[A sermon on the Uniform Series texts for April 23, 2017: Romans 5:6-11 & Romans 8:31-39]
“God has it in for me.” Who has ever heard someone say that – or maybe even said it ourselves, at least half in jest, maybe when we’re having “one of those days”? The kitchen sink springs a leak on the very day the county tax bill arrives in the mail and the car starts making a strange new noise after we just tripped and stubbed our toe on the back steps, and then when we get to work we find out we’re short-handed and we’re going to be running as fast as we can just to stay in one place all day … one of those days.
Or maybe we’ve seriously thought God has it in for us, because things in our lives are going really wrong in some way; we’re sick and it looks like we are going to have to go through hell and back to get better, if we get better; or we’ve just lost our job, and there are no immediate prospects of getting another one in our field or with that kind of pay, and the bills are still showing up in the mail box, and the stress is mounting. Maybe something unthinkable has happened to one of our children – illness, or addiction, or some other kind of serious trouble, and we can barely believe it and don’t know how we’re going to bear it. Maybe we’ve lost a loved one and our grief seems like something we will never find the end of. In times of that kind of suffering, we may say to ourselves, much as the Psalmist and Job did, “God, if you’re there at all, which I am starting to wonder about, how did I get onto your enemies list? What did I ever do to you?”
Good grief! This doesn’t sound like a very positive way to start out on a Sunday morning, talking about troubles and disasters and God having it in for us! In fact, some people would tell us we shouldn’t think this way or talk this way at all, we Christians should be focusing on the positive … because for one thing, all of us like that a whole lot better, of course, so it’s better for the collection plate and the attendance roster to stick to the positive, but besides that, God is for us … and Paul reminds us of that: “if God is for us, who is against us?” … so what’s with all this downer talk anyway?
And that objection does make sense, because Paul is trying to demonstrate to us that God is not our enemy, at all, that God is the best, most loyal and constant ally we have in life. “Ally” may sound a bit military or political, but Paul does, in fact, often talk about life in political and military terms; we get images of battles, struggles, peace treaties with enemies, and the like from his rhetoric. And while we may be blessed in such a way that we don’t always feel like our lives are battles, or even struggles, when we find ourselves in one of those places where we are tempted to say “God has it in for me,” and everyone finds themselves there some time or other, those metaphors may resonate with us a little more.
Those metaphors probably resonated fairly well with Paul’s first readers, who often faced difficult physical and financial circumstances, and who very often had to endure the opposition of family and friends and fellow members of synagogues and in some cases state officials when they joined the early Christian community. And the for the Christians in Rome, an imperial city built on military conquest, in which imperial troops and vanquished and enslaved enemies were every day realities, those metaphors were no doubt directly meaningful.
This may be why Paul’s careful theological argument in the first part of Romans builds on the framework of hostilities and alliances. Paul aims to convince his readers that God, rather than being our enemy, is our ally, is for us – even when, maybe even especially when, it seems God is most against us. Because as Paul says in the wind-up to his big finish in chapter 8, “Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?”
Now I don’t know about anyone else, but hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword are not exactly my idea of things going well! If I had to fill out a customer satisfaction survey for how much God is for me, going through hardship, distress, persecution and all that is not likely to make me feel like giving God a 10 on a 1-10 scale.
And honestly, I think Paul knows this. And what Paul knows about this, and the way Paul thinks about life as a battle, and especially the spiritual life, I think informs his desire to convince the Romans of something he has himself learned from experience: that when we gain peace with God, we actually make ourselves the enemies of the world around us in some significant ways; but in that new struggle, the peace and love of God become our inseparable life-line.
Because the background to chapter 5, where we picked Paul’s argument up, is Paul’s discussion of how we are, we human beings are, enemies of God from way, way back. We set ourselves against God, against God’s truth, against God’s wisdom and way of life, right from the beginning, he says. We sin, and because sin inevitably produces suffering, we suffer and everyone around us suffers. Other people sin, and they suffer, and everyone around them, including us, suffers. And then we die. Grim stuff.
But then Paul tells us something amazing: although we would expect God to be furious with a bunch of rebels who are openly hostile, expect God to come down on them with the … well, literally with the wrath of God … God does something different. God shows us really emphatically that God loves us. God shows up in the person of Jesus Christ and acts as our champion, fights the good fight on our behalf, dies on our behalf, and basically demonstrates to us that God is our ally and benefactor and is treating us as friends – well in advance of any change of heart on our parts.
It’s weird, actually. We human beings would never act this way. But that’s part of Paul’s point, God is not us, says Paul, this is God’s righteousness and love we’re talking about, not ours, and when we trust God’s unconditional love, God’s grace, we receive it through faith.
So, back to the military metaphor, God has declared peace with us, based on the work of Jesus Christ. We have peace with God, and when we trust God’s declaration of peace, when we have faith in that peace sealed for us in Christ, we can begin to live on that basis, we can take advantage of the communication with God it makes possible, we can have a new sense of freedom regarding our past failures of all kinds, we can begin to take advantage of the life of the Spirit to clean up our act on a daily basis, all that …
This is good news for us, according to Paul.
This is good news for us, according to me, too. It seems to me that a lot of our practical problems stem from our sense that we’re failures who fail, and we’re always looking over our shoulder to see when the hammer is going to drop on us for that. And this condition, what Paul calls “this grace in which we stand,” this offer of peace from the God we have been fighting and running away from and being angry with and all that for however long – for those of us whose story goes like this, at least in part – this grace in which we stand allows us to get out of the field, so to speak, get out of the battle zone, get on the evac helicopter to some demilitarized territory. Which is a huge relief! And that relief makes possible an entirely different way of life, a way of life based on peace, rather than a way of life based on constant struggle with someone we have conceived of in our minds as a wrathful deity who has it in for us, or will any moment.
That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, there’s some bad news – which is, we’re surrounded. We’re surrounded by a world that hasn’t heard about this peace treaty, and is still acting out of, and acting out, the “enemies of God” story. The uniforms and weapons and special effects of that action are extremely realistic. So our efforts to live out of this counter-narrative, this narrative of peace with God, this narrative of life in the Spirit, do not always strike the people around us as friendly, or even reasonable.
Plus, we’re surrounded by the issues of sin and suffering that are not all mopped up. There is still sin, and sin produces suffering, for the people who do it, and for everyone around them. So that’s still going on, too, and we’re surrounded by it.
And then, truth to tell, sometimes we’re all too surrounded by ourselves, maybe we’ll want to say, by our old selves, whatever. Most of us know all too well that we are still very susceptible to acting as double agents, again just to keep that war metaphor going for a little bit. We still discover our own mixed loyalties from time to time, sometimes fairly dramatically – that hurts. So if it were possible to be surrounded inside and out, that would be us, that would be our situation.
And this is the point at which Paul makes his greatest declaration: don’t forget, God is for us. Christ has already said he doesn’t condemn us. So, who’s going to cut us off from that love? So what if we’re surrounded: distress, hardship, persecution, etc. etc. Nothing, none of that, keeps the love of God from getting through to us.
Here’s a true story: in 1967, a little piece of Nigeria seceded, began calling itself the Republic of Biafra. It didn’t take long for the government of Nigeria to blockade the new country as part of its effort to prevent that secession. The political situation was very complex – complex enough that very few countries in the world recognized the new state, and the United Nations, the Organization of African Unity, and the International Committee for the Red Cross didn’t feel they could take action, even humanitarian action.
So Biafra was surrounded, and it became a humanitarian crisis. This prompted a a coalition of churches, which took the name of Joint Church Aid, along with some other non-governmental organizations, to organize what came to be known as the Biafran airlift. 15-20 times a night, for over two years, volunteers, often with rather limited skills for this kind of work, at least at the beginning, flew planes into what was little more than a widened strip of grass, with their lights off so they wouldn’t attract the attention of anti-aircraft fire, and delivered food and in some cases fuel and other necessary material, like salt, to the starving people of Biafra. People involved tell stories of the pilots and crew landing these planes and immediately rushing to ditches to take cover from rifle fire, and unloading planes with bullets passing over their heads. The planes took off from places like the island of Sao Tome, and didn’t refuel until they returned. Because the planes mostly were labeled with the initials of the Joint Church Aid organization, JCA, the volunteers started calling it “Jesus Christ Airlines.”
So Biafra was not completely cut off after all. Even though the supplies the airlift provided were only a trickle, far less than everything the Biafran people needed, it was a lifeline. It demonstrated that people cared about what was happening there. It was a tangible connection of love and compassion. Out of that effort to prevent the complete separation of civilians in a war-torn land from the rest of the world came the organization Doctors Without Borders, which formed as part of the effort to deliver necessary humanitarian aid to the people of Biafra, in particular children. Doctors without Borders continues to work on behalf of people in extreme situations to this day, regardless of the politics of the surrounding conflicts, on the principle that humanity and its demands know no borders.
This image of the airlift seems to make sense of what Paul means when he says that nothing, but nothing, can separate us from the love of Christ. Because as long as we are still in our world, we will still find ourselves surrounded the wreckage of sin, and the suffering it causes, that God is still cleaning up; we will find ourselves surrounded by sin that still goes on, and the new suffering it produces every day; we will still sometimes feel surrounded by ourselves. But we are not cut off. In fact, we may find we have a lot in common with the Doctors without Borders or the airlifters who flew for Jesus Christ Airlines: not only are we connected to the love of Christ, not only can nothing, but nothing, separate us from that, we can communicate it and its effects to others.
So of course, it’s much more positive to talk about God’s blessings. And God willing, we will experience those in all kinds of ways in our lives. But we can still find ourselves surrounded by a lot of bad news, and that has real consequences for us; sometimes, it can almost drown out the good news we know and trust. When that happens, we need to remember, as Paul encourages us to remember, that whatever happens, we have peace with God, peace that God has made; whatever happens, we can know and trust that; whatever happens, nothing, but nothing, changes that; nothing, but nothing can shut down Christ’s life-line; nothing, but nothing, can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.