November 19, 2021 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Romans 8:20-24a (NIV)
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.
The coming season of Advent is an invitation to reflect on God’s redemptive plan and the characteristics of his coming kingdom. Human sin has resulted in bondage to decay, evident in our material world and our physical bodies. Reflecting on the importance of the bodily resurrection and God’s redemptive plan to liberate the world from decay should motivate us to care more deeply about one another as bodily creatures.
We all have physical bodies. If we are fortunate, we get a couple of decades before those bodies begin noticeably to decay. Then they deteriorate until we die. Even elite athletes experience this. And as somebody on the backside of fifty who was never more than a mediocre athlete, I’m particularly aware of the decay. I’ve had to give up playing two of my favorite sports, and in the sports I haven’t (yet) given up I’ve been slowed down and bruised.
Although our brains may reach peak productivity many years after the rest of our bodies do, the decay also ultimately includes our biological brains with all their memories and cognitive functions. This is especially acute in those with Alzheimer’s disease. My father is in that category. About a year and a half ago he moved in with my wife and me so we could take care of him as his memory decay becomes increasingly more significant. Our youngest son had just celebrated a pandemic-downsized wedding, and we were on the edge of becoming proverbial “empty nesters”. Then our “nest” filled back up. I will be the first to admit that care for my father is challenging at times as we watch his dementia progress.
All this has made me more aware of the importance of our bodies, and what it means to be bodily beings created to be in an eternal relationship with God. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on our bodily deterioration in light of the upcoming season of Advent (which begins a week from tomorrow). Advent is a season of both lament and anticipation. It is a season of waiting. We reflect on the coming of Christ. Or, rather, I should say the comings of Christ.
The Christian gospel speaks of two comings. The first happened 2000 years ago when God took incarnate form as a baby born in a manger in Roman-occupied Israel. The second is a promised one we still wait for. Thus Advent has a double meaning. We have a short season of Advent leading to Christmas when we focus on that first coming, reflecting on how those living before and during that time were to prepare for that coming. Yet in another sense we live all year in that second Advent, awaiting Christ’s return. And we are called to reflect on—and prepare for—that second coming.
Although the word “incarnation”—God taking on flesh and blood—suggests something about the importance of the physical body to Christ’s first coming, I want to focus on its importance to that promised second coming when He returns to usher in a new Heavenly kingdom.
There have been many religious and cultural images of heavenly paradise. Gnostic religions and forms of Platonism understood the physical body to be evil, and they viewed paradise as the soul’s release from a physical body. That idea has been popular at times, and we can see hints of it in modern cartoon images picturing those in paradise as having ethereal forms and hovering on clouds (perhaps playing harps).
This is very different from a Christian understanding, however. A fundamental promise of the Christian gospel is not an eternal soul, but rather a resurrected body. That’s one of the reasons the historical resurrection of Jesus is such an important doctrine. C. S. Lewis noted in his book Miracles:
The earliest Christian documents give a casual and unemphatic assent to the belief that the supernatural part of a man survives the death of the natural organism. But they are very little interested in the matter. What they are intensely interested in is the restoration or ‘resurrection’ of the whole composite creature by a miraculous divine act.
Lewis isn’t in any way denying the importance of eternal life. What he is pointing out is that this promised eternal life is not one of a disembodied soul, but one to be enjoyed with a resurrected body.
We see this in resurrection promises and images of Heaven throughout the New Testament. It can be seen clearly in Paul’s letter to the Romans in the passage above in which he writes that believers “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” [emphasis added]. What we wait eagerly for in this second Advent is the bodily resurrection. This hope, Paul concludes, is central to our salvation.
With that in mind, I want to end with a note of reflection as we prepare to enter the official season of Advent, and as we continue to live in the second Advent. Most Christian traditions—mine included—teach and practice some form of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). This includes the petition, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
The prayer, “Your kingdom come” has an element of that Advent expectation, doesn’t it? It invites us to reflect on the coming kingdom of heaven. With Paul, we lament the decay of our bodies and the groaning of creation: the bondage to decay that is the result of human sin. And yet, as Paul reminded the Roman church, we take hope in the promise of liberation from bondage as we look forward that coming kingdom.
And when we pray in the same breath, “Your will be done,” we ought also to reflect on the principles and characteristics of God’s kingdom that we claim to desire and long for. It seems to me that such a prayer—asking God to accomplish his will on earth as it is done in heaven—is empty if we aren’t willing to seek that will and live it. And one of the things that Paul’s letter to the Romans teaches us is that God cares for us as bodily creatures; His plan is to undo the damage that sin does to our bodies.
If we truly desire to see some reflection of God’s heavenly kingdom on earth where we live, then we ought to be caring for the bodily needs of our fellow human creatures: the hunger, suffering, and physical hardship that result from sinfulness’ manifestations of pain, disease, hardship, war, and violence. Creation, as Paul tells us, has been subjected to frustration because of human sin. Our efforts will either diminish some of that sin-induced frustration in the little corners of the world where God has placed us, or add to the frustration and decay.
How do you see creation groaning? What are the signs of that? How do you see our bondage to decay?
Ponder the promise of a bodily resurrection and redemption from decay. In light of that promise, how might you live differently—more in keeping with the character of God’s heavenly kingdom?
Consider the physical needs of somebody you know well, and perhaps of somebody you don’t know well or don’t know at all. Try to act in a way today that takes those needs seriously, and leads toward liberation of the body rather than toward further decay.
Lord Jesus, with Paul we lament the groaning of creation and the suffering of the world—including the physical suffering of so many humans throughout the world. We confess that we have at times acted in ways that have directly or indirectly increased that suffering, and added to the corrupting results of sin. Even in our workplaces, we have done things, or left things undone, that have resulted in more bondage.
Yet we also reflect with Paul on the hope we have in Christ that we—and all creation—will one day be liberated from that bondage. We look forward with great longing to the second coming when Christ will return and establish your new kingdom.
Praise be to Jesus. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Eagerly Awaiting Bodily Redemption for Ourselves and God’s Creation (Romans 8:18–30)
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Matthew Dickerson’s books include works of spiritual theology and Christian apologetics as well as historical fiction, fantasy literature, explorations of the writings of C.S.Lewis and J.R.R.Tolkien, and books about trout fishing, fly fishing, rivers, and ecology. His recent books include: Disciple Making in a Culture of Power, Comfort, and Fear and The Voices of Rivers: Reflections on Places Wild and Almost Wild. He was a 2017 artist-in-residence at Glacier National Park. He lives in Vermont with his wife, dog, and cat, not far from three married sons, and is an active member of Memorial Baptist Church. Matthew is also a professor of computer science at Middlebury College in Vermont.