What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
~ Romans 8:31-39
One of the more popular Scriptures read at weddings is the love chapter – 1 Corinthians 13. “Love is patient, love is kind…” This Romans passage is more familiar in the setting of funerals and memorial services – appropriately so, given its conclusion that even death can’t separate us from God’s love. But as I read through this passage again and again, I was drawn toward this language of inseparability when Paul speaks of God’s love for us. John Wesley considered love to be God’s reigning attribute. Compare what Paul speaks of here with what we use in celebrations of the marriage covenant. Maybe this ought to be the chapter we refer to as the love chapter.
Things in life threaten to separate us from God, from one another, from creation, and even from our own identity and calling. Paul lays down the gauntlet of these threats here. Weakness and suffering, unspeakable pain and brokenness that leave others incapable of saying anything that will make it better. The Spirit intercedes with sighs, with groans too deep for words. Sometimes when I look at the brokenness of our world, the walls of separation and anger that we build against one another, the senseless suffering, unspeakable evil, global threats…all I can do is groan.
But even in less newsworthy moments of life, experiences of separation are part of what it is to be human. Every choice we make necessarily separates us from some other option, some other path. It’s not always related to choices, either. As we grow up, we part ways, or separate, from the stage of life we were previously in. Naturally these transitions have some element of grief and loss, though we may show our emotions differently depending on the circumstance and our own coping mechanisms. But finally, though, there is the sorrow and grief we experience when we are separated from our loved ones by death.
By acknowledging those moments when there are no words, God can speak good news of his commitment to us; Paul spells out what looks like God’s marriage vow to us. It’s a promise that says that God is working all things together for our good. Of course, this doesn’t mean it’s all well and good at the moment. Paul knew that as well as anyone. And to be sure that the Christians in Rome didn’t get discouraged, Paul spoke of those cosmic powers that cause separation and affirms again and again and again that whatever these things separate us from, they do not and cannot separate us from God’s love.
The list of things that threaten to separate us from God goes on. Hardship…life is hard. “The Struggle is Real.” What hardships have you faced? Economic? Health challenges or illness? Difficulties in relationships? Overcoming an addiction? Facing a system that is unwilling to bend or adapt? Say it out loud: Life. Is. Hard. And the reality is that hardships separate us from a sense of security and certainty. But, Paul retorts, they cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
Distress? We exhaust every resource we have and it’s still not enough; we go from the generalized anxiety that many of us face to the more acute moments of a debilitating panic attack. It’s a helpless feeling and it feels like the world is crashing in on you. Stress and anxiety separate us from being in control or even poised and can completely immobilize us. But it cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
Persecution? There is real persecution in the world – violence done to women and men and children, persecution and imprisonment for simply identifying with Jesus…or with another leader or religion, depending on where you are. Persecution is how worldly forces separate “us” from “them”but whatever persecution there might be, however it might separate you from a loved one, it will not separate you from the love of Christ.
The list goes on…Famine separates from nourishment and daily bread. Nakedness, a shaming mechanism in the ancient world, separates from the warmth of clothing and shelter and comfort and a sense of belonging. Danger separates from safety and health and exposes vulnerable humans. And Paul concludes with the sword, the very purpose of which is to separate, to break apart members of the body from one another. Yet these things, however they might separate us in powerful ways, cannot separate us from the love of Christ.
To this point, God’s vow of love sounds a lot like ours in weddings: …to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish…In weakness and suffering, in hardship and distress…None of that will separate us from God’s love. But then comes a new level.
For our part in weddings, we say “…until we are parted by death.” In God’s commitment, however, as Paul affirms, even those things not covered in our marriage vows – the powers, angels, “anything else in all creation,” life, even death, which can separate us from a loved one, will not separate us from God’s love. You see, the point is that when God in love bound himself to us, it meant he would not ever let go; not even death can keep its grip over God’s love for us in Christ.
The blessing at our weddings says, “what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The blessing of God’s vow to us says, “God has joined us to himself in love, let no one or no thing separate.”
Reflecting on the entirety of Romans 8, I return back to how it started. I wonder if what we think would separate us from God’s love more than anything is ourselves – our guilt, our past, our shame, our unworthiness. Some of you may not struggle with this, but many of you have gone through times…perhaps even right now…when you feel unlovable. It’s impossible on our own to escape that feeling. I affirm, though, that just because you might feel unlovable, doesn’t mean that you are. I believe, as Michael W. Smith wrote so simply and beautifully, that we have “Never Been Unloved”:
I have been unfaithful; I have been unworthy
I have been unrighteous; And I have been unmerciful
I have been unreachable; I have been unteachable
I have been unwilling; And I’ve been undesirable
And sometimes I have been unwise; I’ve been undone by what I’m unsure of
But because of you and all that you went through
I know that I have never been unloved
I have been unbroken; I have been unmended
I have been uneasy; And I’ve been unapproachable
I’ve been unemotional; I’ve been unexceptional
I’ve been undecided; And I have been unqualified
Unaware – I have been unfair; I’ve been unfit for blessings from above
But even I can see; The sacrifice You made for me
To show that I have never been unloved
Friends, there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God. You have never been and you will never be unloved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.