Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.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.
So, when I was growing up, I was pretty sure I was going to hell.
It’s sort of funny now, given my profession, but growing up in the South hell got talked about a lot. There were billboards and t-shirts that people used to scare you into faith. And my fundamentalist friends taught me that if you even did one thing wrong, you deserved hell. And I wasn’t a bad kid, but I knew I did a lot of things wrong, every day, so surely I was heading right to hell.
So I decided I would look for a solution that would keep me away from eternal damnation. And I asked my friends what I needed to do. And some said I needed to join the Baptist Church and get baptized in the lake and Jesus would forgive me. And others said I needed to join their church and learn to pray the right way, and I’d be fine. And others said I had to convert to a very strict sect of Catholicism or else I was a goner. And I remember them saying only members of their particular denomination would be saved.
I finally snapped out of it when I realized that everyone I talked to thought that everyone else I talked to was going to end up in hell.
But those questions about God never really went away, though, and when I got to be a little older, I started to read the Bible for myself. And the Bible, to me, was a scary book. I’d heard it used in ways that made it clear that God didn’t love certain kinds of people. I’d heard people say it told women that they were inferior. I heard it used to justify the horribly anti-Semitic things said to my Jewish friends. And I really didn’t want to read it for myself because I was scared to find out that maybe it really did say those things, and maybe God really was ready to damn us all.
And above all, one part of the Bible scared me to death. The letters from Paul, or the epistles. Because where I grew up, whenever someone was saying that God hated something or someone, they seemed to be quoting the apostle Paul.
Which is why it’s surprising that it was in reading’s like today’s from the letter of Paul to the Romans, that I learned not to be afraid of God anymore.
Paul is writing a letter to a church he has never been to before, the church in Rome. And he is introducing himself and telling them what he believes. He is trying to tell them who God is, and how to be the church together. And, we can’t forget this, he is writing to people who are afraid.
They are afraid of what it means to be followers of Christ in a time when that was not considered a good thing to be. And more than that, they’re afraid of getting it wrong. They’re afraid that they are not believing the right way.
It’s to this very scared church that Paul writes this letter, but he could be writing that to any of us who have ever wondered about where we stood with God. And he asks, “if God is for you, who can be against you?” And, “who can condemn you?” And, “what can separate you from God’s love?”
And his answer is this: nothing.
Nothing can separate you from God’s love. Paul writes, “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.”
Nothing. You may have noticed in the bulletin that that was today’s sermon title. “Nothing.” So, that’s not a typo, or a sign I didn’t get the title in on time. It’s the take away.
And through the centuries people have taken that message away from this text. Martin Luther, centuries ago, was a man who was terrified of God’s judgement. Even though he was a monk, he struggled to believe that God really loved him. And then he read the Bible for himself, a revolutionary act in those times, and he read this letter from Paul. And some say this very passage helped to spawn the Protestant Reformation.
Later on others like John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and Karl Barth, deep in the turmoil of World War II, would read this passage and find God’s love and assurance. This is a passage that changes something. It’s a passage that changed me, and maybe it changes something for you too. Maybe it makes God’s love a little more sure.
Last week in my sermon I talked about “thin places” and “thick places”. Thin places are the places where we feel God and God’s love very close to us. Thick places are the ones where God feels so far away. I believe both of those places exist for all of us.
But here’s what I believe does not exist: disconnected places. Because even in the thickest of places, God remains with us, and nothing, as Paul would say, can separate us from God’s love.
My cousin told me a story recently about her father who was a front-lines infantry soldier with the 10th Mountain Division in World War II. That particular division saw some of the worst fighting of the war. And, like most soldiers, he was not a man who went into the Army because he liked war or what comes with it.
And he told her that as he was fighting on the front lines, he would keep repeating the Lord’s Prayer over and over to himself. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” Over and over, in what was surely one of the thickest places imaginable. And even as horrible as it was, he knew God was still with him, and still loved everyone there.
Our circumstances do not make or break our relationship with God. Whether they are in our control or not, God never leaves us. And no matter what, God’s love, and nothing and no one else, gets to have the final say.
When my cousin’s father got older he began to show signs of dementia. And when he got the most confused and scared he would start reciting the Lord’s Prayer again. And sometimes he couldn’t remember the words. And so my cousin wrote them down for him, and he carried them in his pocket, and even when he couldn’t say them, he knew they were there. And he knew God was there too. (Note: I’m thankful for the permission my cousin Gail gave me to share this story, which she also previously shared in Guideposts.)
Nothing, could separate them. And this is true for all of us. There will not be a moment in our lives, or in what is to come, when anything or anyone or any circumstance can separate us from God’s love. And that is good news.
But as good as that news is, that doesn’t mean we are off the hook. Because that news means that God’s grace is real. And grace is scary. Because being loved by God, no matter what? That means that there is some part of your life that you have no control over at all. You get grace, whether you want it or not.
And so here’s what comes next. You have you have to decide what you want to do about it. And I believe the Christian life is all about that choice. It’s not about being good so that you get into heaven. It’s not about being scared into faith by people preaching a fiery hell. It’s just this: knowing you have received God’s love and God’s grace, and deciding what to do next.
And here’s what Martin Luther and all the others throughout the centuries who have read this passage and been changed by it have said: I choose to live my life in gratitude. And I believe they are right. I believe that the Christian life is all about our gratitude for what we have been given. It’s about living our life as a “thank you” to God. And it’s about choosing to live focused on the abundance that God has given us, and not on our fears or insecurities. Because not even those things, as big as they may be, have the power to separate us from the love of God.
So, when you walk out the doors today, how will you live in gratitude this week? How will you respond to the “nothing” which changes everything? And how will you share that love with the world? What will you give back out of what you’ve been given? What can you do with your life to say “thank you.”
It’s a question we all have to ask ourselves individually, and then we have to ask it too as a church. How will we live in gratitude for God’s grace? As a community, how will we say thank you to God in our life together? And how will our gratitude serve to bless our community and our world.
That’s the question that will determine the kind of church we will be for years to come. And that’s the one that we have to continuously work together to answer. Because when someone looks at us and asks, “What kind of church are you?” we want to know how to answer that. We want to be able to say, in our words and in our actions, “we are a church that knows God’s love and shares it”.
And when they ask, “What keeps you from living into God’s grace?” and “What stops you from sharing the abundant blessings that God has given you?” this is the only answer we should ever allow ourselves to give: “Nothing”.