7 Pentecost—Proper 12-A
July 27, 2014
Romans 8: 26-39
Matthew 13: 31-33, 44-52
“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.”
As others have said Chapter 8 is the Mt Everest of Paul’s writing and the highest summit is this sentence. It comforts millions every day. It lays out for us the reasons we have why God doesn’t love us or can’t love us, and proclaims that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God….”
Unfortunately, too often this proclamation becomes a platitude—like, “God loves everybody”, which sounds nice but is too abstract to help.
While Paul certainly believes God loves everyone he is not addressing everyone in chapter 8.
So who is Paul addressing, who is the “we”?
Verse 28 reads: We know that all things work together for good…” who is the “we” that knows this?
For most people there are many things they think haven’t worked for good: Does war or cancer always work together for good?
Verse 26 reads: “…we do not know how to pray as we ought?” Who is this “we” that does not know how to pray?
People often say they have no trouble praying since prayer is just talking to God, and talking is easy.
So who is Paul addressing?
The answer is given at the beginning of Chapter 8: He writes: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
The “We” are those who are in Christ.
He ends the chapter the same way: saying, “nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God IN CHRIST JESUS.”
Paul uses the phrase “in Christ” over 80 times in his letters.
So Paul clearly is not talking about some vague abstraction of divine love and he is not addressing people in general: rather he is speaking about the love of God that is made concrete when a person discovers that she is in Christ.
The love that that is greater than death, life…things present and things to come is “the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
So, if we really want to know that love, though as Paul says in Ephesians it is beyond knowledge, we too must be “in Christ”.
It’s a big subject, so let me offer one way that James Alison uses to think of about being in Christ.
Remember the bracelets with the initials WWJD: which stand for What would Jesus do?
I knew a lot of church youth groups who wore them in the 1990s to help kids look more deeply into the right way to live that is more than just doing what they are feel or what their friends are doing.
It encouraged them to think about Jesus and to look at how he lived and extrapolate from that to one’s own life. If Jesus says, “Do not judge” and doesn’t seem to judge anyone, then making fun of what a kid at school is wearing cannot be what Jesus would do.
Anything to get kids and adults to include Jesus of Nazareth in decision-making is a good thing. But by itself it does not rise to the level of what Paul means by being “in Christ.”
The reason is that WWJD looks at Jesus did 2000 years ago, but does not imagine Jesus is also present to us today.
The better initials might be WIJD—“What is Jesus doing? What is he doing now in me and through me in this situation?”
This approach makes the presumption of Christ’s presence.
We don’t have to imitate a dead Jesus, because the risen Christ is with us now.
So, being in Christ, at the very least, means being inside the presence of the Living Christ.
And notice something else. Today Christians may say Jesus lives in their hearts. Paul himself says “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.”
But the image of Christ living in us can sometimes make us feel that we’re bigger than Christ, and that Christ is just one voice among many living inside and it is up to us to choose which voice to listen to.
“Being in Christ”, however, leaves no doubt who is bigger and who is in charge. Being in Christ puts Christ first and me one of billions of other believers who are second.
Maybe a little like how being IN the army is a different reality from having Army gear in your house.
Now Paul knows that being in Christ is not easy to understand or to live. We are inducted into Christ at our baptism, but it requires that we continue to trust Christ is present and pay attention to him.
Which is what prayer is: Jesus says: “when you are praying do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do for they think they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them for your Father knows what you need before you ask.”
Rather prayer is our willingness to sit in the presence of Christ.
I suspect you’ve heard the story told by the Cure’ d’Ars, who was the French Roman Catholic priest John Vianny in the early 19 century and is the patron saint of parish priests. He says one of his parishioners, a farmer, would often come into the church and sit quietly before the Blessed Sacrament, the Presence of Christ. One day St John Vianney asked him, “what do you do when you come to Church each day?” The old man simply replied, “I look at Jesus and He looks at me.”
This is the essence of prayer but prayer is not always so easy–which is why Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
God knows how hard it is for us to be present to anyone that is outside the desires implanted in us by the culture, so the Spirit cracks us open to presence through the sighs of the heart.
Countless people have come into a church not at all sure what they believe about Christ, but sure they need Christ, so they sit and wait and groan in sighs too deep for utterance. (Which is why I believe churches, or at least their chapels should be open 24/7.)
Only by the Spirit’s assistance could Paul come to know that nothing could separate him from the love of God in Christ.
He writes in 2 Corinthians:24 Five times I have received from the religious leaders the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 …in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. 28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”
And yet in all these things he finds he is more than a conqueror, not in himself, but in Christ.
Being in Christ is like finding a treasure hidden in a field or like a pearl of great price which calls us to let go of everything that promises to protect us but can’t, in order to live inside the love that promises to hold us and does.