a sermon on Romans 8:26-39
preached on July 27, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
During my seminary years, a week or so after my grandfather died, I received a brief handwritten note from the president of the seminary, Laura Mendenhall. I received three of those notes during my time as a student there, but that first one comes to mind every time I hear this morning’s text from Romans. She lifted up a slight adaptation of these beautiful words, “In life and in death we belong to God,” that is familiar to many Presbyterians from the opening question of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Brief Statement of Faith in our Book of Confessions. Those words that had grown in meaning and importance for me even before those difficult days had been a tremendous comfort to me through my grandfather’s illness and death. Laura thoughtfully reminded me in her note, though, that our tendency in such times is to focus on how our loved ones belong to God in death, so she encouraged me to remember that he had belonged to God in his life, too.
So today, amidst these familiar words that bring us so much comfort and hope for a life beyond our known days on earth, I think Laura’s encouragement to me to remember that we belong to God in life matters so much more than ever. The news tells us about so much death these days: continued civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, repeated rocket launches into Israel, a commercial airliner shot down in the midst of internal conflict in Ukraine, two other aviation accidents in Africa, capital punishment administered with unexpected and unnecessary suffering in our own nation, new conflict emerging in Iraq and Afghanistan despite our best efforts to bring peace, and so much more.
But when we remember Paul’s words to the Romans only in these times of death, I think we end up giving them less power over us. They may bring us comfort in such moments, but the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ is not only to change things for us for eternity—God’s love in Jesus Christ changes things for the whole world now, and the real power of this love comes when we allow it to change us and our world.
This transformative power of God’s incredible love is not something we embrace only when things are good—in fact, I think that it is when things are most complex and confused that this love matters the most. Paul knew that for himself. His life had been filled with joy and sorrow, trials and tribulations, and so he wanted his listeners to have the same kind of trust in God’s love that had sustained him through all those things.
So in Romans 8, he asks a series of rhetorical questions that make it clear that the gift of God’s love takes hold in us when things don’t go as we expect.
If God is for us, who is against us?
Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?
Who is to condemn?
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
The answer to all these questions is simple. Nothing. No one. Not anything. And so amidst all the confusion and uncertainty of our world, amidst the death too often that seems to pervade our lives and our experience, amidst all the war and strife that seem to reign, amidst all the evil that creeps into things, amidst the exhaustion and confusion that so easily become the norm for us in these days, we have everything we need in the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Secure in this gift of God’s love, comforted by God’s presence amidst anything that may come our way, it is then our call to embody this love throughout our world. If we have truly been changed by this incredible love, then we will want to change our world with it, too. When we look around, there are sure plenty of places that could use a good dose of God’s love these days. What would it look like if God’s love for all people and our common creation in the image of God stood at the center of our reaction to the conflict in Israel and the Gaza Strip? What would it look like if God’s love for the victim and the perpetrator was the first thing that we considered when we thought about how and whether to administer capital punishment? What would it look like if God’s love for all the children of our world was first on our minds when we are confronted with the influx of child refugees from Central America in our nation? What would it look like if God’s love for our enemies came to mind when we found ourselves at odds with another person? And what would it look like if God’s love for the world stood at the center of our budgets for our households, for our church, for our city, and for our nation?
I suspect that if we took a close look at these and other things, we would find that sometimes we allow our actions to create barriers between us and our experience of God’s love. But the good news is that while we may put things between us and our understanding of this love, not even these actions in our lives and in our world can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. Nothing, Paul says, can separate us from God’s love,
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—
nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
With this incredible love in our midst, pervading our lives and our world even when we try to push it away, it is our call and our responsibility to offer this love to others without reservation or fear. We may get love wrong and share it too broadly, but I for one cannot believe that a God who loves us so much would ever penalize us for sharing too much love with our world. We may find new and better ways to embody God’s love in Jesus Christ over time, but even the smallest steps toward doing that are a gift to our broken and fearful world. And sometimes we may even get hurt for loving too much, but in those moments God’s love shines through all the more, for when we love others as God loves us, we see God’s love for us in new and different ways.
So as we go forth this day, with these wonderful words of love ringing in our heads and echoing in our hearts, may we embody this love with everyone we meet so that all the world may know God’s love in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.