Following the Parable of the Sower last week images of seed-time and harvest continue: Jesus is clear “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels.”
Before we look at the Gospel passage, and as we have not been reading much of Romans so far since passages from it have been the NT choice, let us just remind ourselves of what this great Epistle of Paul’s is addressing and then we might see how today’s two readings speak to one another.
Rome in the first century world featured as daily reality as the Church was growing and expanding from Palestine throughout the Mediterranean world. As you know all roads let to it, and it sat at the epicentre of an Empire, the like of which had never really seen. Arguably there was a rather fascinating relationship between the Empire and its Jewish subjects, who rather uniquely were allowed to practise their religion differently from everyone else. In short Jews were exempted the requirement to owe allegiance to the Emperor cult as it grew in the 1st. c.
St Paul’s other letters were to Christians in churches which he had founded, and of which he was in some sense their spiritual head.
The Epistle to the Romans is different. Paul is writing to Christians who generally have not been evangelised by him, although from the greetings at the end of the letter he seems to know or have met a large number of Christians living in Rome. They are resident in that great City, with all it represents as the seat of imperial governance. If Paul was writing in about 55 AD, he is writing to a community which had been divided for practical reasons, because the Jews of Rome had been expelled by the Emperor Claudius in about 49 AD, following an uprising. Two key people, Priscilla and Aquilla, a couple Paul had met then in Corinth during that exil,e had managed to return home, following Claudius’ death.
About 30,000 Jews lived in Rome, and it seems some of their synagogues in the early 50s AD and before the expulsion were already centres of very early Christianity. Roman non-Jews seem to have been drawn to these meetings. In Rome today there are churches which seem to have been built on the foundations of just these early meeting places which may have been synagogues before they were churches.
One of the key issues for a community which has emerged from Judaism, but itself was decimated the exile of the Jews, is how does the message of Christ sit within the intricate legal framework and demands of Judaism. Gentile proselytes realised the great demands of the Jewish Law, and while some did convert, many remained friends of Judaism but not full initiates. So the questions for them as Jewish-leaning Gentile followers of Christ were comparable with the radical Gospel Paul was preaching of a renewed attitude to the Law and Covenant – which had put him at odds with Palestinian Christians and Judaisers.
What Paul has been addressing in the intense discussion with his readers until this point has about the nature of the Law, which was both utterly attractive for its certainty for non-Jews but impossible to take on in its fullness at the same time. Before that he has reminded his readers of what baptism is about.
Chapter 8 is one of the high points of the tussle which Paul has, because it is so intensely personal for him. At the end of Chapter 7 he says:
I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another Law at war with the law of my mind… Who will deliver me from this body of death?
Chapter 8 begins:
For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.
This is what today’s passage as the Epistle then explores. He wants his friends, and they are his friends and equals not his children or converts to know:
You are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit, when the Spirit dwells in You.
He begins the passage we have heard:
All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God… you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry Abba, Father, it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children then heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
Behind this passage are two themes. The experience of the Children of Israel as they crossed the Red Sea in their flight from Egypt. This was their adoption as indeed God’s children, God’s chosen people. It is more than an adoption. The waters of the Red sea part as they were brought to birth as a new people in God’s eyes. This imagery is strongly implied in the waters of baptism, and Paul has spoken about this insistently in chapter 6. The implications of this are now apparent in chapter 8. We can cry Abba Father. But as the Spirit wells up in us to make this cry, our calling is the voice of Christ in the Garden in his agony. He cries Abba – daddy, dearest Father as his Passion is clear before him. The Spirit gives us utterance as our will and Our Lord’s are united. His death is our death to this world, and so:
…the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.
Paul has been saying as much to those he converted. Those in Rome have heard the Gospel and know Jesus already, but perhaps this is new to them: that their suffering and death is their identification with Jesus, and so they are being revealed alongside him. At the moment, following recent persecution, they are hiding. Paul is preparing them for something he knows will befall him and which his own eventual journey to Rome in the few years ahead will make manifest.
….and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly we await adoption as sons, (to wit – know this) the redemption of our bodies.
What of the Gospel passage and the wheat, the weeds and the angels?
God lets the wheat and the weeds grow together. Nothing must endanger the wheat, a premature pruning would be a danger.
Perhaps as Christians we fear that our prayer, our witness is an impure mixture of wheat and noxious weeds. St Paul says “it is the Spirit that intercedes for us”. The Spirit’s leading causes our prayers to join with the essence of prayer and connection at the heart of the life of the Trinity. When our prayer reaches the Father, because our words have been joined with the Spirit’s, the Father listens only to that portion that is true. Our hearts and conscious prayers are refined by the Spirit at work in us. We are not the weeds, the tares, the Spirit bears fruit in us, despite our dullness and helps us to cry, Abba, Father.