THE LOVE OF GOD
TEXT: Romans 8:35-39; Luke 23:39-43
As we continue to look at the book of Romans, just a couple of reminders. First, remember that the books of the Bible are not printed in chronological order. First they are grouped by category, and we’ve been through the four Gospels and the one book of history…Acts. Romans begins the section of writings by Paul, and they are ordered by length, with Romans—the longest—coming first.
Paul writes his letter to the church in Rome from the city of Corinth about 57 AD. It is a letter, but the purpose of the letter is a grant proposal of sorts. Paul is laying out his beliefs in the hopes that the Roman church will support a mission he would like to make to Spain. Since Paul was the largest theological influence in the early days of the church, the book of Romans is the best exposition we have of what the first Christians believed.
One thing that is evident to me through all of it, is just how much Christian faith is grounded in hopefulness. We saw it begin in the first three chapters. Paul paints a very bleak picture of the human condition and our seeming inability to do anything right, ever. But just when you think that it would probably be a good thing to just end the whole human project, Paul jumps in with his famous, “But now, apart from the law” in Romans 3:21 and tells us about how God’s grace makes goodness and beauty and salvation possible after all.
Last week in chapter 5 we saw how Paul manages to take suffering and transform even that into a lasting hope in the goodness of God. And now, at the end of chapter 8, Paul writes this stunning passage about the all-encompassing love of God, that is with us no matter what.
The timing is good. If you remember your Roman history, Nero became Emperor in 54 AD…three years before Paul pens this epistle. As you may know, the reign of Nero was not a good thing for Christians. Under Nero, Christians suffered the worst persecutions to date. They were tortured and killed in ways to horrible to mention in a family service. And Paul will not be immune. Both Peter and Paul lose their lives under the persecutions of Nero.
But before Paul is arrested and brought to Rome, he writes Romans and gives to future martyrs in Rome something to hang onto when all else is taken away. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” What a gift.
And I think there is perhaps no greater gift for us in our world right now. War spreads from heart to heart and nation to nation. The twisted cult of terrorism makes off with the souls of the young and tries to instill fear in others. The weather is out of joint across the globe…fires and floods, tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes and excessive heat. People are beginning to ask, both privately and publicly whether this is it…whether the end of days and the final wars are upon us.
For myself, I doubt this is the end…at least I doubt that it is the end of the world. It might be the end of the United States as a superpower. It might be the end of a certain way of life. It might even be the end of many of us in particular—the ravages of war will not stay away from our shores forever. But I don’t think it is the end of the world.
Even if it were, however, we have in these words from Paul, all we need. Memorize them, or at least remember the basic concept. Nothing, but nothing, can separate you from the love of God. That’s not to say that there aren’t times when we don’t feel like God doesn’t care if we live or die. But our feelings are just our feelings. They have only a hit-or-miss relationship to reality. The reality is that God’s love is always there for us, and that assurance is better than a flak jacket.
Part of the reason for spiritual formation is to develop both protection and coping strategies so that when life gets bad, we have the inner resources to deal with it. When life falls apart, that’s often motivation for some people to get up and come to church. That’s good, but it’s even better to engage spiritual life before all of that hits. Then you have developed the spiritual muscle to deal with it, and you have a spiritual community to help you cope with it. Better to get the body armor before you are in the thick of the fighting.
If you walk the walk of Romans, you’re off to a good start. You’ve realized that we’re all pretty bad when it comes to real righteous living. Many of us can refrain from doing major harm, but to truly live the kind of righteous life that Jesus taught takes help from God and from others in a like-minded community. So, step one realizes that, and accepts the help that God freely offers. Many of the next steps are involved in living that out…in accepting the difficulties and suffering that life throws at us, and offering them up to God.
By leaving them in God’s hands we develop patience, which leads to the reward of God’s guiding action in our lives. God shows up and proves God’s love. And after that happens enough times, we begin to sing the song of the end of Romans 8. Paul said in Romans 5 that we should boast in our sufferings and this section has an example of it: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Today we could add to that list. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will terrorism, or bombs, or the death of our loved ones? Will fire or flood, crashing plane or exploding rail? Will extremism or partisanship or illegal immigration or abortion or gay marriage or getting both your legs blown off in a war? No! No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Notice that Paul never promises that these things won’t happen if we just have enough faith or if we just pray hard enough. Katrina hitting New Orleans is not an indication of God’s wrath. It’s an indicator that we are not paying attention to what is happening in our world, but it has nothing to do with God’s love. Paul says in all these things we are more than conquerors. These things will come. They have come, and more are on the way. Christians won’t avoid them…don’t go gloating that only others will be “left behind” to suffer. That’s never been true. Don’t get lazy. Prepare your spirit.
Many of us are prepared for various sorts of difficulties. We’ve got flashlights for when the lights go out, radios with batteries for when we need information and there’s no electricity, blankets and emergency gear in the car in case we get stuck in a blizzard…the list goes on and on. But is your spirit prepared? Have you walked the road for enough time with enough faith that you absolutely know that nothing can separate you from God’s love?
This is not a skipping through the tulips la, la, la kind of verse. This is the writing of a man who, within seven years, will be beheaded for his faith. It’s written to people who will be robbed and beaten, tortured and mocked and killed for hanging onto their faith in Jesus. And when all of that comes their way, their spirits will be ready to meet it, because they first prepared themselves in faith.
They didn’t take the easy road, they exercised their spiritual muscles. They came together in worship to learn and to develop a network of support. They took time to pray. They gave of their time and their resources. They refused occupations that were at odds with what Jesus taught, even if it meant they went hungry. They shared with all who had need. And they experienced, in all of it, the love of God.
This set of verses should be part of every single person’s emergency kit. No matter what happens to you. No matter if you are dying under a pile of bombed rubble or climbing onto your roof to escape a flood. No matter if a loved one is threatened or if your retirement goes up in Enron smoke. Be convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. It’s the truth. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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