SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL N. KEYES AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
JULY 17, 2011, THE FIFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Fr. Keyes is a doctoral student at Boston College (Class of 2015).

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

Note, if you will, how supremely unhelpful this is.

In response to the vast injustices of the world — no less acute in our day than in St Paul’s — in response to personal suffering, to financial, physical, emotional hardship, to persecution and violence, to the absurd randomness of disease and death — in response to all this, the best that St Paul can say is, “I consider”?

Surely — we long to say — our faith can give us more than that. Surely there is something more than a “considering,” or a “reckoning.”  Surely Christianity can give us, if not the immediate means to end suffering, a way of coping with suffering; a way of lessening it; a way of making the world a better place.

But that is not what St Paul tells us. Instead he compounds the problem. For, he says, we are not alone in suffering: creation itself has been groaning in travail. The Greek word, sunodino, means to feel the pains of childbirth together.

Paul continues, and he ends up with a sort of rhetorical question: What is hope if we already have what we hope for?

There is, in Paul’s mind, a logical order here. In the first verse we have a claim — “I consider” — and in the following verses we find his reasons. I think it useful, for understanding why Paul thinks what he does, to paraphrase the whole passage in reverse. It might sound something like this:

What is hope if we already have what we hope for?  We were saved in hope, and therefore we still groan and eagerly await the redemption of our bodies, just as all creation has been groaning and suffering birth pangs together [because it was subjected to nothingness against its will.]  Therefore creation also eagerly expects the redemption of the sons of God, hoping that it also might be saved from corruption and share in the glorious freedom of God’s children.  And therefore I consider that our present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory to be revealed in us. 

So, in the end, everything is pinned on hope. Hope is the ultimate reason for Paul’s “considering”, his “reckoning” of suffering. Why, then, speak of creation? Why not just say: Well, we hope for something better! Why go through the whole catalogue of suffering, bodies, creation, birth pangs, corruption, freedom, and glory?

I suggest that it has something to do with the content of his hope. It is not a generic hope that things will get better. It is not a hope that “everything happens for a reason.” No. Karl Barth, in his commentary on Romans, says this well:

The writer does not …redress the tribulation of the world by fixing our attention upon the compensating harmony of another world…  Beneath each slight discomfort, and notably beneath the greater miseries of human life, there stands clearly visible the vast ambiguity of its finiteness.  How are we able to meet this?  All our answers, all our attempts at consolation, are but deceitful short-circuits, for from this vast ambiguity we ourselves emerge; we cannot escape from it, not even if we evoke in our imaginings an infinite divine harmony beyond this world of ours… Only by the interpolation of a new and unheard-of manner of reckoning does comfort enter our lives.(1)

If Barth is right, Christian hope — the hope that St Paul speaks of in Romans 8 — is not simply the hope in some sort of heavenly harmony, beyond this world, in which everything makes sense.

It is, rather, hope for something that happens, or that has happened, within creation. Barth calls it a “new and unheard-of manner of reckoning,” and this new and unheard-of thing is, of course, the Incarnation of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, his suffering on the cross, and his resurrection from the dead.

Paul can only consider our suffering, and the suffering of all creation, in light of the Cross. Humanity is, in the imagination of the Bible, creation in microcosm. And Christ is the microcosm of man. [In Mary’s womb, as the old carol has it, “contained was heaven and earth in little space.”]

In Christ everything is gathered up, offered to God the Father, and transformed to glory. Nothing is left out. Nothing is wasted.

Dante, in his Paradiso, has a marvelous vision of this gathering up into a glorious unity:

O grace abounding, through which I presumed
to set my eyes on the Eternal Light
so long I spent all my sight on it!
   In its profundity I saw — ingathered
and bound by love into one single volume—
what, in the universe, seems separate, scattered:
  substances, accidents, and dispositions
as if conjoined — in such a way that what
I tell is only rudimentary.(2)

There is, of course, a way in which everything makes sense, a way in which, as St Paul says later in this same chapter, “all things work for the good” (Rom 8:28). But there are crucial differences between this hope and the naïve hopes we often express: to say that all things work for good is not to say that all things are good, or that suffering has meaning, or that evil serves a purpose; evil, and suffering, are changed. They are converted. And until we see that conversion, until we see the glory that is to come, we can only “consider,” we can only “reckon” the suffering of the present — not because we believe it is meaningful in some hidden way, but because we are confident that it can be made so by the power of God — the same God who raised Jesus from the dead.

***

Finally I return to my initial problem: What difference can it possibly make for us if we, like St. Paul, “consider our present sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed”?

I want to answer this with two examples.

The first is the sacrament of penance, or confession. In this great sacrament we offer our sins to God through the priests of Holy Church. We name that which is evil, hoping that God can use it in us for good.

This is captured very well in a traditional blessing given by the priest after absolution. The priest says, “May the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merits of his holy Mother and of all the Saints, together with whatsoever good thou hast done, or evil thou hast endured, be unto thee for the forgiveness of sins, the increase of grace, and the reward of eternal life.”

“Whatsoever good thou hast done, or evil thou hast endured.” Keeping that in mind, let us turn to my second example.

And that is, of course, the sacrament of the altar, the Holy Eucharist. In this sacrament we take the commonest elements of creation — bread and wine — basic symbols of the cooperation between creation and human hands — and through the power of the Holy Spirit they become the Body and Blood of Christ. These simple things are converted to something altogether more glorious — and yet, mysteriously, they still resemble what they once were.

This side of heaven, we cannot fully see that glory. We only see the forms of bread and wine. But the eucharistic conversion is emblematic of our whole life in Christ. We take all that we have: our virtues, our vices, our goods, our ills, and we offer them to God. We cannot yet see what he will make of them, but we know that nothing is wasted. We know that this same God made the scars of the crucified Christ the very tokens of his glory.

Against the world, which asserts that there is only value in material progress and prosperity — and against a version of Christianity which rejects the good of creation in favor of an otherworldly escapism — against these the Catholic Faith shows us that what we do matters — both the good works that we do, and the evil that we suffer. It all matters because nothing will be wasted.

That is our hope, brothers and sisters. That is the light in which we consider the sufferings of the present time. And our hope is based firmly in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. God give us grace to follow him to glory.

Amen.


(1) Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1950), 303.

(2) Paradiso XXXIII.82-90