Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
St. Mark UMC
July 27, 2008
Romans 8:18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
26 Likewise 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. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
God’s Love in Christ Jesus
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written,
‘For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor 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.
Today, we come to a text that holds some things in tension for us. I know many of us have come to read Paul with some skepticism. Some of us have chosen to skip Paul’s writings altogether, especially the Book of Romans. Paul says some pretty straightforward things about those who did not see it fit to acknowledge God, and were led to all sorts of behaviors: wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. They were filled with envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they were gossipers, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. The folks Paul was lamenting were not loving, committed, rational or open. They had traded God’s glory for a perception of mortal glory, and claiming to be wise, they became fools. They worshipped and served the creature, rather than the Creator. All of this was brought upon them by God because they suppressed the truth.
Now before you try to figure out which side of this issue to come down on: to agree with Paul, and siphon out the meaning of his words, or to pitch him altogether because his boldness leaves no room for interpretation, read on. He writes, “Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.” None of us escape the judgment of God. None. Including Paul. So I ask that we look to Romans today with the understanding that all of us –all – have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and none of us are to stand (or sit) in judgment of anyone else, including Paul.
We get to chapter 8 after Paul has poured his hearts out to the Jews and Gentiles. Slave and Free. Circumcised and Uncircumcised. All worshipping together, trying to put aside differences and accept the universal claim that we have on our hearts which is, “God for us.” And if God is for us, indeed, who can be against us?
It seems that we, ourselves, are against us. The Romans experienced sitting in one community, a diverse congregation gathered in as a united, worshipping body, struggling to work out how we are to truly be … United. Gathered. Accepted. Respected. Because these folks have a long history of disagreement, disrespect, disjointedness.
The result of Paul’s claim on the Gospel is his statement of faith that he pours out to the Romans in this Epistle. Paul begins in a place that is difficult for us to address, because Paul has no trouble pointing out that all of us have sinned and are in need of God’s grace. We all like to skip to the end where we sing “Jesus Loves Me” and repeat the final refrain of “Amazing Grace:” “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun!” As lovely of a vision of the end times as this is… we’ve got a battle to fight before we’re there.
And don’t we know it?! We repeat our Psalms of Lament to anyone who will listen: my money is running out! My business is suffering! My mother isn’t getting any better. My home life is rotten. My children are ungrateful. My country is at war. My safety isn’t guaranteed. My dreams are unattainable. My hope is teetering. My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?
We heap up prayers like the Psalmist and hope that they fall on God’s merciful ears. We wonder if we’re doing it right, and if so, what’s holding God back from all of the glory that we’ve been promised?! Don’t we deserve some clue of the Divine presence in our lives? Aren’t we here to work out our faith with at least some inkling of the joy of walking with Christ? When on earth is the Holy Spirit going to show up and give us some intervention? Why on earth do we even come to church?!
So, we wait, and we wrestle, just like the Romans. Many of these new Christians were particularly excited that they could start being a little more lenient with their obedience to the law. After all, Christ was clear that he came to fulfill the law, though not to abolish it. But Paul reminds them that their baptism has transformed them into a new creation, where dying, we have been raised with Christ. Just as we witnessed Cyrus being transformed before us today, and watched as his parents renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers, which we all know are at work in the world, so too are we die and rise with Christ into a new reality.
Recently, my husband has turned me on to the works of William Stringfellow. He was trained as a lawyer at Harvard, but is considered one of the most prophetic voices in modern theology. He was an Episcopalian layman, and spoke with the boldness of Paul. The powers and principalities in this world are a big topic for Stringfellow, and few rocks go unturned as he’s identifying their presence in creation. He wrestles with how we are to be faithful in the face of these powers, which have taken hold of our institutions, our governments, our academies, even our churches. The principalities and powers are forces that we know are present in this world, that cause us, as Paul writes, “to not understand our own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate.” Stringfellow likened this propulsion to Nixon’s obsession with winning the Vietnam War. In his attempts to avoid being the first American president ever to lose a war, he became “obsessed” with death itself. More and more soldiers and civilians died in his unwavering effort to save his reputation. In this instance, it was death who won, as he lost sight of what was right and became focused on what he thought was most important.
Stringfellow writes in his book Free in Obedience, that all of us, in our ordinary and extraordinary states, are captured within the scope of the Gospel. In fact, Stringfellow underscores that there is no one, “outside the range of the witness of the faithful,” nor is there anything that is not “ a responsibility of the Body of Christ” (p.16). He goes on to list several situations that have unfolded for him in his daily life as a lawyer and citizen, as his office holds the sacred words of those seeking council. A young, unmarried, pregnant girl, choosing to give her baby up for adoption, a convict looking for a job, a college student looking for work, a woman seeking to leave her addict husband, a man arrested because of discrimination, a seminarian disillusioned about the church and rejecting ordination, a family in foreclosure, a man who is lonely.
All of these scenarios are real-life events that cause us to come face to face with our faith as we encounter them. But what, then, do we do? In my first year out of seminary, I served part-time in the Presbyterian Church. There, when the youth go through Confirmation, they are charged with the task of writing a Statement of Faith, which they have to present to the Session of their church before they can be approved for membership. I know this sounds like torture to all of us, but I have witnessed this process, and found it to be one of the most incredible opportunities for all involved. I supervised a Confirmation Class at Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church in Lawrenceville, NJ, and there, the youth had to write out exactly what they believed about God: I believe that God is bigger than me, created everything, loves me, wants what is best for me. They had to write about Jesus: I believe that Jesus is the son of God, born of Mary, and lived on earth so that I may know the fullness of God’s love and how to live on earth. They had to write about the Holy Spirit: I believe the Holy Spirit is present now, and always, to remind me that God loves me and is always with me. They had to write about the Church: I believe in the church as a faithful community of believers that is trying to figure out what on earth we’re doing until Christ comes again in final victory and helps us get it right.
I watched these youth struggle with fear and trembling over their statements. They had a lot to say about God, some fine “straight-from-the-Creed” language about Jesus, and a few vague remarks about the Holy Spirit. No one could quite pin that one down, which I suppose is the point. But what these Confirmands said about the church was even more interesting. They had high ideals, lofty goals, and marvelous expectations. This was a community where everyone was free to think and feel about God how they chose, but they all worshipped together. They saw their church as respectful, but nurturing of their faith and tradition. They saw it as a place of safety and sanctuary, fellowship and friendship, and on any day of the week, they would walk through the doors and find someone who loved and cared about them. It was like home. It was better than home. It was what Paul was writing to the Romans: here, in the comfort of your radical-life changing faith, you will find comfort, acceptance, and love. Love in Christ Jesus.
These Confirmands also had to memorize two passages of scripture. The first was from 1 John, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God…” The second passage was Romans 8:38-39. “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor 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.”
How is it that our faith encourages us to respond to the upheaval of life, as the powers and principalities pursue us? As Paul encouraged the Romans to sort out what it is that was important, today I exhort you to consider what it is that you believe as you are faced with these issues. Where does your faith intersect your life? Does it at all? How do we, this church, play into your relationship with God?
I hope you understand that I’m holding all of us accountable for our work in this process. “The real issues of faith have to do with the everyday needs of us in the world,” Stringfellow writes, “and it is the care for and service of those needs for which the Church exists.”
So, how are we doing, then? As faithful folks trying to work our way through this world, indeed, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling, what is it that we are to think and do? Because there are days that I feel paralyzed. Immovable. Suffocated. And the only thing that can shake me back into action is – typically – the last thing that I hope will happen. An argument. Bad news. A funeral. A jarring phone call. A pointed e-mail, and all of these point to the truth that we’re afraid to acknowledge: that we have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
I think we can see here, at St. Mark, some of the ways that we are making the matters of real life the responsibility of the Body of Christ. But, I also worry that we’re narrowing our focus too much. Perhaps we have realized that our orientation - whatever that may be - does not define us as a worshipping community of believers. Nor should it define us in any area of our lives - not at work, not at home, not in church. To limit our experience as a community to how we are defined in this arena is not respectful to the totality of who we are as God's creation. God has created us, loved us, and called us good. God has given us good gifts to use in many areas. How we live out our lives in loving and committed ways is a response to God's gifts for us, but not the fullness of it. I know that I cannot be defined as any of my parts. To say I am minister leaves out my role as mother. To say I am wife simplifies my role as woman. In truth, all of these work together in harmony, and point me to the culmination of the fullness of my creation as an individual who is gifted and loved by God.
But, as Paul makes clear throughout Romans, we are also wholly broken, and in need of grace and redemption. Though we acknowledge that grace has not been withheld because of our sins, we must also recognize that we are in dire need of this grace that is not cheap, but is provided in abundance because of God’s goodness, not our own. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
It is important for us to come away knowing fully what we think about our faith, because it’s gonna get rough. Parents will die of cancer, suicide. Families will split and re-join with others. If our faith was grounded on anything less than something based in assurance of God’s love, then we were in for a difficult spiritual walk. Paul writes that, though “we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered, in all of this, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” This is no cheap grace, brothers and sisters. This is grace that comes from the one who refuses to be separated from us, even as we are filled with wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness. Even though we are gossipers, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless, we still know - we still are persuaded that nothing in all of creation: not death in its finality, not life in all of its trial, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers nor things present nor things to come, nor 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.