a sermon on Romans 8:26-38
preached September 18, 2011, at the Service of Witness to the Resurrection for the Rev. Charles Brewster
In the six years I’ve been in ministry in New York City, it was one of my greatest joys to get to know Charles. Across the nearly forty years that separated us in age, we found so many other things that connected us: a deep love of Presbyterian polity and theology, concern for our common witness to Jesus Christ through the Presbytery of New York City, care for the people of God through service in our congregations here in Queens, common interest in our Mac computers, a love of travel and especially travel to Scotland after our trip there two years ago, and of course a good glass of single malt Scotch on that trip or most anytime!
Charles and I shared these and so many things – we were connected at so many levels – and one of them was a deep love of this text. This text from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome stands as a true monument of our faith. Somehow Paul composed these incredible words to a congregation that he did not know in a city he had only dreamed of visiting when he wrote, yet even without these direct connections he found words to embody the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
First of all, here Paul acknowledges our weakness and God’s strength. When we are so weak that we don’t know even how to pray, that’s when God steps in for us. When we are in greatest need, the Spirit reaches out and makes us whole. Charles knew this as well as anyone. Over the last two years, as his nerves and muscles became less and less able to communicate and he gradually became weaker, Charles asked for help more and more. He recognized his own weakness and God’s strength working through others to care for him with simple and wonderful grace. He was never afraid to ask for help from his brother Fred or anyone else. He never masked his difficulties, never gave up his daily reading of the New York Times and his well-worn Greek New Testament. He never stopped knowing the fullness of God’s love that overcomes all weakness in him and for him and through him.
After these words, Paul moves on to remind us that our connection to God is not something that we control. God calls us according to God’s purpose, sealing us in the family of God through Jesus Christ before we can even know it or begin to understand it. God makes things right for us by no action of our own and glorifies us for life beyond our understanding. These core tenets of our faith – and especially our Presbyterian way of thinking about these things – are so clear in these verses. Our relationship with God happens not because of anything we do but because of God’s own initiative. God’s own relationship with us makes us all part of God’s family, with Jesus Christ the firstborn in it. And the glory that awaits us is not because of our own merit but because of the grand promises of God to make all things new.
Charles made these things so real in his life. He was always confident that God’s own initiative came long before his own. He had a wide understanding of family that included everyone here in this room and countless others around the world because he knew that he was united to all humanity in and through Jesus Christ. And he didn’t worry about the things of this world or the stresses and pain of his life here because he knew that there was yet more glory still to come.
Paul closes this great chapter with a succinct and brilliant statement of the comfort and confidence of the gospel. Even amidst this look at God’s strength in our weakness and God’s initiative in our life of faith, Paul makes it clear that living this way isn’t always easy. He asks the hard questions that centuries of faithful Christians have kept on asking. He wonders aloud how we can say that God is in control when things go wrong. He know that sometimes there are not words to describe our grief and confusion. Sometimes it feels like everyone is set against us. Sometimes it feels like we won’t see any benefit of God’s love. Sometimes it feels like we are charged, condemned, and ready to be led away to the gallows, separated from God’s love forever and ever by the hardships and perils of this world. But in all these things, Paul says, we are victorious through our Lord Jesus Christ. We have nothing to fear because God has done in Christ what only God can do to make us and all creation whole and new.
Paul then pulls all of this together as only he can do:
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.
I’ve known lots of folks who have embodied these words in their life and living and connected their lives to God’s own in Jesus Christ, but few measure up to Charles.
In these days, as we remember that death has not separated Charles from God’s love in Jesus Christ, we can also take comfort that life also did not separate him from God’s love. As much as anyone, Charles didn’t let the things of this world disconnect him from the confidence and hope of living in the life of the risen Christ. He didn’t let anyone or anything get in the way of staying connected to God and God’s people, you and me and everyone he met. He never forgot God’s claim upon him and each one of us. He always remembered the life of Christ that shows God’s strength in the midst of our every weakness.
So on this day when we remember our friend and brother in Christ and we bear witness to the resurrection for him and all the saints, may this be our comfort and our hope, that like Charles we too belong to God here and now, in life and in death, in strength and in weakness, and may God’s faithfulness that Charles mirrored so well show forth in our lives, our communities, and our world until all the world shines in the glory of God’s love and we are united with our brother Charles once and for all time in the wonder of new life through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
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