Wednesday, June 03, 2015

The Spirit Helps Us

The Spirit Helps Us
Romans 8:18-27[1]
Most of us are used to thinking that we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” We may think of it especially on this weekend when we remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. But the freedoms that so many fought so bravely for may seem to many of us to be evaporating. We used to take it for granted that that our children would have better and longer lives that we had. But for the first time in two centuries, there is some concern that children will actually have poorer health and live shorter lives than their parents.[2] We also have taken it for granted that anyone who wants an education in this country should be able to get it. But the rising costs of tuition makes it impossible for all but the wealthy to go to school without racking up tens of thousands of dollars in debt.[3]
The truth of the matter is that we are not as free as we’d like to think. Most of us are free to work throughout our adult lives to make a livelihood in order to raise our families, pay our mortgages, and if we’re lucky, save a little for retirement. Many of us will need to work even after we “retire” in order to be able to make ends meet. The financial realities of our lives these days have made it so that most of us live paycheck-to-paycheck, making do with little or no savings, which means we’re carrying way more debt than we should.[4] It doesn’t sound like our lives are all that free.
So it may sound strange to us when St. Paul talks about the hope of freedom for the children of God and for all of creation (Rom. 8:21-23). The idea is that everyone and everything will one day be set free from all that binds and burdens us here and now. We may be much more familiar with the idea of groaning for the time when we can be truly free. I would say that our experience these days is defined more by groaning under the present burdens than by the hope of being set free.[5] And yet, St. Paul insists that freedom is the destiny not only for all God’s children, but also for all God’s creatures.
Part of the basis for this astounding hope is the victory won by our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ in his death and resurrection. But as we’ve been discussing that wonderful event and our response to it throughout the Easter season, we’ve seen that it’s not always easy to maintain that hope in our present circumstances. Life can make it very difficult indeed to hold onto the hope that God is working in this world to bring freedom to all God’s children and all God’s creatures. In fact, I would say that often our experience of life can dash those hopes and replace them with doubts and even despair about the possibility of ever experiencing that kind of freedom.[6]
But I think it is at this very point that the Scripture lesson may address us. I find it very interesting that after talking about the hope for freedom that we continue to cherish in the midst of our current groaning, he says that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness” (Rom. 8:26). While the immediate reference is our ability to know how to pray or even to know what we should pray, I think St. Paul is making a broader reference here. I don’t think it is a coincidence that he follows up a discussion of the challenges we face in holding onto this hope with the promise that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”[7] I think the assurance is that the Spirit who was “poured out on all flesh” on that first Pentecost (Acts 2:17) comes to us all and “helps us in our weakness”—whatever that weakness may be.
Now, knowing the experience of the Spirit’s help is not something that is always obvious. In fact, I would suggest that at times the Spirit may be helping us in ways that we don’t even know and can’t even imagine. And yet, regardless of our awareness, the promise of Scripture stands: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness”! In my experience, the times when the Spirit is helping us the most are the times when we may feel like we’re abandoned by God, alone and hopeless. Of course there are other times when we encounter a presence from outside us that renews us, and lifts us up, and gives us new faith and hope and love. But whether we are aware of it or not, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”[8]
If we doubt that the Spirit is present with us even when we feel most alone in the world, take a look at what St. Paul has to say about the Spirit’s work in the world of nature. When we think that God’s purpose is only to redeem the human family, we sell God’s grace and God’s power short. The fact of the matter is that all of creation is God’s cherished handiwork, and the Scriptures speak time and again of God’s determination to restore all of his creatures to the life he meant for them to have in the first place. While the Scriptures can speak variably about God or Jesus or the Spirit carrying out this work, the fact is that the Spirit who was active at creation in the beginning is also working to bring new life—not only to all people but to all of God’s creation.[9]   
If the Spirit is at work in the natural world around us, then surely that same Spirit is constantly working in our lives, and in the lives of our friends and family, and in the lives of strangers, and even in the lives of those we may consider “enemies.” And the end result of this work is that all God’s children and all God’s creatures will find the freedom that God intended for us all to have in the first place.[10] If we have difficulty being able to embrace this astounding hope, that’s why the Spirit is here. The Spirit is here among us all to “help us in our weakness.”

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/24/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. Pam Belluck, “Children’s Life Expectancy Being Cut Short By Obesity,” New York Times, March 17, 2005; accessed at
[3] Cf. “The Upwardly Mobile Barista,” The Atlantic May 2015;  accessed at archive/2015/05/the-upwardly-mobile-barista/389513/.
[4] Cf. Linda Tirado, “Why Poor People Stay Poor: Saving Money Costs Money. Period.” Slate, December 5, 2014; accessed at _america_daily_annoyances.htm .
[5] Cf. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 490: “The suffering of the saints is part of a cosmic drama into which all creation, inanimate as well as animate, is drawn. … We ourselves are caught up in the same cosmic unease too deep for words.” Cf. also Dunn, 474: “the point needs to be emphasized that the Spirit does not free from such tension, but actually creates or at least heightens that tension and brings it to more anguished expression.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:329.
[6] Cf. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 488. This relates to the “futility” Paul says we have all been subjected to. Dunn comments, “By ‘futility’ Paul probably has in mind the same sense of futility of life which found expression in Jewish thought most clearly in Ecclesiastes—that weariness and despair of spirit which cannot see beyond the stultifying repetitiveness of life, the endless cycle of decay and corruption, the worthlessness of a lifelong effort which may be swept away overnight by a storm or be parched to nothingness in a drought, the complete insignificance of the individual in the tides of time and the currents of human affairs.”
[7] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:330, where he comments of believers that “they are in a position to hope, and to hope without wavering, even though they do not see; that they can actually wait with patience. They can do this because He, the Spirit, helps their infirmities, i.e., strengthens them in the weakness to which they are exposed by the fact that they do not yet see what they are.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology, 229: “In this unredeemed world enslaved creation is sighing for redemption, and believers who have received the first fruits of the Holy Spirit join in these sighs, according to Paul (Rom. 8:19ff.); but the ‘sighings’ are the groans of labour pains, birth cries of the divine Spirit which will one day be transformed into eternal joy at the rebirth of the cosmos (John 16:20).”
[8] Paul Tillich, in “The Witness of the Spirit to the Spirit,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 139, says it this way: even when we feel discouraged and think perhaps that God is displeased with us, the Spirit is “working quietly in the depth of our souls.”
[9] Cf. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 487: “Paul’s vision of God’s saving purpose drives him beyond any idea of a merely personal or human redemption. What is at stake in all this is creation as a whole and the fulfillment of God’s original intention in creating the cosmos.” Cf. similarly, Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 144: “God has already set the destiny of creation: …that destiny is the final redemptive transformation of reality.”
[10] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 222: Paul “sees the suffering which is anonymously enslaving the world, …, as being the sign of the Creator’s struggle for the liberation of the world—a struggle initiated by Christ.”

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