Atlas (c. 1530-1536)
by Michelangelo
public domain

Proper 11, Romans 8:18-27

Historical Description:

Michelangelo (1475-1564), an Italian Renaissance artist, famous for sculptures such as the Pietà and David, and for frescoes, such as The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, left many works unfinished.

In Florence, visitors to the Galleria dell’Accademia can see four of Michelangelo’s unfinished slaves.  Originally part of sixteen figures intended for Pope Julius II’s tomb, these slaves are forever trapped in marble, struggling to break free.

Each of the figures faces the viewer, offering a full torso and then fragments of legs, arms, and head, as if the artist worked from the front to the back of the block of marble while the figures in his mind rose to meet him from the stone.

Devotional Reflection:

If you were to go to the city of Florence and stand in the hallway of the Galleria dell’Accademia, you’d find yourself in an awkward place.  There, before you, are four unfinished pieces of stone.  An artist was working on pieces of marble but stopped in the middle of his work.  The edges are rough.  The stone is misshapen.  And yet, you can see just the beginning of figures.  People emerging from the rock.   Some have no faces.  Others are missing arms.  What you see are merely the beginning of four figures.  They are slaves.  Prisoners.  Begun by Michelangelo but never finished.  His work has been frozen in time.  What they once were, rough blocks of marble, is gone.  What they will be, beautiful sculptures, is not yet here.  Instead, they invite us to stand here in an awkward moment.  The past is gone and yet not gone.  The future is here and yet not here.  We are invited to live, to hope, to trust in what has yet to be.

In our text this morning, Paul invites us into a hallway like this.  He asks us to see how we are caught right now in the middle of God’s greater work.  Paul begins by saying, “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).  Suffering and glory held together in this moment.  Like rough hewn stone, our present world is filled with suffering.  God had originally formed a beautiful creation.  Wherever one looked, one could see God’s fingerprints and it was beautiful and it was good.  Adam and Eve, however, brought suffering into God’s creation.  They disobeyed God and brought God’s curse into the world.  “The day you eat of it, you shall die,” God said and God, true to his word, subjected the beauty of creation to the bondage of decay.  Such punishment was set in stone.  Only God could set his creature free.  Only God could bring about a new creation.  This is what Paul has seen in Jesus Christ.  Just a glimpse of the glory of the new creation.  First fruit foretells a future harvest and Jesus Christ is the first fruit of life after death.  Raised from the dead, he is the promise of a new creation.  Our future resurrection into never-ending glory.  God has begun this good work and, like this glimpse of figures in stone, it is only a matter of time before the full glory of God is revealed.

So Paul writes to the Romans to help them stand in this painful moment.  And his words come to us to help us stand here today.  In Christ, we have been made into the children of God.  This is sure.  This is certain.  His death has destroyed the power of sin for you and his resurrection has brought you the promise of a new creation.  Yet what we are is not fully seen and experienced in this world.  Take a deep close look at God’s people, Paul says, and you will see a people, imprisoned and suffering, groaning because they desire to be free.

So we stand, awkwardly positioned between the sufferings of this present world and the glory yet to be revealed.  And in this place, the apostle Paul asks us to meditate on our situation and to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.

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