The readings for Pentecost Sunday are:
First Reading Acts 2:1–21 or Genesis 11:1–9
Psalm Psalm 104:24–34, 35b
New Testament Romans 8:14–17 or Acts 2:1–21
Gospel John 14:8–17 (25–27)
Romans, chapter eight, contains riches that humanity has never fully plumbed. And with that profundity comes complexity and subtlety of thought.
Take the single notion that Christ followers are animated by the spirit of adoption rather than the spirit of slavery. For one thing, Paul calls himself a slave of God and Christ, and insists that Christ followers should be the same (Rom 6:16; 1 Cor 7:22; Eph 6:6). But here in Romans 8, as in Galatians 4:7 the true status of a Christ follower is as a child of God, with all the rights to call upon God as Father, and to receive God’s promises, is stressed.
So too the idea of fear is given elegantly nuanced treatment. As the late German scholar Ernst Käsemann wrote in his commentary on this passage, the Christian’s rightful service is infused with a fear that “recognizes [God’s] transcendence”, but also recognizes that God’s will is to love and to save us. So the Christian’s “service frees from every other rule. Just because the Christian fears God, then, he is delivered from the anxiety into which all other creatures are driven by the incalculability of an uncertain destiny.”
We modern Christians like to read this chapter of Romans as if it were directed to us as individuals. And indeed, when Paul writes in the first verse, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death,” he does use the Greek singular. But from then on, starting with verse 9, all the second persons are plural—“you all.” And that certainly applies to the crucial verses 15 through 17:
15 For you [all] did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you [all} have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
One more thing: When our New Revised Standard Version translates “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” you should note that it uses exclamation marks. The original Greek had no punctuation marks, and even later Greek didn’t have exclamation marks. But the translators are noting that this “cry” is not the sad crying of an individual in forlorn prayer. It is, instead, the proclamation of a group of people in worship. Perhaps we should translate it, “When we shout out, ‘Abba! Father!’ It is being Christian out loud and in a community setting. It is confidently saying that Spirit-filled worship is solid evidence that we have been adopted as children of a loving God’s family. We can celebrate together the certainty that we can talk to God confidently; and we can be assured that all of the promises that God has made to Israel, and all God’s chosen, are made to us.
But there is the sad and forlorn note also in Romans 8. Later in the chapter, in verses 22-25, we read:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
So, chapter eight of Romans is not about lonely little Christians crying and groaning in our bedrooms. It’s about Christ followers at worship.
Friends, it is time for the church to take a hard look at its worship practices. And it is time for all of us to take lessons from the Black church. Black gospel music, and Black worship, are famous for the electricity of both crying out and groaning. People shout “Amen! Can I get a witness?” And there is an electricity and an authenticity of faith that all Christian worship would do well to learn from. Both electrical poles of groaning and shouting are there, and are needed today.
We need to groan along with all creation that the name and reputation of Christ has been dragged through the mud by those who espouse Christ’s name yet bear false witness, calling President Biden and prominent Democrats pedophiles. So-called Christians often deny justice when they deny the need to right the wrongs of racial bias. They allow division to run rampant and fail to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
All creation is groaning. People around the world long for peace and healing. So it is high time true worship learn from the groan-filled music and worship style of the Black church—filled as it is with the lamentation of the enslaved and the oppressed.
And on the other hand, in our worship we must also shout to the world, “Abba! Father!” We have a right to clap our hands, shout “Alleluia,” be exultant, be confident, and be encouraged about the one Lord, one faith, and one baptism that gives us the unity we so hunger for. We are the children of God—not the God we use, but the God who uses us. Not children of the Despot in Chief, but the Great Healer and Savior. Not the God whose name we elicit to cause fear, but the God whose perfect love casts out all fear.
Groaning and crying out in joy. These are the times we need both. And we must learn from the Black church.
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