Pentecost B: Groaning Our Way through Covid

The New Testament Reading Option A for Pentecost B:

Romans 8:22–27

22 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.

26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Perhaps no other portion of Paul’s letters is a emotion laden as these verses. Surely no other portion is as humble. Yes, he often speaks of his wounds and weakness, but he is aware that it is all boasting. In Galatians he puts himself above other missionaries since his commission was straight from God. In Philippians 3.6  he has declared that he is the Jew par excellence, and achieved a blameless righteousness under the law.

But here, in Romans 8, Paul seems to display a humility that goes beyond boastful. It is rather base. Paul confesses “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Religiously speaking he abdicates all that “imitate me” stuff he speaks of elsewhere. Imagine a pastor, if asked by a church member, “How should I pray,” saying “Don’t ask me. I can only sigh and groan.”

But the groaning Paul speaks of is the labor pains of the cosmos. Something wonderful—a new birth—a New Age—is happening. We cannot see it, but it is our hope—our only hope.

Such is the humility and hope God’s church must hold out to the world in this pandemic.

Do you see how the exalted ones and the experts of the world have been shown to be emperors with no clothes? Do you see them writhe? This pandemic hit like a ton of bricks. A year and a half in and it is full of surprises and we are seeming empty of answers. Did it come from a Chinese lab, or from several species of animals that still harbor it? Does it spread through big molecules spread by touch, or by tiny aerosols that linger in the air? Should we hope for herd immunity, or manage things through vaccines? Can we even pinpoint hot spots through testing, or is the virus not way out in front…always?

Trump fell because he could not bluff his way through. Science is falling as the CDC and WHO get outguessed by hoards of other contagious disease experts second and third guess them.

It’s time to groan. It’s time to groan not as the clever ones, above it all, at the apex of creation, but along with it. Yes, Genesis 1 says we have dominion, but Job, chapters 38 through 40 may look far more convincing these days; and Job may be speaking for us all when he says, “See, I am of small account.” The only dominion we will ever have has come in the form of the “first fruits of the Spirit,” and that Spirit fills us with groaning and sighing.

So it’s about time the church teaches the world to admit like Paul, we don’t know much—we don’t even know how to pray. We are left to groans and sighs.

But the groans we invite the world to share in are indeed labor pains. Something wonderful will happen when we give up for now any sense of haughty dominion, and find hope in humility.

Paul’s theology of humility here takes us even deeper when he points out that our groaning is actually a form of surrender into transcendence—we fall back into the interior dialog of the Trinity. When we admit that these viruses are here to stay, just as much as the environment is here to stay, and it doesn’t matter how much we want to dominate, we are going to have to coexist, then we surrender. But we are surrendering into the dialog going on within God. When we surrender, and when we groan, we fall back on “Abba, Father.” The Spirit is interceding with the Father and the Son, and we are in the middle of it all.

If the church can teach the world about such hopeful humility, then we can quit posturing, quit competing, quit pretending to be dominant. Then nations can quit pretending to be number one— leaders and scientists can quit trying to hide their deficiencies. Then the world can admit that it will never achieve herd immunity, but it must instead cooperate absolutely and pay the bucks and put in the rock solid plans to produce and distribute to rich and poor folk alike the vaccines that will help us live with instead of against nature and groan along with creation.

The pandemic solution we hope for cannot yet be seen. But the only way to come up with the answers is to work with humility, and work together.

About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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