Paul could have used a marketing course; don’t you think? You can’t get too far by telling people that they need to suffer. Talk about the benefits and not the burdens; talk about the joys and not the heartache. We always have to start with something like “OK, he didn’t really mean that . . .”
Paul doesn’t mean that bodies are bad. The whole spirit versus flesh thing is wildly misunderstood. In our current context, one way to reinterpret that dichotomy would be to say, “if you live according to self, you will die; but if by the Spirit - the love of God and others - you put to death the desires of the self in isolation, you will live.”
OK, it doesn’t flow like Paul’s prose, but it helps us see the point he is making. Can we live acknowledging our obligations? Can we live as debtors? Not to ourselves. We hear that – “you owe it to yourself!” Paul argues that our ultimate debt is to God, to grace. We owe it to love.
We owe it to those who have loved us when we weren’t all that lovable. We owe it to those who saw in us what we couldn’t see for ourselves. We owe it to those who let us be wrong because that was the only way we would learn.
We are debtors to love. We are debtors to the Spirit who shaped us, who claimed us, who offers us a future with hope and fulfillment and joy. And we experienced that Spirit most vividly through those who walked beside us every step of the way. Those may have been our parents, our teachers, fellow students, or a combination of all the above and more; maybe it was the church that nurtured us and told us that we were worthy of loving, that we were the beloved of God and it was an honor to guide and shape and love us.
We are all debtors; we like to think we are free and unfettered, but we are bound together in human community. And the truth is that we are better that way. We are able to be glorified, to reach our full potential, to claim the gift of eternity, because of the debts we accumulate, because of the relationships we are blessed to live in, and because of the community that we are becoming.
It is our privilege to suffer in service to those relationships. But it is not just the human relationships to which we are indebted. We are in relationship with all creation. That’s what Paul says. The whole creation, he writes. Groaning in labor pains, hurting because of what it wants to birth, what it wants to bring forth. Of course, we say, he’s talking spiritually, he’s talking metaphorically, about spiritual matters, not physical ones. Or is he? It seems that Paul is hinting that our salvation is tied with the bondage and decay of creation. The fate of the world, the fate of the planet is woven into our fate, into our future and our hope.
Not only that, but all that God has made relies on us—not just us, but our better selves, our true selves, our lives as the sons and daughters of God—which is a roundabout way of saying that we treat our world as though it were a part of God, and a part of us.
It is not God; that’s an important distinction to make. We don’t worship the creation. We aren’t tree worshipers and mountain disciples; we’re not grass gurus (any kind of grass, for that matter!) or flora and fauna followers No, we are followers of Jesus the Christ, worshipers of the Creator of all that we see and all that we are. Creation is not God. Yet, we get a glimpse of the Creator when we comprehend the creation. We know the artist when we examine and protect the work of art. We commune with the author when we spend time in the writing.
There is urgency in what we do. Things aren’t getting better on their own. We need to take an active part in building the kin-dom of God. Creation waits.