July 26, 2020
Today we hear… what for me… is one of those foundational scripture passages. We all have them… the passages in scripture that we go to time and again. So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome… chapter 8… starting with verse 26.
READ Romans 8:26-39
It’s the absolute conviction in those last lines that gets me every single time. And it’s a statement that seems to fly in the face of so much theology that is labeled Christian that I hear today whether intentional or not. For I am convinced that nothing… nothing… nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. To me… that statement is everything. And that sounds like a preacher’s exaggeration, but… take it away. Remove that line… believe that there is something that will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. What… what could it be? What could it be that would separate us? What could it be that would cause God to turn away from us… to withhold God’slove? Maybe a word has jumped into your mind. Is it some manner of sin that we might want to say that that… that sin cannot be overcome by the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? Or is it religion? God’s love only works in this or that system of religion that God almighty is somehow bound by our concepts of what is right belief? Really… think for a minute of the answers you have heard that would negate that idea… that would keep the lost sheep lost… that would stop God’s redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What is it that could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord? What?
And… maybe more importantly… where would such a belief lead us?
Saints… all our theology… all our exercise of faith… everything we believe and do as good Presbyterian Christians rests upon our being convinced of the truth of Paul’s statement… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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.
Let’s look at it this way. What happens when you take away the fear of the conditionality of God’s love? That insidious message that gets lodged in our hearts that God only loves those who are worthy of God’s love? Or that God loves only those who have earned God’s love through the proper religious observances or because they have shown their worth through… something? What happens when you take away the fear that we have to first measure up to some standard before God will turn a favorable eye our way? “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Those are words from earlier in this chapter that lead to Paul’s definitive statement about God’s love. So… what happens if you believe that God’s love surrounds you… has always surrounded you… will always surround you? What kind of hope might grow in you? What kind of response to God’s love might you make if you believed that there was nowhere you could go that God’s love wouldn’t be there with you? Would you be willing to risk more… to step out of your comfort knowing God was there with you… always? How would such a truth shape you as a child of God… what kind of gospel might you shine into a darkened world knowing God’s love was a constant?
In Presbyterian theology we have a word that encapsulates this idea that nothing will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. That word is predestination. As a theological term in the Reformed tradition, predestination has everything to do with our relationship with God… and really, it has more to do with God’s side of that relationship rather than our part of the relationship. God first loves us. We respond to God’s love in faith… going out into the world proclaiming the good news… being the light… working to make the world a more just and grace filled place as defined by the love of God shown through Christ. Predestination is about God’s sovereignty and God’s free will. Predestination is about God’s choosing to be in relationship with us… it is about God’s choosing to be for us based on nothing but the character of God alone. It’s about us being empowered by God’s love to live bold and abundant lives without fear, but rich in empathy, forgiveness, humility, peace, gentleness, kindness… and like. That’s what Paul is highlighting in this section of his letter.
He talks about the Spirit who helps us in our weakness… the Spirit who intercedes for the saints according to the will of God… before we even know what to ask of God in prayer. Because God chose to be with and for us, God is already in action on our behalf… equipping us each for the work of ministry… equipping us each for a life lived by God’s love. God is already in action for us… an action determined by God’s steadfast love and good will for us all. In these verses, Paul talks about the God who is so for us… so for us… that he did not withhold his own Son. A choice of self-sacrifice made by God on our behalf out of nothing but God’s love for us.
To put it simply, predestination is God’s choosing to love… to be a God of love… to be a God of sacrifice and forgiveness… to be a God that joins with us in our weakness… all those actions that come with a deep and abiding love as witnessed in Jesus Christ… that is what predestination is. The idea of predestination is that God’s love is more than an empty affection predicated upon our own level of goodness or right religious beliefs and practices or our avoidance of whatever it is we think might separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. God’s love has a purpose to it… has a will behind it… God’s love has consequence for all of creation… a consequence for the good. And to love is God’s free choice. A choice that God made alone… without our having to ask… without our having to bargain… without our having to push God into choosing us. God’s love is not the result of a tradition bound religious quid pro quo where God must love us if we do these certain things or say these certain things or come to God with a certain prayer. That makes God reactive to us… but Paul reminds us of the correct order. God loves. We react. We respond to that love… or we fail to respond to God’s love. Either way… God’s love is the constant.
What we’re talking about here is the very character of God… the freedom for God to be who God is… the freedom for God to act upon God’s own good will. God predestines. God calls. God justifies. God glorifies. In all things God works for good… as a result our Christian character ought to be shaped by God’s love and not from other motivations or other powers. For these last few Sundays as we’ve been talking parables from Matthew’s gospel where God plants good seeds… or these verses from Romans… we’ve been going around and around this idea of character. Paul’s crisis of faith occurred when the God he met in Christ Jesus was not reflected in his spiritual character. Something else had formed his spiritual character. It was not God. That is a crisis of faith that ought to be welcomed by each of us.
“For those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a larger family.” That may sound all wordy wordy, but its meaning is simple… our spiritual character is to be one that is shaped in the image of Christ. Whether our character bears the image of Christ is how we know the good fruit from the bad. Whether our character bears the image of Christ is how we see the wheat among the weeds. It’s not a tricky formula. It’s not some great hidden mystery known only to a select few. I can stand here in this pulpit and say that. I can stand here in this pulpit and know exactly what I’m talking about with the image of Christ… I can believe you know what the image of Christ is... I can rattle off the fruits of the Spirit again like I have for the last few Sundays if that would help… I can talk about the Christ who died, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
And then I look at the world… and I hear the loudest voices… and I see the actions being taken and… and no one seems to have a clue about the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The spirit of fear reigns supreme. Me over you quashes the idea of sacrifice for the common good. Rights dominate over responsibility. My spit in your face is the only water the thirsty will receive. Those on the bottom are expendable as long as the supply chains continue to move to feed those who live above. Spiritual character… where? Hard to find.
But… it is there. Small. Under the noise. In our outside worship, we hear the parable of the mustard seed today. There are mustard seeds still to be found. Granted there are also many with axes in their hands cutting down the trees that grow from those mustard seeds. Working hard to keep them pruned back so their branches don’t reach out to serve those kept separated. But our faithful sower… is still throwing out those seeds by the handfuls. God still predestines. God still calls. God still justifies. God still glorifies. The good fruit is still growing there below the noise of the perverse circus that distracts in what it believes are ways that entertains the mob that it courts. Perhaps a much needed crisis of faith would help to increase the number of mustard seeds growing… to turn the tide toward the kingdom of God. It is hard to let go of fear… yet… if God is for us, who is against us? If God predestines us out of love… who is against us? If God calls us with love… who is against us? If God justifies us through love… who is against us? God’s glory is that we are never separated from God’s love. And it is with love, through love, by love that we are conquerors of hardship… distress… persecution… famine… nakedness… peril… even the sword. Nothing has the power to separate us from love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Can your conviction be absolute? Your spiritual character depends on it. Amen.