First Baptist Richmond, July 30, 2023
The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
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.
Welcome back to this summer sermon series called “When in Romans,” where we are looking at what happens when a Jewish rabbi tries to preach the Christian gospel in a pagan culture. Maybe it’s because we’re looking at it through that lens, but I’m seeing things in Romans that I didn’t see the last time around. Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever read a passage of Scripture and thought you knew exactly what it meant, but then came back to it a few years later and saw something else completely? People say to me sometimes, “God’s word doesn’t change,” and that’s true, but we change, the world changes. The last time I preached through Romans was in 2011. Has anything changed since then? Has anything not changed? So, we look at these old familiar passages and see things we hadn’t seen before.
I think of that as a good thing: it means the Word of God is dynamic, able to speak to a changing world in fresh and meaningful ways. When I looked at the sermon I preached on today’s passage back in 2011 I was impressed. It was good. In fact, it was so good I was tempted to blow the dust off it and preach it again. But as I looked more closely I realized that the message of that sermon may not be the message we need to hear today. The world has changed in the past twelve years. We’ve changed. So, all last week I was looking at today’s reading from Romans and wondering, “What is the Word of God for the People of God in Richmond, Virginia, in the Summer of 2023?”
Let me invite you to look at that passage with me. If you brought your Bible or if you can find one in the pew rack or on your smartphone, turn with me to Romans 8:26-39. For the better part of seven chapters now Paul has been talking about sin and how it separates us from God, using all sorts of analogies and examples. But once that problem is solved, once we learn that we can be justified by the grace of God through our faith in Jesus, we can move on to other, better things. Like our adoption as God’s children, who stand to inherit every good thing God has to give. But then Paul introduces the topic of suffering, and you have to wonder why. Maybe it’s because this is the other big problem we humans face. There is sin, which separates us from God, but there is also suffering, which threatens to do the same. In fact some people refuse to believe in God because of the amount of suffering they see in the world. “If there were a good and loving God,” they argue, “he certainly wouldn’t allow that!” But Paul doesn’t see it that way. He reminds us that even Jesus, the Beloved Son of God, had to suffer. If he did then we shouldn’t be surprised that we have to. But suffering is not the end of the story, and today’s reading from Romans 8:26-39, might be Paul’s answer to the problem.
It’s a wonderful passage, one that I’ve broken down into four distinct segments (I’d rather break it down into three segments and have every segment start with the same letter of the alphabet, because I’m a preacher and that’s how we work, but in this case it looks like it’s going to be four). The first is the one that includes verse 26, about the Spirit interceding for us, “with sighs too deep for words.” I love that verse. I need that verse. Because we’ve all had those days when we were so heartbroken or frustrated or exhausted that we couldn’t even put our prayers into words, when all we could do was let out a heavy sigh. That’s the Spirit, Paul would say, praying for us, carrying all our deepest needs and emotions to the bosom of the Heavenly Father.
The second segment includes verse 28, about all things working together for good “for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” That one is often misunderstood. People seem to assume that if you love God, if you are called according to his purpose, then everything will work out “good” for you. I don’t think that’s what Paul meant, but we can talk about that more in a minute.
And then there is the third segment, the one that has gotten the theologians so worked up through the years, with verses about predestination, and glorification, and justification, and election that often cause them to wonder, “Who’s in and who’s out? Who is predestined and who are the elect?” which may be only another way of asking, “Who gets to go to heaven and who doesn’t?” because, let’s be honest, that’s the thing we care about most, isn’t it? And we tend to believe that those who are most like us, who believe the things we believe, are the ones who will make it. I’ve heard that John Calvin, for instance, the Father of Calvinism, thought that only about 1 in 5 people were among the elect, and not surprisingly those were the people who believed what he believed. In America today only about 1 in 5 people go to church. And, as churchgoers, it’s easy for us to look around and say, “Well, that’s about right. Those are the ones who will get to go to heaven.” Is that true? I don’t know. I’m not the one who gets to decide. But if you’re worried about that you might come to church just to be on the safe side. Still, I don’t think making distinctions between who’s in and who’s out is Paul’s point, because when you ask him in segment four, “What then are we to say about these things?” he says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” as if he assumed that everyone who was reading or hearing his letter was among the elect. In fact, from this point on in Romans 8 there is no longer “us” or “them”: there is only “us.” Listen:
Verse 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?
Verses 33 and 34: Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 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.
Verses 35-37: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
And then come those verses that are often read at funerals, 38 and 39, which may be our favorite verses of all. “For I am convinced,” writes Paul, “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.”
Which brings me back to that earlier verse, the one that is so often misunderstood, Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” When I look at that verse in the light of Romans 8:38, it becomes clear that our love for God is exceeded only by God’s love for us, and when you stir those two things together only good can come out of it. It’s like stirring chocolate chips into cookie dough.
“But what about the bad?” you ask. “What about that moment when the doctor tells you that you have cancer? How does good come out of that?” Well, that’s a good question, but I think it begins with the assumption that death is the worst thing that can happen to us, and for Paul, that’s just not true. Do you remember that place where he wrote, “For me living is Christ and dying is gain?” (Phil. 1:21). Paul had suffered. He had been beaten, stoned, shipwrecked. There may have been plenty of times when he thought he would be better off dead. I’ve heard people say similar things myself: “Well, at least she isn’t suffering anymore.” Right? Death is not always the worst thing that can happen to us. But maybe suffering is, and maybe that’s why Paul tackles it head on.
Back in verse 17, when he was still celebrating what it means to be the children of God, he wrote, “If children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we also may be glorified with him.” It seems a little twisted, but Paul seemed to believe that every time he suffered he got a little closer to Christ, or became a little more Christlike. Maybe he was right about that. In 2 Corinthians 11 he confesses that he has suffered countless floggings and that he was often near death. “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one,” he writes, “three times I was beaten with rods, once I received a stoning.” But I can imagine Paul saying as the blows fell, “They did this to Jesus, and now I am being counted worthy to suffer as he did.” Earlier in Romans he wrote, “We rejoice in our sufferings!” Really? For Paul suffering was simply part of it: it was what it meant to live for Christ in this world. But it wasn’t the end of it: the end was glory. “We suffer with him so that we also may be glorified with him,” Paul writes (Romans 8:17). And then, in one of his most memorable statements, he writes: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed.”
He writes about all of creation groaning with labor pains as this new thing—the glory of God—comes into the world. Yes, there is suffering, but it’s temporary, it’s not the worst thing that can happen to us. I think Paul might say that the worst thing that can happen to us is not death, it’s not even suffering: it’s being separated from God. Maybe that’s why he spends so much time talking about sin in this letter, because sin separates us from God, at least temporarily. But suppose there wasn’t a remedy for sin, suppose Christ hadn’t come? Then you would be separated from God forever and for Paul that truly is a fate worse than death. So, thanks be to God that now, in Christ Jesus, our sins can be forgiven, relationship can be restored. Yes, we may suffer in this life. And yes, it will eventually come to an end, but nothing, nothing, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
So, back to that troublesome verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Paul might say that when we love God and God loves us, it’s all good. We can focus on the purpose to which he has called us without worrying about suffering and death. Those things can’t separate us from the love of God. In truth, they can only bring us closer.
I saw an obituary just a few days ago about someone who had lost her battle with cancer. That’s what we say sometimes, isn’t it? That after fighting bravely for many years someone “lost their battle” with cancer. But I remember what the pastor said at my Uncle Bill’s funeral. My Uncle Bill had a particularly sinister form of cancer called Cordoma, a many-tentacled thing that wrapped itself around his spine and tried to kill him. He fought it bravely for years, but in the end it did kill him. I loved my Uncle Bill. I went to his funeral and wiped away tears as the minister read words of Scripture from passages like this one in Romans 8. But when he finished he took off his glasses, looked out at us, and said, “For twelve years now Bill Somerville has been battling Cordoma, doing everything in his power and in the power of medical technology to kill it. I want you to know that at 8:37 last Monday morning the Cordoma died, but Bill Somerville is alive and free.”
And that’s what Paul was talking about. I think he would say, “You can hurt me, you can kill me, you can cause me to suffer, but you cannot separate me from the love of God. ‘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.’”
And that is the ultimate good.
To be healed from cancer is a good thing. We should hope for that. We should pray for that. We should even fight for that. But as good as life is in this world it is not the ultimate good. The love of God is the ultimate good. And when we stir our love for God together with his love for us, it’s good, no matter what happens to these earthly bodies, no matter what happens to our earthly lives. To know that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God—that’s what makes us more than conquerors.
I test this sometimes at funerals. I ask people to think about the person who has died and then ask themselves, “Do I love that person more or less now than I did three days ago?” I can see them responding. I can see them mouthing the word more. They love that person more. Because even though the body has died love hasn’t died. Love is immortal. Paul would say, “They can cut me down, they can kill me, but they cannot kill the love of God—not mine for him or his for me. That love is immortal,
“And it will not let me go.”
—Jim Somerville © 2023