Tuesday, July 29, 2008

nothing can separate us (romans 8)

A couple of weeks ago all four of us, my wife, our two college age daughters and I were in the car together. This rarely happens. We were through the mountains of Western North Carolina to Atlanta. We were going to see the Braves. They lost, but it was still a great day. As we passed through Franklin my wife and I recalled an experience that had happened years ago.

When our children were small we would make our way into the mountains, about this time of year, and we would go gem-mining. I want to suggest that reading the 8th chapter of Romans is like ascending a mountain peak, and reflecting on Paul’s words can be like discovering gems. As we sift through this passage of scripture, I want to lift up a few of these gems for us this morning. Each is worthy of our attention.

First: the Spirit helps us in our weakness, for we do not know how to pray as we ought. From Paul, a mature Christian, writing at the end of his life, a veteran missionary, evangelist, apostle, this has to be wonderful news for us. Most of us, if we were honest, would have to concur with him: we do not know how to pray as we ought.

We struggle with this basic Christian activity: prayer. Do you remember the television show I Dream of Genie? Sometimes we come to prayer that way. That if we do something or want something, and posture toward God in some way, if we feel the right way, or speak in the appropriate tone of voice, it will happen and our request will be granted! A friend’s little boy was headed to bed one night and before leaving the den he said to the others in his family, “I’m going to bed! I’m going to say my prayers! Anybody want anything?”

We do not know how to pray as we ought. Sometimes we are distracted. Sometimes we are selfish. Sometimes we don’t see the point. Sometimes we think we could be doing something more useful. Sometimes we imagine that there are other, more spiritual people who pray. We do not know how to pray as we ought. Thomas Merton, the mystic and spiritual writer of the last century said once that we are all beginners at prayer. The wonderful news is that the spirit helps us in our weakness…the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words…God searches the heart…

God is at work in our prayers, even beyond our words, God intercedes, God helps us to pray. I love the translation of The Message: If we don’t know what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our prayer in and for us…He knows us far better than we know ourselves.

The good news is that God is with us, as close to us as a Father (Abba) and a mother (the Spirit in Hebrew and in Aramaic, which Jesus spoke, was female). We don’t always know what we want, what we should pray for, and that’s okay. God knows us far better than we know ourselves.

And so we come honestly, without pretense, to God in prayer. The best training for this kind of prayer is the Book of Psalms. I spent a week in June at a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota. The Benedictines have around for about fifteen hundred years. They pray four times a day (in some communities seven times a day, tracing the practice back to Psalm 119).

How do they pray? They pray the psalms. In a month’s time they have worked through the Book of Psalms (there are 150 Psalms, and about thirty days in a month; here ends the math lesson!). Later in the summer I was looking through something and came across an interview with Billy Graham. How does he pray? He reads five psalms a day. In this way he reads through all of the psalms in a month. If we don’t know how to pray, here is simple way to get started: to read and pray through the psalms each day.

Why might this be a good spiritual path for us? In the Psalms we find fear, uncertainty, anger, but also joy, happiness, and thanksgiving…there is a Psalm for wherever we are in life, on any particular day. We do not know how to pray as we ought…but the spirit helps us in our weakness.

A second gem: All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (8. 28). This is a word of assurance, and it has brought enormous comfort to Christians across the centuries. It reminds us of the purpose and providence of God.

But this verse of scripture can also be perplexing. All things work together for good? Illnesses, deaths, losses? All things work together for good? Floods, psumanis, earthquakes? All things work together for good? We may want to believe this about God, and yet it does not always fit our human experience.

There was a belief, especially in the Old Testament, that if you were good and righteous, God would bless you. And if you were bad and evil, God would curse you. People formed judgments about others. The friends of Job saw his suffering and said to him, “Job, it must have been your sin”. In the 9th chapter of John a man was born blind and someone asked Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?”

And so, back to Romans 8. 28. If all things don’t seem to be working for the good…maybe we don’t really love God enough, maybe we aren’t called according to his purpose? Romans 8. 28 can be comforting, and it can be challenging. It depends on where you are in life when you hear it.

Again The Message is helpful: We can be sure that every detail of our lives of love for God is worked into something good. We often sense this reality most powerfully as we look back at our lives. I have shared an ancient Chinese parable with you before, but like most good stories it is worth repeating:

A man owned a horse. One day the horse ran away. The man’s friend said, “So sorry about your horse”. The man said, “Bad news. Good news. Who knows?” A few days later the horse came back with a herd of wild horses. The man’s friend said, “wonderful”. The man said, “Good news. Bad news. Who knows?” The next day one of the wild horses threw the man’s son and broke both of his legs. The man’s friend said, “how awful” The man said, “Bad news. Good news. Who knows?” Later the village men were all called into war, but the son with the broken legs was excused. “Good news. Bad news. Who knows?”

I look back over my life and what seemed like bad news at the time is now good news. In college I wanted to be a biologist, and I studied hard, and I was, at best a mediocre student. I was never going to be a biologist. Bad news. Good news. Who knows? When I was finishing seminary I interviewed at two or three places to be an associate minister. I really wanted to go to a place that was up in the mountains. I ended up in a different place, actually at my third choice of three places. The senior minister turned out to be one of my most important mentors. “Good news. Bad news. Who knows?”

A door closes. Another door opens. Bad news. Good news. Who knows? The fact is that we don’t know. But we trust. Everything that happens to us will be woven into God’s purpose for our lives. In the moment, the purpose is not clear. But we persevere, and we trust that “the God who began a good work in us will be faithful to complete it” (Philippians 1).

That “good news-bad news-who knows” parable reminds me of the challenge of figuring out what in our lives is bad news and what is good news. Romans 8. 28 can help us: God is at work, and in God’s own time, and within God’s own purpose, all things will work together for good. It is not that all things are good. All things are not good. But all things work together for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.

A third and last gem: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. At the beginning of the Gospel we hear this good news: His name shall be called Emmanuel which means God is with us. At the conclusion of the Gospel we also hear this good news: I am with you always, the Risen Lord says, even until the end of the age.

This passage, Romans 8. 35-39, is one of best known portions of the Bible. It is often read at memorial services. We read this passage on Tuesday, in the memorial service for our friend Harry Smith. I would hope that my family would choose this passage at my memorial service. Having said this, I want us to know that this passage is about much more than death. It is the promise that, in this life, nothing can separate us. Not our personal sin, nor the principalities and powers of structural sin. This is the good news of the book of Romans.

Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Our great good fortune is that through all of the conditions of life…some of them are listed in verse 35---hardship, distress, persecution, famine, peril, sword, nakedness (which I take to mean that we do not have the resources to buy clothing)----God stands beside us, intercedes for us. Indeed, Paul says, nothing can separate us from the love of God.

In Romans 1, we were introduced to the good news of a power that could salvage human life, even the abuses of pride and ego, even the ravages of shame and guilt. And in Romans 3 we came face to face with the truth: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We are not just talking about other people. We have met the enemy and she is us! In Romans 5, we were reminded of this good news, because we do have a tendency to forget: we are justified by faith, which is a gift, and in this faith we have peace with God, because of the cross of Jesus Christ. And then, in Romans 6, we struggled with some of the implications of all of this---if it is all a gift, does it really matter what I do, or how I respond? If my works do not save me, can I live any way that I wish?

Well, no. When our lives are salvaged, we want to be conformed to the image of Christ, who loves us, who is in the process of restoring us; we are all in a sense like that piece of furniture that I found beside the road. We want to become the new creation that God has promised. Along the way, we will have questions: how do I communicate with (pray to) this God? How do I make sense of the bewildering things that happen along the way? Why do I sometimes feel like I am all alone?

On those summer days in the mountains we would dig our hands into the mud, and sift through it, and we would uncover these gems. They were there all of the time. Some of them we still have. Reading the book of Romans is like that. These insights are not obvious, but they are always there, waiting to be rediscovered, like treasures hidden in a field, words about prayer, purpose, relationship.

It all builds to this climax. One biblical scholar (N.T. Wright) has noted that the end of Romans 8 summarizes the last four chapters (5-8) and it is like a symphony that is entering its final moments, full of sustained excitement, getting faster and faster toward the end, with phrases taken from earlier parts of the music and being twirled together in triumph. If God is for us, who can be against us? The implied answer—no one. Who will bring any charge against God’s people? The implied answer—no one. Who is in a position to condemn? The implied answer—no one. What can separate us from the love of God? The implied answer—nothing!

As Paul reminds us, if God is for us, who can be against us? This, brothers and sisters, is the good news!

Sources: New Interpreter’s Bible, “Romans” , N.T. Wright. Hal Brady, Keeping The Faith of Our Christian Heritage. Douglas J. Moo, The NIV Application Commentary: Romans. The Message, translated by Eugene Peterson. Paul For Everyone, N.T. Wright. Fleming Rutledge, Not Ashamed of The Gospel.


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