Every Sunday in worship, right after we confess our sins together, I ask you, “Who is in a position to condemn us?” And I then say, “only Christ, and Christ so loved us that he gave himself for us. In Jesus Christ we are all forgiven. Thanks be to God.”
That line is from a prayer book, but that prayer book took it from this passage that we are reading here today. These words to the Romans that brought them comfort and hope two millenia ago continue to bring us comfort and hope today. They assure us, as the passage reads, that nothing, not “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.”
That’s good news for us humans who will do everything in our power to try to separate ourselves from the love of God. We are born with our hearts turned towards God and, no matter what we do or how we try to ignore it, we are at our best when we stay turned that way our whole lives. And yet we do all we can, maybe even sub conciously, to create a separation and to fill it with everything in the world that is bad for us.
And we are creative. We can find a hundred ways to move away from God without even realizing it. Yet in the end, no matter what happens, God decides that separation is no obstacle. And the love of God always wins.
I was thinking about that this week. It was hot out there. You’ve heard a born and raised Southerner who prides themselves on not admitting to Yankees that their weather is hot say it is hot. So, it was hot. And when I finally gave up I went down to the Rock River in Dummerston and jumped in.
I had never swam there before, and I wasn’t expecting the current to be so strong. I’m a pretty good swimmer, but I found places where I could swim with all my might and not make any progress back upstream. But if found that if I stopped fighting, and let go and let the water do what it was made to do, I realized the current would take me right back to a safe place.
The love of God is a lot like that. We try our best to fight our way upstream, swimming against the unstoppable current of God’s love, but we find that when we just let go and accept it we are safe. And that current keeps moving downstream, and in the end even we can’t dam it up. It always wins.
Paul knew that when he wrote to the Romans. He knew that no matter how horrible things were, no matter what utter devastation and tragedy would befall us, God’s love would in the end win.
And that’s the sort of passage you need on a day like today. A day when we are still asking “Why?”
Last Friday a man detonated a car bomb in the middle of Oslo killing at least seven people. He then walked into a youth camp and killed 89 more. We immediately began to ask why. And the answers that have come so far are more related to you and I than we’d like to believe.
The man who carried out these acts was a Christian. And he points to the faith he claims as the reason he felt compelled to kills dozens of people. And he wasn’t a madman. He wasn’t someone who snapped and went on a rampage. He was methodical and deliberate and deadly. He was, quite simply, a terrorist. A Christian terrorist.
We don’t like that idea. We don’t like thinking that our faith, which has always respected the example of the non-violent Jesus Christ, would be twisted by someone who was filled with hatred. We don’t want to claim him as ours. We want to believe that terrorists belong only to other faiths, and not our own.
And yet that’s not true. Of course this man is in the extreme minority of Christians, just as the men who flew planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania represented an extreme minority of Islam. He is not indicative of the beliefs of the vast majority of Christians. And yet in the aftermath, in more places than you might believe, our faith is being painted with a broad brush as violent and deadly and inherently wrong.
The people who say that…they’re not right. They’re simply reacting to what happened with the same knee-jerk thinking that targets any group after one of its members goes on a violent spree. But how many of us who feel uncomfortable now have done this to other groups?
But the even harder question is this: What are we as a church, a worldwide church, doing wrong that someone would so misinterpret the teachings of Jesus this way? Why is a message of love and grace being heard as anything but? It would be easy to dismiss it if this man were the only one to so mishear the message, but he’s not.
Today in New York City, the Westboro Baptist Church is spreading it’s message of hatred there and protesting weddings. It doesn’t matter if you agree or disagree with whether people should be marrying today. I’ve always said there are good Christians on every side of that issue. But it does matter that someone claiming our name is standing there telling people that God hates not only them, but all of America. It matters that they are standing at the funerals of fallen service members and, instead of comforting their loved ones with the words of hope from this passage, the words that say that not even death can separate us from Christ, they are shouting that their family members are in hell.
It’s easy to dismiss them as well. But for every extremist Christian individual or group that we dismiss, there are a dozen more that we don’t even know about yet. They are claiming our name, and they think that they are right. And in the process people across this country and around the world are thinking that this is what Jesus Christ was all about. Their violence and hatred and mean-spiritedness is not what Jesus died for. It’s what he died to save us from.
And so what do we Christians, who stand here reeling from what was done on Friday in our name, do to respond? Do we fight violence with violence? Do we call for the blood of the man who did this? Or, conversely, do we just talk about how terrible it is and pray for the victims and then let it slowly fade into our subconscious?
I hope we do none of those things. I hope we choose a third way. I hope we choose a way that is consistent with everything that Christ taught us about grace and compassion and love. I hope we honor who he was, and is, by proclaiming this passage that we read here today to the whole world.
Nothing on earth, not death, nor life, not things present, nor things to come, not a gunman hijacking our faith nor a woman with a hateful sign, will separate you or I or anyone from the love of Christ. No matter how hard they try.
Jesus loved the young people whose lives were cut short in his name on Friday. He loved them when they were afraid. When they were in pain. When they were confused. This gunman couldn’t change that. And when this happened, as the Rev. William Coffin said about tragedies like this, God was the first of all of us to cry.
And today the love of Christ surrounds Norway, and it surrounds our country, and it surrounds the whole world. But the thing about Christ’s love is that it is most often, and best, felt when it is shared between people. Today in Norway, and in a hundred other places where people have been hurt in Jesus’ name, the word Christian may bring with it some pain, and some fear. It shouldn’t be that way.
Our job as Christians is pretty easy: be loved and love. Be loved by God, love God and one another. It’s the simplest job description in the world. And the hardest job you’ll ever have. I’ll save you some worry and tell you that you will never get a pink slip. You’ll never be let go in a round of layoffs. For better or for worse, nothing can separate you from this work because nothing can separate you from the love of God.
And today there is a world of people who have been hurt by those claiming our name, and they need to know that Christ’s love is real, so it’s time for us to get to work. As you head back out into the world today, I give you these words as your guide. When I first heard this prayer, attributed to St. Francis, when I was 17, I knew it was all I wanted to do with my life. It’s when I really knew I wanted to be a Christian. May they comfort you as you seek to comfort the world:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.