Beverly Roberts Gaventa
Professor of New Testament
Princeton Theological Seminary

November 2007

It was Phoebe who read the letter, Paul’s letter to the Romans. Of course, it was Paul who struggled to produce the words themselves (probably over an extended period of time). Paul dictated those words, and Tertius wrote them down, but it was Phoebe who read the letter.

Perhaps you never made the journey far enough through Romans to read about Phoebe. It is a long letter, and many parts of it are hard to understand. Already in the third century Origen grumbles about the difficulties of Romans, and many, many people have written about those problems since Origen. Already in the 16th century Calvin grumbles about the number of commentaries on Romans. So, maybe you exhausted yourself before you reached chapter 16, or you mentally dispatched chapter 16 to the netherworld inhabited by the genealogies. But there in Romans 16:1-2 Paul writes a little commendation for Phoebe. He identifies her as a deacon of the church of Cenchreae, as a benefactor to himself and to others. This suggests that Phoebe has some resources at her disposal, since a “benefactor” is not simply a nice Christian lady, but someone in a position to support Paul’s work. She clearly has the means to travel; indeed, it appears she journeys to Rome as Paul’s advance team.

Once she arrives in Rome, Phoebe makes her way to the Trastavere quarter, a part of the city populated largely by immigrants from the East (from places like Greece, Asia Minor, Syria), immigrants who arrived in Rome as slaves (or perhaps their parents or grandparents did). They work along the harbor, they are brickmakers, cabinet makers, millers, potters. Many are desperately poor. In the evenings (or so I suspect, when the darkness brought a shadow of respite from the day’s labor), Phoebe gathers with various small groups of believers in homes. She brings greetings from Paul, probably shows the hosts a brief letter of recommendation, and then settles in to read the letter Paul has sent. So there, competing with the noises from the street, the cries of babies, the stench of too many bodies and too little hygiene, the moaning of the sick, Phoebe begins to read aloud Paul’s letter to the Romans. [1]

As she reads, of course, she is interpreting the letter. Whether she adds a word or not, she is interpreting the letter by her tone of voice, by her inflection. [2] And she probably discusses it afterward, occasionally adding points she remembers from conversation with Paul, occasionally supplying her own understandings. Phoebe is the first interpreter of the letter. Even before Origen’s commentary or the sermons of Chrysostom, before Luther or Calvin or Barth, there is a commentary of sorts by the Deacon Phoebe.

Unfortunately, we have nothing of Phoebe’s commentary. Not a single word of her testimony about Paul or Paul’s churches. Not a word. So there is no way to answer the question I would like to put. What I want to know is this: As she read this letter, did Phoebe have hope?

Come to think of it, Did Paul have hope? We have a lot of words from Paul, but did Paul himself have hope? I’d really like to know, because frankly, I don’t have a lot of hope. Now, this is not a plea for help. I do have a church home and ample access to competent and loving pastoral care. But what I don’t have a lot of is hope.

Most mornings, I read the New York Times. And many evenings, I watch at least some portion of the NewsHour on PBS. From the economy to the environment to health care to education to the never-ending election cycle, I look for reasons to hope. And much of the time I find none. I call to mind the places on the globe whose names have become in our time synonyms for strife: Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Darfur, Myanmar, Pakistan. I find myself haunted by the words of Jayber Crow, the protagonist of Wendell Berry’s eponymous novel, who observes that there is no new war, just “the old one come again.” [3] It is not only the poor who are always with us.

I would like to think that inside the ark of the church, things are better, even if the smell is not exactly Chanel No. 5. But – to take a single issue – I have been teaching in Protestant theological schools for thirty years in three different seminaries, and in every single one of those years I have found students in my classes who have been taught by their families or their churches or both that women shouldn’t be in ministry. Pedagogically speaking, it’s a bit like “Ground Hog Day.” As a result, when the optimists around me confidently announce that changing the church’s attitude toward gays and lesbians is just a generation away, I smile and nod, but without much hope.

So, as I study Romans, I conjure up Phoebe in my imagination and I look to the words of Paul, and I wonder: Did they have hope?

In 2 Corinthians, Paul comments several times on his own hopes. He hopes that the Corinthians will understand the letter (1:13), he hopes that the Corinthians know his character and that of his co-workers (5:11); he hopes that the Corinthians will recognize that he is trustworthy (13:6). But in Romans he only refers once to his own hope, in Romans 15, where he speaks of his plans to be in Rome.

Now he does say some other things about hope in this letter. The first comes in Romans 5:2, where he refers to “the grace in which we stand” and affirms that “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” Then “we boast in our sufferings,” and then comes the chain argument: “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us….”

Just a few months after September 11, 2001, I was working with a group of pastors in a study of upcoming lectionary texts. When we came to this passage, one member of the group read it aloud. At the end of that crescendo – character produces hope – one of the pastors, speaking from immediate experience, emphatically objected, “No, it does not.” Another offered a paraphrase: “knowing that suffering produces bitterness, and bitterness produces cynicism, and cynicism produces despair….” (Names have been withheld to protect the guilty.) On the face of it, that cynical paraphrase seems warranted, especially when this statement is ripped from its context and domesticated into a Hallmark platitude.

One of the things that impresses me about Romans, however, is just how shrewdly the argument is constructed. N.T. Wright aptly compares it with a symphonic composition in which “themes are stated and developed (often in counterpoint with each other), recapitulated in different keys, anticipated in previous movements and echoed in subsequent ones.” [4] To be sure, there is a beginning that addresses the human problem and a middle that depicts God’s saving action, and an ending that has something to do with the Christian life. I have even heard the letter reduced to the slogan, “Sin, Salvation, and Sanctification.” But putting it that way is a little like saying that Mozart’s Requiem contains only twelve notes. In chapter 1, Paul introduces the topic of God’s saving action (justification, rectification) and returns to unpack it in chapter 3. He asks in chapter 3 whether there is any advantage to being a Jew, and he starts to answer that question, but he only finally treats it in chapters 9-11. Here in chapter 5, we have the notion of God’s glory (something he has introduced in chapter 1) and hope in that glory, but he drops that language rather quickly and comes back to it in chapter 8 where we find out what work that word “hope” does. There is a great web of references back and forward in the letter, maybe because Paul writes for the ear, developing his argument in an intricate web rather than plotting it out in a wooden, linear fashion.

That is a long-winded way of saying that chapter 5 simply introduces the language of glory and hope, language that returns forcefully in chapter 8. For all of us, Romans 8 is familiar territory, overly familiar. Too many fresh griefs have been marked by public readings of the end of Romans 8. Perhaps you have found yourself digging your fingernails into your palms in order simply to make it to the final words. Or you may have been force-fed v. 28 as a cure-all for grumpiness (“all things work to the good for those who love God”). Well-intentioned Christians too often employ that particular text to silence the aching cries of accident victims or parents of children with birth defects. Or maybe you inherited a strong form of predestination that lived by taking the language of vv. 29-30 out of context. However much baggage we wheel along behind, we nevertheless find ourselves returning again and again to these words of assurance, listening once more as Paul shakes his fist in the face of Death and the Devil with the confident cry that nothing in heaven or earth can separate humanity from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

What Paul does in these verses (especially Rom 8:18-25) is to take up “our” present suffering and the future glory simultaneously, introducing his argument with the astonishing claim that the present suffering is not even capable of being compared with the impending glory. This is the major point he will develop in the remainder of the chapter. Now we might conclude (as many readers of Paul do) that he offers the promise of a glorious future as a mind-altering drug that removes us from the aches and pains of the present, but the argument that follows suggests something much more complex.

Because the language here can simply wash over us, the theological equivalent of elevator music, it is important to pause and notice what Paul is doing. This is not a place for hopping on the expressway and stomping on the accelerator, but for lingering on the side roads so that we actually see the territory. I have three such side roads to explore briefly before we get to what Paul has to say about hope. [5]

First, there is the question of the “we” for whom Paul speaks. In the section just before this one, Paul has already identified “us” as God’s children, fellow heirs with Christ, and indeed as participants both in Christ’s suffering and in Christ’s glory. Interestingly, Paul doesn’t pause to tell us who these children of God are, which folks are in and which folks are out. Paul is a lot less concerned with defining the “we” of his letters than many of his interpreters have been. (I think a strong argument can be made that God’s children actually include all human beings.)

Second, whoever Paul has in mind with the “we” of this discussion, he makes it immediately clear that the subject is the whole of creation: “creation waits with eager longing,” “creation was subjected to futility…in the hope that creation itself will be set free.” Debate about what Paul means by “creation” here extends back well into the early centuries of the church’s life, but many interpreters agree (and I am among them) that Paul refers to everything that is – human life, animal life, plant life. All of it waits eagerly – the language is colorful – the Greek apokaradokia suggesting the stretching out of the neck to look for what is coming. In the paraphrase of J.B. Phillips, the rendering is “creation is on tiptoe.”

“Creation is on tiptoe.” I see a youngster straining to discern when the lights of the train will finally appear, the train that takes her home to her family or brings her beloved into view once again. If, for the sake of being up-to-date, you’d prefer an airport analogy instead, think of the ending of the movie “Love, Actually,” where the whole crowd of characters gathers at Heathrow, waiting for that wild array of beloveds to work their way through the doors. That sort of eagerness characterizes everything that exists as it all together anticipates the future God is even now bringing about.

Creation’s eagerness is matched by, and perhaps exceeded by, the eagerness of believers (“not only the creation,” Paul writes, “but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we groan inwardly while we wait…”). Even receiving manifestations of the Spirit does not exempt believers from their eagerness, an eagerness for adoption, for redemption. (NB: contemporary English translations often render this as redemption of our bodies plural – but Paul’s word is singular, the redemption of our body. We are in this together.)

Here we take the third side road to think about what Paul means by “redemption,” but this particular side road leads us into the heart of the passage, even into the heart of the letter. This is not the time or place for a full scale argument about redemption in Romans, but I do need to insist that redemption is something different from the forgiveness of sins. Actually, it is quite astonishing how seldom Paul uses the language either of forgiveness or of sins in the plural. The problem of humanity in Paul’s analysis is emphatically not that “we do bad things” or “we don’t do good things” and thus “God needs to forgive us (but only after we repent).” Instead, we are – all of us – captives, prisoners, slaves to Powers of Sin and Death. Frankly, neither repentance nor forgiveness does slaves much good. What slaves need is release, liberation, redemption. That is why Romans 5 abounds in language about the rule, the reign, of Sin and Death, and why 8:3 declares that God sent the Son to condemn Sin – i.e., to defeat Sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Now at long last we are ready to see what Paul has to say about hope. He refers to it explicitly several times here. His last reference is the one most often quoted: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Frankly, I find this to be a fairly banal observation about the fact that hope always has to do with what is not already fully realized. At least most of us no longer hope for a good meal while we are eating that same good meal. When the longed-for family reunion comes, we may wonder why we were so eager for it, we may even hope we live through it, but we don’t any longer hope for it to arrive.

The other two statements about hope in this passage are far more challenging, but I think that if we stay with them we also will find them far more revealing. In v. 20, Paul writes that “creation was subjected in hope.” Along with most but not all students of Paul, I think that it is God who subjected creation; this is a reference to God’s response to human rebellion against God. It recalls Genesis 3, and it also recalls Romans 1, where Paul repeatedly claims that God handed humanity over to the enslaving powers of Sin and Death because of humanity’s refusal to acknowledge God as God. But what does it mean to say that God did this “in” or “on the basis of” hope? Was God hoping for something? How is it that God hopes? Does God hope for human reformation? Human repentance? While this interpretation might be congenial for certain latter day understandings of God, this seems an odd sort of observation for Paul to make about the almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, the one who raised Jesus from the dead, especially since this letter so relentlessly shows us that human beings cannot simply repent or reform.

If that statement about being subjected in hope isn’t puzzling enough, let me complicate things further by introducing v. 24a: “For in hope we were saved.” Given the ambiguities of the Greek, this might mean “by” hope – that is, we were saved by our own hoping. Yet if humanity cannot repent its way out of enslavement, it also cannot hope on its own. But if hope is not human optimism, and if it’s not God’s hoping for us to repent, and if Paul isn’t tossing the word in just for rhetorical effect, then what exactly is it?

It would be easy to say simply that hope here is eschatological hope, but that phrase prompts its own confusion, as happens when people conclude that hope is merely out there somewhere, in the distant future. Pie in the sky by and by. If that is all that Paul means, then I vote with Howard Thurman’s grandmother that these are dangerous letters and that we should put them out of sight. [6] But before we come to that conclusion, indulge me as I try out an explanation: at least in this passage, “hope” is itself the first fruit – the first tantalizing little nibble, if you will – of the arrival of God’s final triumph. When Paul says that creation was subjected “in hope” or “on the basis of hope,” what he means is that God’s subjection always had redemption in view. As he puts it in Romans 11:32, “God confined all to sin that [God] might have mercy on all.” And when 8:24 declares that we “were saved in hope,” it refers to the intervention – the invasion – of the gospel that already takes humanity out of the grasp of Sin.

In this sense, the whole second half of Romans 8 is suffused with hope. The sufferings of the present time are not to be compared with the glory that is just now about to be revealed to us. All of creation leans forward in anticipation. We have the “first fruit of the Spirit,” the Spirit already intercedes. As he goes on to say, God has already called human beings, God has already made things right, God has already glorified. Even in the midst of hunger and danger and abandonment, God has already made known God’s final triumph, so that God’s enemies do not have the last word.

This way of thinking about “hope” is so far removed from normal American chatter about hope as to render it nearly nonsense. Hope is not for Paul a function of brain chemistry. Neither is it a human virtue to be cultivated, so that we are dutifully to practice declaring the glass to be half-full when anyone can plainly see that it is half-empty. We may make lists of things that are hopeful (and there are days I do that), but that’s not what Paul intends. It is largely irrelevant whether Paul or Phoebe or Beverly Gaventa or members of the Covenant Network have hope. Indeed, hope is not about us at all; it is God’s hope, that is, it is God’s future, not ours; and however wondrously and graciously it is for us, it is not about us.

Let’s return to that wonderful Greek word apokaradokia or eager longing and the analogy of waiting for a train. That young woman is waiting for the arrival of a train that brings with it her beloved. If you will allow that scene to move forward, I think you will catch something of Paul’s understanding of hope. She knows that the train is coming. She can even see the first bit of light reflecting off the track as it makes the last corner on its way into the station. She stands on that platform, unable to make it come one moment sooner, and unable to delay its arrival for a single second. Much as she has longed for this moment, her longing has not moved one ounce of steel even an inch along the track. Her hope is not optimism, it is no longer even conviction, it is utter certainty of the train’s arrival. That is Paul’s understanding of hope in Romans 8 – utter certainty of God’s future triumph that already lives and breathes in the present time.

What will we say, then (as someone is fond of saying)? How on earth (exactly: on earth) does that kind of certainty about God’s future do anything for Christians who exist very much in the Mean Time of the present? Is this just another form of escape from the present world?

For Paul, it was certainly not an escape. Indeed, it is important to understand that in Romans 8 he does not provide us with a sketch of the future, despite his announcement about the future glory. In I Thessalonians, he offers comfort to the grieving by depicting the victorious return of Jesus as the moment when both living and dead will be snatched out of the grasp of Death to be with Jesus Christ. And in 1 Corinthians 15 he anticipates both Jesus’ return and his victory over all God’s enemies, including Death itself. But here in Romans 8, he takes us right up to the place where we expect that depiction of the future and then, instead of showing us what lies ahead, he plunges us back into the present. Writing about the Book of Revelation, Richard Bauckham suggests that the Seer and his audience are “taken up into heaven in order to see the world from the heavenly perspective,” [7] but at least in Romans Paul insists that his audience look very much at the present in all its grim detail. He clearly does not say that famine and nakedness and sword are unreal, that they do not matter, that they do not inflict harm. Instead, rendered somewhat literally, what he says is that these powers have no power to do what they want, they cannot separate humanity from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

As we call to mind the major subjects addressed in the rest of the letter, we see no signs of escapism and many indications that Paul is well acquainted with the problems of the present time. With the next words of this letter (i.e., at 9:1), he turns to a specific concern about the real people of Israel, “my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.” Although the twists and turns of the next three chapters have reduced many a learned and astute commentator to confused babbling, in all of those moves Paul’s feet are planted firmly in the reality of the present. Israel exists entirely out of the calling and mercy of God, yet Israel does not recognize God in the advent of Jesus Christ or in God’s mercy to the Gentiles. It is tempting today to see Romans 9-11 as instructive for our thinking about Christianity and other religions, but I suspect the closer parallel is to our own unwillingness to acknowledge that the church also exists only because God has called it into being and our own refusal to imagine that God may call other Gentiles as well, those we name as outsiders.

In chapters 12-15, Paul turns to problems internal to the community of faith. In chapter14 especially he addresses the real problem of divisions within the house churches. The quarrels here are not about what constitutes a Christian marriage or who may serve in leadership in the church; instead, they appear to be about whether Christians will continue to follow kosher law and how they can eat together if they answer that question in differing ways. It’s one thing for some folks to be vegans and others omnivores, both parties claiming to eat to the glory of God, but what happens when the omnivores host the church night supper and offer only barbecue, while sneering at the vegans as picky eaters?

And, of course, in chapter 15, Paul explains that he is on the way to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor saints in that city. It isn’t necessary to explain to folks in ministry, especially during this season of the year, that gathering and dispersing funds is scarcely an escape from this world. But linger over this point for a moment: Paul is by no means confident that the Jerusalem poor will accept this collection, coming as it does from Gentile believers in Macedonia and Achaia. Do you get it? He is taking funds to the very people who are most opposed to his own understanding of the gospel. That’s a text that translates itself.

Concerns about money, petty bickering, condescension toward the outside – Paul would be right at home with us. These are problems of the Mean Time. In the language of Flannery O’Connor, this is “territory occupied largely by the Devil.” [8]

And in this territory, Paul never mentions his own hopes. He never says that he hopes Israel will come around to his way of thinking, or that he hopes that everyone will find a way to get along, or that he hopes for success in Jerusalem. He doesn’t take temperatures, organize focus groups, or conduct telephone surveys. Instead, he repeatedly locates these concrete challenges in the cosmic landscape of God’s action. He ends Romans 9-11 with a doxology in praise of God’s unfathomable wisdom: “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!” He ends the discussion of divisions in 14-15 with a prayer that the “God of hope will fill” the Romans with joy and peace, that they may abound in love. And he ends his comments on the collection with a prayer for God’s deliverance in Jerusalem. The Devil may occupy the territory, but God is reclaiming that territory for God.

Based on Paul’s own comments in the letter, then, it appears that certainty about God’s future frees us to be and act in this world, not to turn away from it. So, to return one last time to the young woman who is still waiting for her beloved’s arrival, she has not left the train platform. As she stands there, with her palms a little damp now and her pulse racing, confident now that the train is almost in sight, she is free to notice those who wait with her: an elderly couple waiting for their daughter, a child fussing in its father’s arms, a business person impatient for the next stage of the journey. Her joy embraces them all. They wait together. And they care for each other. The elderly couple needs a place to sit. The father may need another pair of hands to manage all the baby’s gear. The business person may welcome a little conversation about something – anything – other than the next appointment.

To translate: as Christians, we do not have to “have” hope in order to get and stay about the work of the church in the world because God already has hope for us. Because we know that the future is God’s, because we have seen that future in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we know also that we are free to use all our energy and intelligence and compassion for those who wait alongside us. As Paul might say, we do so because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – not death or life, not powers, not microbes or government policies or fear or division or disease or anything else in all creation. Not even the church. Because we know that, we can live in the present. Not in our own hope, but in God’s hope for us. Not in our own hope, but by the God of hope.

As he comes to the end of the body of the letter, in the middle of Romans 15, Paul comments, “…on some points I have written to you rather boldly by way of reminder.” By way of reminder. I take that phrase to mean what teachers and preachers occasionally mean when we introduce a point by saying, “As you know.” Often we begin with “As you know,” when we aren’t at all sure that anyone knows. Paul is by no means sure that the Romans know the vastness of the redemption God is bringing about, a redemption that extends to the horizon of creation, a redemption that include even us.

And so he offers his testimony, his witness, to the Romans – and to us – about God’s own hope.

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[1] For the scholarly argumentation that supports this reconstruction, see Peter Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), and Carolyn Osiek and Margaret Y. McDonald, with Janet H. Tulloch, A Woman’s Place: House Churches in Earliest Christianity (Minneaplis: Fortress, 2006).
[2] On this topic, see the thoughtful essay by Donald H. Juel, “The Strange Silence of the Bible,” Interpretation 51 (1997) 5-19.
[3] Jayber Crow (New York: Counterpoint, 2000), 142.
[4] Romans (NIB 10; Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 396.
[5] This discussion of Romans 8 draws on Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: WJK, 2007), 51-62.
[6] Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1981 [1940]), 30.
[7] The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 7.
[8] Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose (New York: Noonday Press, 1957), 118.