Sermon – Planting an apple tree

a sermon on Romans 8.12-25

A note from Jamie Howison: This sermon continues our explorations in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. As I mention in the opening paragraph of the sermon, this week it is a little shorter than usual, simply because the church was cooking hot…

When I was preparing this sermon, I was very much aware that the forecast for the weekend was for temperatures in the 30s, accompanied by high humidity, and so I made the decision to prepare a shorter sermon than is usual for a Sunday night. Yes, in this section of his letter to the Romans, Paul does offer some reflection on what he calls “the sufferings of this present time” and on the “groaning” of the whole of creation as it awaits its fulfillment, but to ask that you suffer through a fifteen minute theologically thick sermon in this kind of heat and humidity is hardly what Paul had in mind…

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As this evening’s reading opens, Paul is again working with the tension between “flesh” and “Spirit,” or between that which turns us in on ourselves in self-serving and ultimately destructive ways, and that which calls us beyond our own small selves toward God and God’s creation. As his reflections unfold, he proclaims to us that in Christ, we move from death to life, and from slavery to adoption as children of the God who we can now call “Abba, Father.” The word “Abba” is Aramaic for father; it is household language, used by a child for his or her father; parallel to “dad” or “papa.” This has nothing to do with the gender of God—the biblical tradition is quite clear that God transcends such things—but speaks rather to the intimacy of the connection between God and God’s people. We have been renamed as God’s cherished and beloved children and heirs.

But it is not all sunshine and roses, for as Paul Achtemeier observes in his commentary on this passage, “The transformation wrought by God’s Spirit is such that one becomes a foreigner to the culture to which one once belonged.” That has the potential to place us in conflict with the society in which we reside, calling us to live and think differently, in a way that is at odds with the dominant culture. Or as the Roman Catholic theologian Herbert McCabe summarized the message of biblical Christianity, “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.” (Faith Within Reason)

And so Paul knows that the move he is making here is a costly one, though he is also quite clear that it is a move well worth making. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us,” he writes, and then launches in to one of the more astonishing pieces of writing in the entire New Testament. Here we discover that Paul is not only a theological interpreter of the life and work of Jesus Christ, he’s also a poet. This is where he speaks of creation as waiting “with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God,” and where he makes that most remarkable statement—“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now.” (Romans 8: 22)

The very creation, waiting with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to decay, even “groaning in labour pains.” Sounds a bit mythological, doesn’t it? Like something out of some ancient earth religion, in which the trees and rivers and mountains were thought to be enchanted, or maybe the stuff of the movie Avatar, with its picture of a conscious eco-system.

But then recall what Paul would have brought to his understanding of the world, from the great creation narratives in the opening chapters of Genesis: that all things were declared “good” by the Creator, but that the rebellion of the first parents in a real sense fractured the wholeness of humanity’s relationship with the created order. And recall, too, what we know so well from our own age; that humankind has wrought outrageous devastation to the earth, the seas, the air, and that one of the things that our enlightened scientific progress (so-called…) has brought is the ability to blow the whole works to pieces.

And that is simply not the way it is supposed to be. As Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians, “through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:20) That is the way it is supposed to be… all things restored, redeemed and re-imagined by the God who we can now call “Abba.”

It is a done deal, but we live in the time between times, waiting in patient hope for it all to be taken home. And that isn’t meant to be a passive or defeatist waiting, for in the meantime we are called to live into the promise. As Martin Luther wrote, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

The challenge is to discern how to live with integrity and hopeful patience in the meantime, embracing our status as the adopted children of God, and daring to love and risk regardless of both the cost and the sometimes seeming futility of it all. With Luther, we need to find ways to keep planting the apple tree.


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