Text: Romans 8:18-39
We gather this morning to remember a good friend, a mother, a mother-in-law, a Christian, a daughter of Christ. And though we know inwardly that death is part of the fabric of life, we do not look forward to it nor do we celebrate in it. Even though we testify that something greater remains for those who are in Christ, yet we struggle when it comes time to release our friends and family into the presence of our Lord.
The apostle Paul is aware of this and in our reading from Romans reminds us not to get too far ahead of ourselves and reject the very real suffering we do experience. And we do experience suffering. Yet, he says that this present suffering is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. So while there is suffering, and sadness, and pain, there is also a light, and hope that we can hold onto in remembrance and with a view towards future glory. But I will return to this...
...because Paul continues meditating on the theme of suffering. He points to the creation, the world around us. The world around us announces its own decay. In this way it is a sign of what is to be for us. There is a large willow tree bordering the property that the church owns. It is an old tree, and in wind or ice storms branches will often fall out of the tree. In worse cases, entire limbs will fall out. This tree is old; it is decaying and dying. Such is the way of life, and such is the example that creation gives to us.
But embedded within creation is a glimmer of hope. In the autumn season, which we are in now, trees appear to die as they lose their leaves. Plants and flowers wither. Grass turns an ugly shade and stops growing. Yet this is only temporary. After a period of time, autumn turns into winter and winter turns into spring, and everything begins to grow once more. Trees blossom; flowers bloom; and grass regains its color. This is a sign of the hope to come.
But in the meantime, we groan. This is the word Paul uses to describe the decay of the creation around us. This is the word the apostle Paul chooses to describe the inner angst we feel that things are just not right. It seems that even when things are rolling for us, when we are at the top of our game--or even the world--that something within us...well, groans. We groan because we know things are just not right. We groan when we see death around us because it is opposite of what our feelings are--we do not want people taken from us, though we know they pass on to the grace of God; and we do not like endings, though we know that behind every Christian ending is a new beginning. So we groan.
But our groaning indicates that there is more than what we experience. We groan also because we know that God is calling us to more...but we wait while this “more” takes time to filter down to us.
And in the meantime, our groaning is done in hope. If it is our hope that saves us, that allows us to cast off once and for all this groaning, when do we experience that salvation? Surely we have the firstfruits of that salvation now, but we will not fully experience until we, too, have passed through death. Hope that is seen, after all, is no hope at all. So we must wait patiently for this hope to be made known among us.
Yet, while we wait, we root our hope in the Spirit of God that dwells within us. It is the Spirit through whom we share in the spiritual firstfruits. Now, firstfruits is an agricultural word that describes the very first, the freshest, the newest of the harvest. It is a forebearer of what is to come. And because we know that much, much more is to come, we celebrate at the firstfruits we experience and share, as a sign of the greater things that will be.
And more than this, the Spirit helps us in our weakness! When we are weak, we are strong. When we are sad, we are happy. When we don’t know what or how to pray, the Spirit prays for us! And because God and the Spirit are in agreement, we come to agree with God through the Spirit!
So we are not alone in our grief and suffering. The Spirit of God travels with us, enlightening us, praying for us, and allowing us to share now in what we will share eternally! Thus we learn that in all things God works for the good of those who love. How can death be good? How can separation be good? How can decay be good? Because we know, through our experience of the Spirit among us, that these things are only signs of the end. We know that God has worked to defeat death. We know that God will bring more to us than we can ever imagine or bring ourselves.
God has called us for his purpose. He is in the process of conforming us. And he will change us. God is at work among us and through us so that even the painful process of death, and the grief and suffering that come with it, will not be all there is! He holds us together, he brings us together, he gathers us together as his people. As Paul says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” No one! There IS no one to condemn us! There IS no one to bring charges against us, because we belong to God! There is nothing or no one to fear in death.
Though it sure feels hard right now, this is our reality. We are truly more than conquerors through--and because of--God who loves us. “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It is not without cause that the first word used by Paul to describe what we have conquered is death. Because of Christ, death has become not the end but a phase, or stop, in our journey. Through Christ we have overcome death because we have entered into the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is this love, the love of God that finds full expression in the life--and death--of Jesus, that we release our sister into today. She has gone ahead of us, experiencing fully the salvation of which we share only in the firstfruits. But her hope has been realized, and stands as a sign for us today to never give in, never allow the groaning we experience or the fears and anxieties that we have to get their foot in the door. Because we have Christ. And we have God’s love. And nothing can separate us from these truths.