Groaning in Labor Pains

+ A sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11A/Lectionary 16A) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on July 19, 2020 +

Text: Romans 8:12-25

Video: LINK

“We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” St. Paul writes. “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit.”

As we heard last week, Paul is writing this letter to a congregation in Rome who were grappling with the brokenness of the world, wondering why Christ’s life, death, and resurrection had not seemed to take hold and certainly had not yet transformed the world.
These early Christians were suffering.
They were facing persecution and violence at the hands of the state.
They were rejected by their families and cut off from their friends.
And now decades after Jesus’ resurrection, they were hoping that Christ would be coming soon to finally right everything.
Perhaps they wondered, feared deep in their hearts, that the suffering they were experiencing was evidence that their faith had been in vain—that the brokenness of the world wouldn’t heal after all.

But in today’s section from Romans, we hear the Apostle’s message of encouragement and empowerment.
After diagnosing the sin and brokenness of the world and encouraging them to live according to the Spirit, as we heard last week, Paul tells the Romans that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”
That God has adopted them as God’s own children and made them joint heirs with Christ.
That they are in line to inherit the richness and abundance God has in store—a new world rooted in God’s own love and justice and life for all creation.
That by living in the Spirit, they can experience and live into this new reality.

Detail of Holy Spirit and Fire with Baptismal Font, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. Original source:

But as we heard, Paul also acknowledges that this inheritance does not come easily, that the brokenness of this world will not heal overnight.
He acknowledges that the powers of this world will resist these changes just as they resisted Jesus’ message.
He reminds them that Jesus’ gospel message of a new kingdom, a new world is such a threat to the status quo that the powers of this world crucified Jesus as a dangerous enemy of the state.
And Paul compares this time of struggling for change, the groanings of creation as we eagerly await the fullness of our adoption, the longing for our promised inheritance, he compares this travail to the labor pains of childbirth.

Now, it goes without saying that this Paul has never experienced labor pains and never will any more than did the other Paul.
Nor have I personally experienced the pains of the adoption process.
But it’s worth noting that while both labor and adoption bring their own pains and groanings, they are not fruitless pains—they are suffering and struggling with a purpose.
They hold the promise of new life, the hope of a new family, the dawning of a new reality.

And, as St. Paul reminds us, part of the reason that all creation is groaning is because we have already glimpsed that new reality, of how the world could be and yet we live in the world as it is.
We have had a foretaste of what he calls the “first fruits of the Spirit”—a world where all people are welcomed and loved as they are, where tyrants are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, where God’s table is open to all and there is food enough to share.
And we know the power of God’s Holy Spirit whose fruits we have tasted, who is leading us in our struggles.
This Spirit who, when the powers of the world executed Jesus on the cross, broke the power of death itself with the power of resurrection—the power of new life and new hope and a new reality.
This same Spirit has given us a taste of what is possible, of what God intends for us, and we are left unsatisfied with the status quo that surrounds us.
It’s a world we have not yet seen, but it’s a world in which we defiantly put our hope.
And Paul assures us that the splendor of this new reality, the triumph of the resurrection and the inauguration of God’s perfect reign cannot compare to the sufferings of this time.
That the struggle is far outweighed by the glory that will be revealed.

And so, we cry out “Abba, Father!”
We pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
We pray with longing for the realization of this new reality.
And when we do this, Paul tells us that it’s the Spirit who bears witness to our unrest and empowers us to partner with Christ in transforming the world.
It’s the Spirit who roots our hope and trust in that coming reality and it’s the Spirit who leaves us unsatisfied until our world finally reflects God’s reign.
And, as we will hear next time, it’s the same Spirit who is within us, praying on our behalf with groans that are too deep for words—groaning within our bodies individually and within the entire Body of Christ.
But she’s not just groaning, she is showing us what is possible and giving us visions we couldn’t dream up on our own.
She is churning up disease and dissatisfaction.
She is stirring us out of complacency and into action, into the struggle.
She is empowering us and inspiring us to band together with Christ as we work to transform the world.

The whole creation is groaning, Paul tells us.
Groaning in so many ways, longing for that surely coming reality when all will be righted.
And we can all hear the travails in our world, in our country, in our communities, within ourselves.
The groans of a changing climate and the efforts to protect our ecosystems.
The groans of societal and political division and the work to find a just consensus and common ground.
The groans of a pandemic and the rush to find a vaccine as we strive to keep each other safe and healthy.
And, perhaps most poignantly to me right now, the groans of our Black and Brown siblings struggling under systemic racism and state violence and demanding that their lives and bodies be valued and protected.
We’ve named these pains, these sufferings, these groans for transformation before.
And as Paul compares these to the pains of labor, the pains of adoption, I am reminded that just as I have not experienced these pains myself, my privilege as a white cisgender male citizen of the United States has also shielded me from experiencing the same pains as our Black, Indigenous, and Siblings of Color—both in this country and around the world—as they groan and struggle for the world to change.
But, as we heard last week, if we are to live by the Spirit, their groans must become my own.
I have to open my ears and realize that the whole Body of Christ is groaning.
That their struggle is my struggle.
That the whole creation is anxiously awaiting that promised transformation and we all have a role to play in bringing that new world.


John Lewis of “The Saints of Selma” by Kelly Latimore

On Friday, our country lost two civil rights icons with the deaths of the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis.
For decades, these men were instrumental in the movement, putting their lives on the line, inspiring others to join their struggle, even going to the halls of power to help create what Dr. King called the beloved community where all people could live in peace and love and equity.
A few years ago, John Lewis talked in an interview about his work in the movement.
He talked about his first time visiting a non-segregated city as a child when he saw what it was like for people to be equal under the law.
And on that trip, young John glimpsed a fuller picture of that beloved community and was inspired—that is, filled with the Spirit—to bring that vision to his own community and to never cease working until the whole country better emulated God’s intentions for our world.
“Being there gave me hope,” Lewis said. “I wanted to believe, and I did believe, that things would get better. But later I discovered that you have to have this sense of faith that what you’re moving toward is already done. It’s already happened…And you live as if you’re already there, that you’re already in that community…If you visualize it, if you can even have faith that it’s there, for you it is already there.”[1]
While we mourn the loss of these civil rights icons, I am inspired by their dedication, their determination to work toward a more perfect reality, fully aware that they may not see its fruition.
I am challenged by their constant refrain of “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”
And this week, especially, I am reminded that we are part of this common struggle, this necessary trouble, as John Lewis called it.
We are part of the change God intends for us and to which these two servants of God dedicated their lives.

And as we hear in Romans today, the Holy Spirit lives within you, within all of us, beloved; God’s own Spirit of hope and new life, of change and justice.
She is empowering you, empowering us, to use these sufferings, the groanings and travails of this time to help birth a new reality.

Now, if you’re like me, there is a not-insignificant part of me wondering if the current sufferings that we see all around us are in vain or if they will bear the Spirit’s fruits of change.
Looking at the Black Lives Matter protests, the healing of our communities, the work to protect our planet, I sometimes wonder if we will groan in vain of if these pains will give birth to something new and bring us closer to God’s perfect vision for our world.

Like those original saints who heard this letter in Rome, we know that this glorious birth may not happen in our lifetimes.
Like those saints John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, we may gain our eternal inheritance before our world reflects God’s kingdom.
And while we have gained our adoption as God’s children and strive to live into our role as saints of God, we know that we still are not the people God has created us to be.
But we have tasted the first fruits of the Spirit—we have glimpsed the world as it could be.
We experience it each time we celebrate a baptism and rejoice with a beloved child of God.
We taste it each time we come to the Lord’s Supper and hear that the Body and the Blood of Jesus Christ are given for you.
We glimpse it each time we read the gospel and hear God’s vision for us and for our world, putting our trust in Christ Jesus our Lord who is bringing God’s Kingdom into our world.
And each time we glimpse what God has in store for us, we groan, we find ourselves unsatisfied until all creation is finally and fully transformed.

And empowered by the Holy Spirit, in our groanings we recommit ourselves to action, to join the struggle, to do our part to make God’s perfect reign a reality on earth as it is in heaven.
And we know all too well that bringing this new creation is uncomfortable, that this new birth is painful, but we put our trust in a God whose power transforms brokenness into wholeness.
A God who utilizes these pains for healing of creation.
A God who triumphs over death with new life.
A God who takes our groaning and our struggles and uses them to give birth to a new world.

[1]Lewis, John. “We Are the Beloved Community” On Being, July 5, 2016.

This is the second part of a seven-part sermon series entitled “Broken: Good News for Tough Times.”
The other sermons in the series can be found here:

  1. Broken Bodies, Healing Spirit” – July 12, 2020
  2. Groaning in Labor Pains” – July 19, 2020
  3. Nothing” – August 2, 2020
  4. All-Inclusive Love” – August 9, 2020
  5. Fulfilling the Law” – August 16, 2020
  6. Ever Faithful, Ever Merciful” – August 23, 2020
  7. Not Waiting on the World to Change” – August 30, 2020

6 thoughts on “Groaning in Labor Pains

  1. Pingback: Nothing | Paul On Grace

  2. Pingback: Broken Bodies, Healing Spirit | Paul On Grace

  3. Pingback: Ever Faithful, Ever Merciful | Paul On Grace

  4. Pingback: All-Inclusive Love | Paul On Grace

  5. Pingback: Fulfilling the Law | Paul On Grace

  6. Pingback: Not Waiting on the World to Change | Paul On Grace

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