Posted under The Rectory Bulletin | Sundays
So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (Romans 8:12-25)
I’m sure that the word ‘hope’ conjures up all sorts of images in your minds. Perhaps you think back to to those lost days of your youth when eventually your eyelids dropped on Christmas night and the hope of presents buzzed around your head. Maybe it is something more anxious as the A-Level results drop through the door and you hope you managed to scrape the grades you needed. Hope can, sadly, also be vain. Even when all the evidence is to the contrary you keep telling yourself: maybe.
Hope is therefore normally understood as something which might - or might not - happen. Hope carries with it the shadow of potential disappointment, it is not certain.
When we come to the pages of the New Testament, not least the reading from Romans, this gives us an issue. After all, doesn’t write “in this hope we were saved”? Doesn’t that seem a bit flimsy? Sunday by Sunday I will stand and preach on the realities of God and the promises of his gracious word. If this is just hope, perhaps I should be less certain.
The issue here is, I’m afraid, all to do with the Greek language. In fact, if you want to impress friends and strangers with your grasp of linguistics, it is all to do with semantic domains.
Here’s the issue. The word translated hope is elpis, and it doesn’t quite map onto our word ‘hope’. There are bits left over. The word ‘hope’ doesn’t quite do it justice. Here’s what the gold standard New Testament Greek dictionary says about elpis: “the looking forward to something with some reason for confidence respecting fulfilment, hope, expectation: Another, even thicker, Dictionary of Ancient Greek has: “expectation, anticipation”. Let me tell you, this dictionary runs to 2,431 pages and weighs the same as an overdue baby. It knows what it is talking about!
What is important here is that there is far more certainty in mind in the word elpis than our word hope. It’s the ‘sure and certain hope’ that we find in the Book of Common Prayer funeral service. It is hoping that something will arrive, because you’ve ordered it, paid for it and you’ve had a text to say that the courier is on the way. There is a concreteness in mind, not a vague mist of airy dreams. Think sticky toffee pudding, not Angel Delight.
Back to the passage where we find the Apostle building his case, beginning with his discussion of ‘the flesh’ and ‘the Spirit’. Have you noticed, he’d asked the Romans in the previous chapter, how you have within yourself a battle between the things you want to do and the things you end up doing? This is battle between the Spirit - the holy desires placed in us by a holy God - and the flesh which is the natural state of the human being with all its weakness and proneness to temptation. Through prayer and a desire to keep the commandments of Christ we are led by the Spirit and this is a sign to us that we are ‘sons of God’.
Paul describes this a ‘Spirit of adoption’, and an adoption is a legal reality. It does not rely upon emotion or feelings. So it is that we can cry out to God “Abba! Father!”, even when we are in the midst of sufferings and God feels far distant. The adoption certificate is still in place. We remain heirs of God. We can stand alongside Christ as co-heirs. We can look to his resurrection, and confident that we will too inherit the same reality.
So when things go wrong, and those around us panic we have still a reality to which we can look forward. A sure and certain hope which sustains us. The very creation around us might groan, and natural disasters might abound, but still we have this hope within us. A hope is as certain as adoption papers. A hope which has as its witness the activity of the Holy Spirit within us.
I hope this comes as a comfort to you. Our salvation, our place with God, rests upon his actions and these are the foundations of our hope. We may be imperfect, and our prayers may ebb and flow but these foundations remain secure.
It may be, though, that you are worried about this ‘activity of the Holy Spirit’ business. Have I experienced this, you might think. Am I “led by the Spirit of God”. Perhaps a word of comfort for you too: this concern of yours bears witness to your desire to follow Christ. It demonstrates that you wish to be led by his Spirit. It is the mustard seed of faith which can lead to great growth. Embrace it! Nurture it! Put it into practice!
So then, this our hope. Not a flighty affair, but a solid foundation. It is this which gives us patience, and it is this which makes us endure. Not for us a vague wish, or a wistful thought! Our hope is in the action of the eternal God. And it is “in this hope that we were saved”.