(Sermon from July 24, 2011, more or less)
31 “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 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? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 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. 35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ 37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.”
The book of Romans, chapter 8, in the Bible, is one of my very favorite chapters EVER. It’s the writer Paul’s thesis statement of how he feels about when bad things happen to good people, what we should do, how God feels about things, and what, in the end, really matters.
Apparently, a LOT of people love this verse. I was looking around for pictures to go with Romans 8, and what I found was a plethora of Romans 8 tattoos. I would argue that this might be these most tattooed verses ever, with maybe a second to John 3:16. There are beautiful tattoos, sleeves of the whole passage, verse 31 on someone’s wrist, verse 39 winding its gorgeous way across someone’s lower leg. These verses are so beautiful and so meaningful that many of us, even non-religious, want these words on our bodies, forever and ever. Awesome.
This chapter ends with the love of God being announced and proclaimed in an ultimate way….that in the end, NOTHING can separate us from the love of God! How amazing! No wonder it’s tattooed everywhere! And if you’re new to this Jesus business and wonder where to start reading the Bible, maybe start with Romans. Yes, it addresses behavior in the beginning, but in the end, it says, nothing can separate us from God’s love. And in the middle, right here in the big finish to his sermon before he starts greeting people, Paul asks a great question.
If God is for us, who is against us?
Now, this is a rhetorical question. If you wonder what a rhetorical question is, so do a lot of people. They talked about it on the show The Simpsons a few years back.
Mother Simpson: [singing] How many roads must a man walk down before you can call him a man?
Lisa: No, dad, it’s a rhetorical question.
Homer: OK, eight.
Lisa: Dad, do you even know what “rhetorical” means?
Homer: Do I know what “rhetorical” means?
A rhetorical question is one that there’s not supposed to be an answer to. And the apostle Paul is a lot like Homer. He likes to use rhetorical questions because he’s a preacher, a writer, someone who uses words to prove a point. But when he uses this rhetorical question to make his big point about how God loves us so very much, I was kind of like Homer Simpson. When I hear Paul’s words, Who is against us? I start to answer it. Maybe you do too.
Paul asked it, I think, as a rhetorical question. It’s a bold question, and one that all of us could answer, I think, although not in as a dramatic way as Paul can. People were out for his life, he had been thrown in jail, he had been tortured, all kinds of stuff. He could have given NAMES when someone asked him Who is against you? But instead, he asks this question. If God is for us, who is against us?
There’s a leader from Liberia who has basically brought peace to the government and the country through peaceful resistance. Her name is Leymah Gbowee. I heard her speak last week at the meeting for the women’s organization, and she has been in some of the worst situations possible, the scariest situations possible, heard the most horrible stories. But she told some great stories about how the women did it. First of all, they reached out to each other over religious lines, mother to mother, woman to woman, Christian to Muslim. Then, they banded together to be present where there were situations they did not like. They were THERE, and as I know, and as other women know, when you are there, the conversation changes. This is basically what she said. If God is for us, who is against us? And for her, it was a totally rhetorical question. NO ONE would dare be against her, because it is very clear that she believes that God is FOR HER.
Even though we are not defending and making peace in a war torn African country, we can sure answer this question, too. Who is against us? Everybody, some days! Our bosses, our parents, our children, inanimate objects like our cars, people who are cranky….some days it feels like you’re fighting, everywhere you go, even if you’re just trying to get through your day.
Who is against us? If Paul asks it without needing an answer, if an African leader in the face of enormous odds can ask it without needing one, then surely we can too. I know we feel every day like there are those who are against us, and perhaps there, are but if God is for us? If God is for a Jewish convert who used to hate Jesus? If God is for a mother of six who reluctantly decided to use her voice to stop violence? If God is for YOU, and even for your enemy? WHO, then, can be against you?
And this is why. Paul answers that question with another rhetorical question. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? What shall separate us from the love of Christ? Another rhetorical question that we can also answer. What shall separate us? My bad attitude? My lack of gratitude for all the things I’ve been given? When bad things happen to me? When I get too sucked into work and pressures and family? The things that we do that we are so, so ashamed about. All those things seem like they can separate us from the love of Christ.
But according to Paul, we don’t even need an answer to this question either. He lists some things that are no big deal to him, and that there’s no way that are going to separate us from Christ’s love.
Death, for instance, is listed among the other things as just one more thing. Life too. Just one more thing that is, yes, something we fear and think about and worry and want to not happen to us. But it’s just a thing. In the movie Forrest Gump, there’s a moment when Forrest unfolds a letter with the Mac computer logo on it and says, “Lieutenant Dan invested our money in some kind of a fruit company, and then I got a letter that said I didn’t have to worry about money no more. And I said good. One less thing.”
It’s like that with Paul and death, AND life. One less thing to worry about, one less thing that’s going to separate us from the love of Christ. Our promise as Christians is that God’s love extends even after death.
My husband and I finally got to go see the last installment of Harry Potter this weekend. In it, Voldemort (whose name means flight from death! Who knew?) is trying to cheat death, to come back and back and back again, even if he has to become a snake, to kill others, to live on the back of someone’s head as a parasite.
But what Harry learns is that not even death can separate him from the love of his friends and his family, even those who are already dead. He won’t kill Voldemort, and he won’t give up. He sacrifices everything for love. Sound familiar? We love these stories because they are true….not because they really happened…but because they have truth in them, and the truth of God’s love conquering everything, even death.
God’s love is stronger than death, and not even death is going to separate us from Christ’s love, not even life, with all of its trouble, not any of these forces that try to tell us that something will separate us from God’s love. You can look it up…..next time somebody quotes you something from the Bible that tells you that you are no good, that God hates something or someone, you remember this….it’s in the Bible that NOTHING. NO-THING. Nothing we do, nothing we are, nothing we will be, and no person or thing will EVER separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. Amen.