basis for the theological understanding found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire
the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness,
placing our trust in Christ’s promises and
relying not on our own strength,
but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit

(CCC 1817)

Hope is rooting our lives in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The world does not give it to us. God does and therefore the world cannot take it away. (It is called theological not because it needs to be studied or defined but it is a gift from God, in Greek: “Theos”.)

Today, we examine the third witness, the Spirit itself. God recognizes that we are weak and lose hope: reject the gift of God—life in the Spirit—and seek to find salvation and completion in ourselves-—life in the flesh. Paul realizes that our relationship with God is maintained by prayer.

In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness;
for we do not know how to pray as we ought,
but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.

(Rom. 8:26)

The spirit groans to and recognizes frustration and the need for completion. The deepest prayer is beyond words and explanation. Paul is quite aware of this:

was caught up into Paradise and
heard things that are not to be told,
that no mortal is permitted to repeat.

(2 Cor. 12:4)

These groanings may be “inexpressible” but they are not ineffective. They move us toward the end for which God created us. St Augustine would write centuries later the finest single line commentary on the letter to the Romans in his Confessions “You have made us, lord and our hearts will be restless until the rest in you.” The Spirit knows what awaits us and so he “intercedes” for us—participates in our life so that we move more directly and “rest” in God our true home.

Here he teaches us a great lesson in the Spiritual life:

And the one who searches hearts
knows what is the intention of the Spirit,
because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.

(Rom. 8: 27)

God—let us for convenience sake say the Father—searches our heart and knows the movement towards him is real and comes from the spirit. This is true of all true prayer. Both its origin and its end are from God.

Yet however divine, the human being will always be marked by restlessness. That is the Christian normal. We are made for escape. To break out of the constraints of our lives and break into a new relationship with God. It is never ending because God is infinite, and we are not. The journey to him is exhilarating but not without frustration, Pauline suffering.

But what about the “New Normal” whatever and wherever it will be? The workplace and workweek will be changed. I already have taken a strong dislike to plastic partitions and think that working from home is a form of indentured servitude. Schools seem to be designing a combination of the worst of everything, and given my own checkered academic past, I wonder what kind of program would have been necessary to help me maintain the ability to do even simple sums. These are just two examples.

Immediate as well is the new normal for the church. More to the point for us at St. Charles. We are an intentional community. Most of our members have made an effort to come here. Before COVID-19, we were doing very well. Indeed, perhaps too well, I could see the future and it was a very good one. We made plans and God laughed. What will happen now? We usually lose about 10 families a summer but pick up more by the fall. This year, I suspect we will lose about 30 and I do not see them immediately replaced.

We have been speaking of reopening the church, I think it may be more accurate to say re-founding it. As an intentional community we will need to define ourselves very clearly and seek to be more of what we claim to be. (Hint: collaboration means, to horribly misquote James Joyce. “Here comes everybody”)

Whatever challenges emerge in the new normal, Paul has told us today to face them by knowing the everlasting hope that comes from our ever-faithful Father.