The readings on which the sermon below is based can be found at:
s050e05 Lockleys Sunday 17 24/7/2005
nothing "will be able to separate us from the love of God" Romans 8.39
Some three weeks ago I started my sermon on the text: "I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" (Romans 7.23) -- by saying that these words of St Paul are not my most favourite, simply because they often precipitate a vast amount of self-examination, self-recrimination; indeed self-depreciation.
Well, just one chapter later, the story is completely different. Countless generations of Christians down through the centuries have read these words from Romans chapter 8 and rejoiced in the comfort they give. They must be close to everyone's favourite passage in the Bible. The prospect of death being unable to separate us from God is a great comfort to those who begin to realise the inevitability of their own mortality. Similarly we all rejoice that nothing happening to us now, or in the future can alter this status we have before God.
But the mention of "angels" and "rulers" as possible, if ultimately unsuccessful, opponents to us seems a little unnecessary. But, what the heck! If St Paul wants to go overboard trying to reassure us, we can accept this.
But there are opponents who would bring charges against God's elect, those who would condemn; albeit unsuccessfully.
Our discomfort might be a little heightened when we read the words: "For your sake we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered". I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that my lifestyle makes me feel like a sheep about to be slaughtered, whether I choose this or not. This "comfort" that St Paul is offering so freely -- is beginning to sound a little hollow.
This reading is paired with the account of Jesus encounter with those with whom he had worshipped all his life and their rejection of him. The parallel in Luke's account tells us that they tried to throw Jesus off the brow of the hill. (Luke 4.29) We can conclude that meeting Jesus and even knowing him as a friend and neighbour all one's life does not mean that we will automatically be on Jesus' side.
The people who crucified Jesus were those who were most diligent in the practice of their religion, those who separated themselves off from others because of their love of God. Do the words "all things work together for good for those who love God" extend to those who loved God and that very love caused them to crucify Jesus? Did these people actually love the same God as the one Jesus proclaimed? We can only conclude not.
This leads me to ask just who are these people that St Paul wishes to reassure?
Well, they are weak people.
They are people who don't know how to pray properly.
They are those conformed to the image of his Son.
They are those for whom Jesus died -- not those who know that Jesus died for them, incidentally.
They are "all of us".
They are God's elect.
Our very humanity makes us saints and elect. By this I do not at all mean that because we are human we are at the top of the evolutionary pyramid and so special in the eyes of God -- for such ideas can lead us to disregard the beauty of the rest of creation and simply use it for our own purposes. I mean that the humanity that we extend towards others, all others, is what makes us saints and God's elect. It is this that is us being conformed to the image of his Son.
And there are a multitude of people outside the walls of the Church for whom this is true, just as there are many within the walls of the Church who are not especially noted for their humane attitude towards others.
There are people who apparently love God so much and who are so sure of the truth of their religion as opposed to anyone who differs, people who bring charges against others, people who would condemn people of other faiths or lifestyles -- these people need no reassurance at all -- and if they were actually looking for reassurance, they will wait for it in vain, I suspect. Most often these are too busy criticising others, suggesting how others might live more appropriately -- like themselves, for instance.
Let's list a few examples:
You're not a real Christian unless you speak in tongues.
You're not a real Christian unless you have been baptised by full immersion.
You're not a real Christian unless you consider the Bible as the infallible word of God.
You're not a real Christian unless you consider women to be subordinate to men.
You're not a real Christian unless you consider those who are gay to be irredeemable.
You're not a real Christian unless you love a particular style of Anglican worship.
I observe that people who molest children are those who think that everyone else exists for their own gratification. Sounds familiar?
So these words are directed towards all of humanity who act humanely towards others. This cannot be said of all Christians I know; indeed of course these words are regularly used to suggest that God only seeks to reassure Christians -- and often only Christians of "my sort". This turns the meaning of these words into precisely the opposite of what they are intended.
The essence of Jesus' message to those of his hometown was that they were in no way special. Neither their status as the people of the Old Covenant or their relationship to Jesus made them any different in God's eyes. How many Christians believe that their special friendship and knowledge of Jesus makes them different in God's eyes? It is almost a statement of faith -- and it is wrong.
So the question becomes, are we the "angels" and "rulers" that are actually trying to separate other ordinary people from the love of God, in the name of Christ, using these very words? Well, if we are, we can be certain that we will also be unsuccessful. We will have to be content with the fact that nothing "will be able to separate (anyone at all) from the love of God" -- even, God forbid, should that be us, who are trying to separate others from the love of God.
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