Scripture - Romans 8:31-39
Holy One, fill our hearts with your Spirit. Open our ears to hear your word proclaimed. Remind us that you are always with us, guiding us to be your faithful disciples. Amen.
A woman from here in the south went to visit New York City for the first time. She went with preconceived ideas about crime & violence in the Big Apple. She stayed in a large downtown hotel with an underground parking garage. Late one evening, she returned to the lonely, empty garage. Now, if you ever watch TV crime shows, you know what happens in empty parking garages at night!
So, with much trepidation, she quickly got out of her car & hustled to the elevator. Suddenly, out of the shadows, stepped a large man with a Doberman on a leash. The lady got to the elevator & pushed her floor. As the door was about to close, the man blocked the door with his hand & got on.
The lady’s heart was pounding. The man broke the silence by saying sternly, “Lie down.” Without hesitation, the woman went to the floor. Realizing what was happening, the man laughed & said, “Lady, I was talking to my dog.”
Sometimes our fears & preconceived ideas about God become exaggerated. What is your picture of God? Some of us approach God with feelings of fear & guilt. Often that anxiety derives from what we have done. Some of us approach God with feelings of inadequacy or incompetency. God may seem so remote & holy that we are uncomfortable thinking that we have an actual relationship with God.
When we gather to worship God in Spirit & truth, we come into the presence of One who loves us so much that we need not fear. The apostle Paul writes: Who will separate us from Christ’s love? Will we be separated by trouble, or distress, or harassment, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? In all these things we win a sweeping victory through the one who loved us. I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that is created.
We do not need to fear or be apprehensive. Nothing can separate us from the love of God. As human beings, we can nail God’s only Son to a tree. We can hurl all sorts of insults at him. We can strip him of his garments & even gamble for them in his presence. We can thrust a spear into his side. We can even deny his very existence. But there is nothing you or I have ever said, done, or thought that can stop God from loving us.
When Jesus was hanging on the cross, he prayed: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing. This is a greater love than we are capable of understanding. It is a love that never quits. It is a love that never gives up on us. If we believe that is true, then God sees more in us that we see in ourselves.
A homeless man sat across the street from an artist’s studio. The artist sketched the man’s face. It was the face of a defeated, despairing man. But the artist made an important change in the sketch. Into the dull, lifeless eyes he put the flashing sparkle of an inspired dreamer. He added a look of determination in the man’s face. When the painting was finished, he called the homeless man in to see it. He did not recognize himself. “Who is it?” the man asked. Then, realizing he saw something of himself in the painting, the poor guy asked, “Is it me? Can that be me?” “That is how I see you,” the artist replied. Straightening his shoulders, the homeless man said, “If that’s the man you see, then that’s the man I’ll be.” God sees things within us that we ourselves cannot see. God knows who we can become through the power of his Son.
In Christ, God desires to restore us to a right relationship with himself & others. He longs to forgive & redeem us. He is eager to cleanse us & make us whole. Though we may give up on each other & on ourselves, God’s love never gives up on us. For God’s love is a love that never quits! So, what are some characteristics of God’s love?
It is a sacrificial love. God has given us his own Son. There are echoes here of Genesis 22, in which Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son, Isaac. And for us today there are certainly recollections of John 3:16, a passage that Paul did not know but whose themes he certainly echoes. For Paul, the gift of Jesus Christ crucified is not only an example of God’s love; it is the act of God’s love. It is God doing love among us & for the whole creation. God has also raised Jesus from the dead. This is a foreshadowing of God’s great victory to which these verses point.
What can separate us from God’s love? Can tragedy or disaster, a fall or flames, height or depth, life, or death? No! Nothing can separate us from God’s love, for God’s love is a love that never quits.
It is a forgiving love. Because Christ is risen from the dead, we can count on his intercession for us with God. Taken literally, this seems to mean that Christ is with God pleading to God on our behalf. Even if we take Paul’s promise less literally, we can affirm with Paul that Jesus Christ is God’s goodwill on our behalf, & the resurrection is the guarantee that the love of God for us in Christ cannot be conquered by death but continues to stir God’s heart even now. This is not true just because God remembers Jesus kindly but because Jesus is raised to eternal life, with God, for us.
Friends, we can hide nothing from God. He knows the secrets of our hearts. Yet he is eager & willing to restore us to a right relationship with himself & to release us from our burden of sin & guilt. Isaiah declares: Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow. (1:18)
Nothing you or I have ever done can stop God from loving us. The very nature of his love is forgiveness, for his love is a love that never quits.
It is a redeeming love. God has already given us the greatest gift imaginable, the gift of God’s own Son. Because of this gift we can count on a gift that is, strangely, less valuable than the invaluable gift of Christ, but is still a promise of hope. We can count on all things! The gift of Christ is more than all things, but having received more than all things, we can count on all things, too.
Paul expands on this in 2 ways. First, he says, we win a sweeping victory. In the light of persecution & distress, we not only survive, we receive God’s eternal glory. We win a sweeping victory because we are more than conquerors. In Romans 13, Paul will say that the Christian life is not a life of conquest but of loving compassion. Those who are victors are those who refuse to conquer. Those who refuse to seek victory are victorious. Those who do not glory in their own accomplishments can boast in the glory of the Lord.
Second, Paul reminds us that no power in creation can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. The list of the creation’s powers – death, life, angels, height, depth – reminds us that for Paul the world is populated with forces that call for our allegiance & threaten to control us. We could make our own list, but the point is the same. We are driven & enticed by forces stronger than ourselves & weaker than God. The power that is greater than anything in creation is the power of the Creator. It is the love of the Creator that we know in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Paul is writing this letter to Christians who know persecution. Jewish Christians in Rome are just back from banishment. Whether the Roman Christians know it or not, Nero’s persecution is just around the corner, & Paul’s life will end as a prisoner in Rome. Created powers attack the faithful on every side. Paul quotes Psalm 44:22: We are being put to death all day long for your sake. We are treated like sheep for slaughter. Whether the Romans remember it or not, Paul surely knows the rest of the psalm. It is a plea to God.
Wake up! Why are you sleeping, Lord? Get up! Don’t reject us forever! Why are you hiding your face, forgetting our suffering & oppression? Look: we are going down to the dust; our stomachs are flat on the ground! Stand up! Help us! Save us for the sake of your faithful love. (Ps. 44:23-26)
God has answered that plea in Jesus Christ. Christ is God’s steadfast love in whom God reveals God’s face & raises us from the dust to eternal glory.
It is essential for Paul that we acknowledge that it is God who has answered our plea for help. It is God who acquits. It is God who makes righteous – that strong claim with which the letter began. It is God who brings us into a right relationship with God’s own self. Some versions of what God has done in Jesus Christ suggest that Jesus heroically persuaded God to change God’s mind &, instead of punishing us, to redeem us. This is not Paul’s faith. For Paul, it is God who from the beginning intended to make us righteous & who does make us righteous, providing a right relationship in Jesus Christ. Christ is not our defense attorney & God the divine prosecutor in a heavenly court scene. Christ is God’s plan for us, God’s gift, God’s intention, & God’s victory. Christ is not our victory over an angry God. Christ is God’s victory over sin & death.
Here is the picture of a victory not yet realized but well under way. Like D-Day, which was not the end of WW II but the beginning of the end. Like the Montgomery bus boycott, which was not the end of legalized segregation but the beginning of the end. In God’s final victory, God will lay claim to the whole creation by the love God has shown in Jesus Christ. We will win a sweeping victory because no force in heaven or on earth can separate us from that love, which is God’s victory on our behalf. God’s glory is our glory, too.
Today’s Scripture is a ringing affirmation in which Christians have found their comfort from the 1st century to the 21st. Of course, to this day we may be regarded as sheep to be slaughtered, if not by persecution, then by the slings & arrows of our sometimes outrageous everyday existence. Yet we do not sit down at the end of each day & count up the column of blessings & disasters to see if God is God. Instead, we look at Good Friday & Easter, at the love of God in Jesus Christ, & know that God is God & shall be God & that nothing will be able to separate us from God’s love. That is our hope. That is our assurance. That is our faith.