By Matthew L. Skinner.
We asked people about the upcoming 2016 presidential election.
It’s election season.
Hold your groans, but I’m obliged to point out that the 2016 US presidential campaign is gathering momentum.
Please, make it stop.
So far, eight men and women from the two major parties have formally declared their candidacy. Actually, eight is the number of candidates whose names you might know. There are others. And even more will declare their intentions soon.
Even the troglodytic Terry Jones, the onetime Gainesville pastor and Muslim-baiter, claims he’s ready for the job. Groan.
While we ponder—or ignore—the issues and the choices, candidates are wooing us, producing slick promotional videos that play on our cravings for a shiny, thriving future. They cast the current moment as a turning point, an opportunity to pull ourselves together under the leadership of a visionary and competent individual, all to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
Plus, they’re willing to accept our donations.
But if politics make you jaded, cheer up: it’s also commencement season.
Across the land, leaders of educational institutions are introducing Deputy Under Secretaries of Something-Something to gatherings of students and their families. These VIPs’ commencement addresses will extol the potential residing in “tomorrow’s leaders,” naming these undergraduates as the hope for a more civil and prosperous future.
It’s the season of hope.
We rely on hope as a force to inch us forward. No one wants to believe that our best days as individuals or as societies are behind us. Everyone wants to be a hopeful person. Or, at least, there are plenty of people out there eager to make sure everyone feels hopeful.
It’s a season when we’re urged to look for things—data, leaders, movements, promises, trends, exemplars—to provide the ground for hope. For others, it’s a time for sarcasm and mockery.
The Claims of Pentecost
It’s also Pentecost season, beginning on May 24, 2015.
On Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Easter, Christians celebrate the presence of God in the world as the Holy Spirit. The season that follows, which extends through the rest of the church calendar until Advent returns in late November, directs our attention toward the Holy Spirit’s significance. Pentecost provides a time to declare: God is here, among us; through the Holy Spirit we are claimed as God’s children, adopted into God’s own family; we are given opportunities to participate in God’s ongoing work to reclaim the world for the peace and wholeness God intends.
All of those declarations ask us to move forward with hope, since clear evidence for them eludes many of us.
God is here? Really, when disasters strike and compound the suffering of the poor?
We are children of God? Really, when fractured church communities struggle to express unity and hospitality?
God is at work in the world? Really, when church leaders fret over statistics showing a continuing decline among Americans who profess Christian faith?
In his letter to members of house churches scattered across the Roman Empire’s capital city, Paul addresses the disconnect we feel between our struggling, imperfect existence and the promise that God intends to mend our brokenness. Caught in cycles of suffering, yet expecting a more excellent glory to come, all creation—ducks, lemurs, presidential candidates, teenagers, and death-row inmates—eagerly yearns for the fullness of God’s promises to come to pass, whether those members of creation know it or not (Romans 8:18-21).
We’re in this together. The scope of Paul’s vision is not merely communal but cosmic.
Everything needs fixing. Discontentment leaves everything fidgeting with impatience.
In Romans 8:22-27, Paul says that all existence—“the whole creation”—groans and suffers a hopeful agony like labor pain. Humanity is part of this, also groaning in disquiet as we wait. What does this groaning feel like? I imagine it resembles the feeling we get when we read about the gridlock caused by childish politicians, when economic statistics move from abstractions to palpable realities of our lives, or when a disease won’t let go of a close friend. Groaning, we long for more. For better. We crave fullness, freedom, security and redemption. Who or what can help us get there?
Paul might have counseled his readers to be more optimistic or to have stronger faith. Or to get behind their most inspirational and competent leaders. But he’s not interested in attitude adjustment or telling us to work harder.
Instead, Paul asserts that God groans, too. God’s Spirit intercedes on humanity’s behalf with sighs too deep for words. Literally, Paul describes this intercession as occurring through “unutterable groanings” (Romans 8:26). The Holy Spirit advocates for us. Through unheard but pained groaning, God expresses solidarity in our dissatisfaction about how things are. Not only does God groan like we do. God groans where we groan, present in struggle as well as in accomplishments.
All the groanings, then, do not point to deficiencies in faith. They are signs of longing, yearnings for relief located in a conviction that God will continue to contend for our future based on God’s demonstrated commitment to be among us, to be for us.
Hope in God
Don’t read “hope” in Paul’s letter as wishful thinking. It’s a settled assurance or reliance on God’s determination.
Paul would scoff at suggestions that we derive hope from a politician, a valedictorian, or a pastor. Instead, for Paul the hope resides in God.
For Paul, hope is this: God has accomplished what God pledges to accomplish. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ make secure God’s intentions: all creation’s deliverance from the decay and oppression wrought by sin and death.
Paul always turns attention back to who God is and what God has done. The intensity of Paul’s own feelings or confidence, as well as yours and mine, prove irrelevant to his lager point. All that matters is God’s reliability.
Accordingly, Paul doesn’t tell the Romans to generate more hope or to give positive thinking a try. Paul wants them to know that God’s hope—God’s setting into motion the future God intends, in which sin and death lose their destructive stranglehold—remains certain, in the end. It has no serious challengers.
What does this mean now, when the Pentecost season directs attention toward God’s presence as Holy Spirit? It doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit will cure your depression, make you clap your hands and stop asking questions, or prevent your employer from moving your job to another nation where someone will work for half your salary.
It means that the God revealed in Jesus Christ remains present among us, even grumbling with disquiet with us and all who suffer. Even as the groans of our dissatisfaction and grief reverberate through space and time, nevertheless this God makes hope real, enacting it even when we’re too blind, cynical, or discouraged to perceive it.
This news should bring comfort—and sometimes a call to action.
For Further Reading:
Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Witnessing to God’s Own Hope: A Reflection on Romans,” Covenant Network of Presbyterians, 3 November 2007.
Patrick Gavin, “2016 already here for fringe hopefuls,” Politico, 29 November 2013.
A. Katherine Grieb, The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).
Penn Jillette, “What shocked me about the campaign videos,” CNN, 12 May 2015.
Matthew L. Skinner, “Pentecost: When Christians Dream,” Huffington Post, 12 June 2011.
Bible Study Questions:
- Paul in Romans 8:22-27 calls his readers to be patient, and he reminds them of the limitations of our knowledge. He says, “We do not know how to pray as we ought.” How does this sense of divine mystery and human powerlessness resonate (or create conflict) with your understanding of Christian faith?
- For Paul, “hope” is not wishful thinking, a resolve to work harder, or a willingness to trust another person’s plan. It’s reliance on God to carry out what God has determined to do. How is this religious hope different from (and similar to) how you think about your hopes for society, economics, or your family’s future?
- What makes it difficult for you to have hope? What kinds of things foster hope for you?
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian who now braves Minnesota winters, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible’s potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers. Sought-after nationally as a teacher for conferences and congregations, he helped create the freesiteEnterTheBible.org and contributes frequently to WorkingPreacher.org. He’s part of the team that produces Sermon Brainwave, a free weekly podcast for preachers and others exploring the biblical texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His most recent book isThe Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he coedited Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. For more information and more of his writings, visit MatthewSkinner.org.
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