For many months now, the entire world has been listening to the groaning caused by COVID-19. Those who have died, those who have lost loved ones, those who have suffered and recovered, those who have lost their livelihood, those who have starved, those whose mental and emotional health has broken – the list is almost endless, isn’t it?
In this groaning, we have seen clearly and powerfully the fragility of life in this world and the unjust realities that cause suffering to fall disproportionately on the poor and marginalized. We must never forget this revelation even as we look forward to a vaccine. And we must remember that what COVID-19 has revealed is a reality that has been with us since Genesis 3. The brokenness of this world causes groaning even when there is no worldwide pandemic that changes the circumstances of our deaths and hastens its arrival.
In Romans 8:18-27, Paul sets three groanings – not just one – within the story of God’s redemption of all creation. These three groanings give voice to the suffering of all creation and teach us even more about the good news for the COVID-19 world. But before we consider those groanings, we need the story that Paul tells in the entire chapter.
If someone told me they were going to erase all of Scripture from my memory except for one chapter, I would choose to “remember” Romans 8. It’s a wonderful, pivotal chapter in Paul’s letter. Paul begins by declaring the freedom that is offered to us by “the law of the Spirit of life” made actual in Jesus Christ and ends by assuring us of God’s unshakeable, inescapable love for us – even in the midst of the suffering of creation and our bodies – by assuring us that this Spirit of life is with us.
In between these two great truths is the story of “the law of the Spirit who gives life” through the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. Paul describes this life in pneuma (the Greek word often used to refer to the Holy Spirit) in opposition to “life” in sarx. The word sarx can be used for our flesh – the stuff that makes up our bodies that we can gather up under our fingers and pinch. But Paul more often uses sarx to refer to a power in opposition to pneuma, the Spirit. When Paul uses sarx this way, he does not mean that our bodies are set against the Spirit. After all, when we live in accordance with the Spirit, we do so in our bodies.
Rather, when Paul uses sarx in opposition to pneuma, he is contrasting the way of death (sarx, see Romans 8:6,13) with the way of life (pneuma). Sarx is a way of looking at the world and acting in the world as if death is the ultimate power and final word. “Life” in the realm of sarx is really death. This is the kingdom of death in mortal combat with the kingdom of life and peace (Romans 8:6). If we fall into fear of death and act out of that fear because of COVID-19, we have become captive to sarx.
This does not mean that we should reject wise medical guidance or refuse a vaccine. It means that we should accept the wisdom that God has given humans who study and treat viruses, but we must not live in fear. Out of love for neighbors and in witness to the Gospel of life, we must do all we can to prevent the spread of the virus and to care for those who are sick or dying of COVID-19.
In Jesus Christ, life and peace are revealed to be triumphant over sin and death through his sacrificial love. However, the triumph of life over death does not free us from suffering in this world. The battle has been won, the enemy defeated, but death is the last enemy to be destroyed when the risen Christ comes again (1 Corinthians 15:26).
As we wait for Christ to come again, we live by the Spirit in a world where death is still a reality even if we know it isn’t the final reality. As we live in this world, we hear the continuing presence of death in three groanings (Romans 8:18-27). In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we once again hear loudly and clearly these groanings.
The first groaning is the groaning of creation (Romans 8:22). In the pandemic, we hear this groaning as creation becomes a place of death, not life. Creation groans because viruses and pandemics are alien to creation. In the same way that we groan when something not right (bacteria, viruses) enters our bodies, creation groans as death intrudes on that which God creates for life.
The second groaning is the groaning of our bodies (Romans 8:23). Many of us have known the groaning of our bodies before this pandemic took hold in our world. But the suffering of COVID-19 patients with fever, loss of breath, pain, and in many cases the hastening of death, makes the groaning of our bodies more acute and increases our grief in the face of death. How can we mourn the millions who have died and millions more who have suffered?
The third groaning is the groaning of the Spirit (Romans 8:26). Here Paul makes clear what life in pneuma means for our everyday realities. Here Paul makes clear that the suffering of creation and our bodies are not signs of the Spirit’s absence or lack of power. Instead, Paul declares that the Spirit is with us in our suffering just as Jesus Christ is “Emmanuel” – God with us.
Now, knowing that the Spirit is with us, we may return to something I did not note in the earlier verses (Romans 8:22-23). Re-reading these verses, we may rejoice in hope.
The groaning of the creation is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth” (Romans 8:22). Something new is being born! By the work of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, New Creation is coming into this world.
The groaning of our bodies (Romans 8:23) is a sign of eagerness for “our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.” We know that our future is sure in Christ by the presence of the Spirit (Romans 8:14-17).
We who believe the Gospel know that God’s creation is a place of life and peace, not death. We acutely feel the presence of suffering and death in this world, especially as COVID-19 has made these realities so clear and present. But because we also know that new life has come in Jesus and new creation is at work by the power of the Spirit, we live with hope.
We can’t see the final reality of the world except in hope: a sure and certain knowledge that this is God’s creation meant for LIFE (Romans 8:24).
In the midst of the suffering and death worked by COVID-19, we may find it difficult to hope. Our bodies get weary, and our emotions are exhausted. But we must not lose hope. We know why death is at work in the realm of sarx. And we know that life is at work in the realm of pneuma. And if we belong to Christ, then we live in pneuma.
Paul assures us of this unshakeable, everlasting reality in the final verses of this wonderful chapter:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-39)
So my sisters and brothers who have been set free from “the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2):
- Even as we hear creation groan under the load of suffering and death caused by COVID-19
- Even as our bodies and those of family, friends, and neighbours around the world groan in the midst of this pandemic
May we be people who do not fear death but live in hope, witness to the good news of new creation, and serve others because we know of everlasting life in the Spirit, who is with us in our sufferings and is the guarantee of our inheritance. That inheritance is a new creation in which God will wipe every tear from our eyes and where there is “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 1:4).
This is the reality of life in pneuma in which we already walk today, even in the midst of our groanings.
For Reflection and Discussion:
- What strikes you about the relationship between pneuma and sarx?
- Which of the three groanings has impacted you the most this year?
- How do you think the choice to live with hope might impact your Gospel witness?