July 27, 2014
Today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans begins in the middle of a thought that began in last week’s reading. Like a good teacher, Paul has been circling back around his main point, adding layers of understanding with each repetition. Now we find ourselves at the conclusion of chapter eight, a chapter so chock full of meaning, it takes three Sundays to get through it all. Here we are, on the third of those Sundays, about to read the climax of this chapter, which is itself the climax of the whole letter. When we left off last week, we were groaning with all creation in anticipation of “the glory about to be revealed to us” as joint-heirs with Christ. It’s a glory that far outshines any memory of suffering, a glory that completely overwhelms our brokenness. Hear the word of the Lord, as given to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter eight, beginning at verse 26.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 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.
There are at least three sermons in this passage. First, we could focus on the kind of prayer that surpasses human language, and the way this prayer connects us to God in life-changing ways. As “God, who searches the heart” looks into our souls, we could consider what God might find there, and how to recognize that probing, and respond to it from our inmost being. The groaning of creation, combined with our own and the Spirit’s groaning, is more than the groaning of grief, as we so often think of it. This is the groaning of expectation, of anticipation for all things to be restored to rightness in the fulfilled Kingdom of God. That could be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.
We could also spend a good deal of time considering the middle of this passage, that begins with the much-loved and often quoted verse 28:
“All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
The problem with this lovely verse is that translators can’t seem to agree on the best way to interpret Paul’s Greek, and the various versions have led to some questionable explanations. We often quote this verse when we run up against the unpleasant in our lives. Bad stuff happens, and we try to brush it off with, “Oh well, all things work together for good, …” as if God had made bad things happen to us just so he could make something good out of the mess. It has also been offered as a trite phrase meant to comfort those who are in the midst of suffering, but this use sometimes backfires when the person hearing it thinks we are saying, “If you really loved God, if you were really called according to his purpose, you wouldn’t be having this trouble.” But Paul isn’t talking about a transaction here. Grace is a free gift. Paul doesn’t say, “IF you love God and are called.” He says, “those who love God and are called.” This verse introduces a growing awareness that our ultimate goal is to be glorified with Christ. The good that God is working in us is aimed toward this goal of glorification. It’s less about making silk purses out of sows’ ears, or shaming us into loving God more, than it is about progressing from infant believer to a fully formed disciple of Jesus. That could also be a good sermon, and maybe I’ll preach it some day.
Of course, we could also argue about that testy word “predestination” until the cows come home, without coming to any satisfactory understanding of what Paul had in mind when he used it. The word translated here as “predestined” only occurs four times in the New Testament: Acts 4:28, 1 Corinthians 2:7, Ephesians 1: 5 & 11, and here in Romans. In Acts and 1 Corinthians, the word refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the foundation for God’s plan of salvation. In Ephesians and here in Romans, Paul is referring to the inclusion of Gentiles in that plan, reminding his Jewish readers that God had in mind all along to offer salvation to the whole world.
We could talk about how, over the course of Christian history, this word was applied more specifically to an individual’s “predestination” and how Calvin developed an intricate doctrine of predestination that became an important element in Reformed theology. As Methodists, we might do well to review John Wesley’s sermons on this topic. In Sermon #58, he preached,
“What is it, then, that we learn from this whole account? It is this, and no more: — (1) God knows all believers;; (2) wills that they should be saved from sin;; (3) to that end, justifies them, (4) sanctifies and (5) takes them to glory.
O that men would praise the Lord for this his goodness;; and that they would be content with this plain account of it, and not endeavour to wade into those mysteries which are too deep for angels to fathom!”
So maybe today is not the day to tackle the doctrine of predestination. That might make for good discussion in a small group study sometime.
What does that leave us? Paul comes to his main point through four rhetorical questions:
Who can be against us, if God is for us?
Who can bring any charge against God’s elect?
Who can condemn us if Christ died for us, rose again, and stands on our behalf before God?
Who can separate us from the love of God?
And the answer is always the same. No one can come between God and us.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. No one can be against us if God is for us. God will give us everything, since he already gave his only Son for our sakes.
No one will bring any charge against God’s elect, because God himself justifies us. He finds us “in the right,” and if the supreme judge of all the universe finds us in the right, no one can appeal or argue that finding.
No one can condemn us, because Christ has already died and been raised to a place at the right hand of God where he intercedes, along with the Spirit who groans on our behalf. Condemnation has been condemned.
No one can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Even when it seems God has abandoned you, Paul writes, you cannot escape his love. Paul quotes Psalm 44, a psalm of lament, to make his point. At a time when Israel felt that God had turned away forever, even then, God’s love for his people could not be destroyed. And now, even more than then, we have evidence of God’s deep love for us in the person of his own Son, Jesus. No, Paul says, we aren’t forsaken. In fact, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
What does “more than conquerors” mean here? What are we conquering, exactly? Through Christ Jesus, we can claim complete victory over the suffering caused by our sin. And what is the source of this victory? God’s great love for us, shown in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing.
Paul’s final answer to the question, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” is one of the most beautiful assurances we can find in scripture. “I am convinced,” Paul writes, “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 a pretty exhaustive list, but what if Paul were writing this promise today? What would make the list of things that cannot separate us from God’s love?
During our meeting this week, I asked the Church Council to take a moment to think of the things that break our hearts. We listed children who are vulnerable, families who are displaced by war or natural disaster, the violence and unrest throughout the world, but particularly in the Middle East and Ukraine. We listed places and people who might be feeling separated from God’s love right now. But Paul says, “Nothing can separate us.” Nothing can come between us and the God who loves us. Nothing.
Shel Silverstein once wrote a children’s poem called “Whatif,” that lists all the things a young child might fear, such as failure, disappointment, embarrassment, rejection, even death. “What if, what if, what if?” the poem asks. Adults often play the “What if” game, too. What if I had done this differently, or said that, or made a different decision? What if things go wrong and I can’t fix them? What if?
Paul says, “Nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Stop “what if”-ing, and rest in this assurance: We are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Rob Bell, former pastor of the Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, put out a series of discussion starter videos several years ago. In one of these “Nooma” videos, he makes this profound claim: “There is nothing you can do to make God love you less.” And there is nothing you can do to make God love you more. No matter what we do to try to make God stop loving us, it won’t work. He will not love us any less than he ever did. And no matter how hard we try to make God love us more, it won’t work, because he already loves us beyond anything we can imagine. He cannot love you less, and he cannot love you more.
Know that God loves you no matter what, no matter when, no matter where, no matter who, no matter why, no matter how.
So, live like God loves you. Live like a conquering hero, because that’s who you are. We are all completely victorious over sin and death, through the one who loved us, who loves us now, and will always love us. Live into the assurance that you are God’s own beloved child, and share that good news with the people you see every day who are hurting, disappointed, worried, convinced that they have no worth in the world. Remind them, as you remind yourself, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.