“Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can affliction or anguish or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: Because of You we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile powers, height or depth, or any other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:35-39 HCSB)
There aren’t many things in life better than the feeling you get when you achieve an important life goal. You’ve put a lot of effort, sweat, tears, long days and, sometimes, sleepless nights into that achievement. Sometimes that goal is career focused – like a new job, sometimes it is family focused – like a new home, sometimes it is self focused – like an athletic achievement. These goals take on many forms but each of them represents personal sacrifice, effort and victory. But what happens when nothing seems to work? What happens when everything is turned against you? What do you do and where do you turn when you can’t seem to get a break? Honestly, sometimes life seems to fight us at every turn. Doesn’t it?
In today’s focal passage, Paul wants us to fully embrace the security we find in God’s love through our relationship with Christ and not our personal ability to succeed or win. So far in Romans, we’ve had to face the hard facts of God’s wrath towards our sin and rebellion. We’ve been confronted by the fact that our sin has destroyed the life that God intends for us to know and experience. But, not only has our sin broken life the way God intended, it has also broken our relationship with Him and with each other. We look at our world and wonder what’s gone wrong… but we often fail to realize that we are the problem. We see the issues but not the root cause. We look at the problems around us and we want to blame anything and everything except our own sin and poor choices.
Sometimes, God’s Spirit is able to break through our selfish desires and overcome our spiritual blindness and He enables us to see our own condition. If we are appalled by what we see, we might seek a solution and that often results in religious devotion and ritual observance. Those often go something like this… If I go to church more, then maybe I can do better. If I give more to charity or follow this religious ritual then maybe God will forgive me, love me and help me. If I pray more, read more, do more, give more then maybe… just maybe. But nothing changes, and we shake our fists at God and ask, “Why? What am I doing wrong?”
That’s where the Gospel, or Good News regarding Jesus Christ, is radically different and that’s the focus of this week’s passage. Paul has been telling us that the answer isn’t our personal religious efforts or goodness, but it is a relationship with God through Christ and it culminates in our personal security. Let’s take a look…
Paul’s conclusion to this section starts with a very direct and challenging question, “Who can separate us from the love of Christ?” Remember, over the past few weeks we’ve considered a few other similar questions. “If God is for us, who is against us? Who can bring an accusation against God’s elect? Who is the one who condemns [us]?” Ultimately, these can all be summarized in this final question. Who can separate us from the love of Christ? All of God’s purpose and plan for His creation is found in Christ and is an expression of God’s love…
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by Him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He might come to have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all His fullness dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile everything to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross — whether things on earth or things in heaven.” (Colossians 1:15-20 HCSB)
If all things are created by Him and for Him then nothing in all of creation is greater Him. Nothing is more powerful. Nothing is able to thwart His purpose or plan. Nothing is able to separate us from His love.
But, it’s easier to hear those things than it is to believe, live and act in accordance with them. So, Paul gets a bit more specific. He begins to elaborate on some of those things the Roman church was facing and some things Paul knew they would face in the days, weeks and years ahead. Listen to some of the things Paul considers as being impotent and powerless before the authority of Christ… affliction, anguish, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword.
Affliction is often translated as “tribulation” in scripture but is really the pressure of being in a position with no obvious or available options. It is not so much about the situation as it is about the way you feel in that situation, hemmed in. Out of options. No escape route. Helpless. Hopeless. But Paul says that those feelings are unable to separate you from God’s love in Christ. When you feel helpless and hopeless know that God is standing with you and these feelings cannot drive Him away or cause you to be removed from His love in Christ.
Anguish is similar but is less about the way you feel and more about the actual situation. We’d say, “I’m in a situation with no way out. Every option ends badly. It’s a lose-lose situation. Nobody’s going to win.” Have you ever been in one of those situations? Paul says, don’t panic. Trust God. Nothing, not even this situation that seems to end badly no matter which way you go, is able to separate us from God’s love in Christ. You might have missed it when you glanced around, but God is standing with you in this no-win situation – and He doesn’t lose.
Persecution is, quite literally, “the pursuit of a predator for its prey.” It is the chase that occurs as that predator is trying to bring down its prey. Imagine the panic and fear that ensues when the prey realizes the chase is on. Paul tells us, calm down and remember who is standing with you, who’s on your side. The greatest advantage the predator has is the panic and fear in the mind of the prey. It causes them to make mistakes, to react instead of thinking clearly and choosing rationally. In the midst of persecution, don’t think and act like prey escaping its predator. Let the love of God wash over you and enable you to see who has your back.
The next four items: famine, nakedness, danger and sword are not hard to understand and are very simple and familiar terms. Famine causes hunger, nakedness results in exposure to the elements, danger is an imminent threat of harm and a sword is, well, a sword. Actually, this sword is a short dagger type knife that was often used in personal acts of retribution. These are all direct threats to the lives of the Roman Christians and the direct result of their faith in Christ. Paul tells them, do not fear what man can do to you because he cannot separate you from God’s love in Christ.
“There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. So the one who fears has not reached perfection in love.” (1 John 4:18 HCSB)
Paul then reminds them of Psalm 44, “because of You (God) we are being put to death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered.” As if there was any doubt, Paul reminds them that their faithfulness to God is the source of the conflict and the threats upon their lives. But he doesn’t just quote the Psalm as a reminder of the cause, he also quotes it as a reminder of the outcome… faithfulness to God will bring ultimate victory. NO! We aren’t just sheep being led to the slaughter, we are being led by God to our victory! But we often fail to realize it…
I had to work late the other night. During a normal work week, I work 4 – 10 hour days. I arrive at work about 6:30 AM and I work until about 5:00 PM, Monday through Thursday. That schedule gives me the chance to use Friday as my sermon preparation day. I usually spend the day at home, alone studying and working on my Sunday sermon and writing this blog post. This week was different. The non-profit foundation that I work for has a quarterly Board of Directors meeting and I had to attend and provide tech support for the meetings. On Thursday evening the meeting was related to our investment strategy and the consultants we employ to help us invest in a way that results in enough money to grow the endowment and provide funds for the associated ministry’s budget. I sat through 6 hours of discussions about investment strategies and proposals to change our current strategies. At about two hours into the meeting, I was looking for coffee to help me stay awake. However, this strategy is central to our success as a foundation and the success of our clients – but I struggled to understand and stay focused. Fortunately, my job and its purpose in helping us fulfill this goal is not dependent upon my understanding of our investment strategy and plans. Thank goodness.
I think we often feel the same way regarding spiritual growth and development strategy and plans. That’s all well and good for the professional clergy but it really doesn’t matter to me, personally. But it does matter. It is important to understand that God has called us to lead our families into relationship with God, obedience to His Word and faithfulness in following Him, on a daily basis. If we are going to experience victory in the midst of these challenges then we must be able to see God’s hand in the challenges we face and teach others to see the same. Instead of raging against them as being anti-Christian we should see God’s presence in those “hard places” and display His grace to a world who questions His existence.
When the Roman church faced these challenges, their victory wasn’t assured by the exercise of their personal rights. That’s painfully evident in Paul’s list of challenges they faced. However, their victory was assured by the presence and power of God as they were being led away as “sheep to be slaughtered.” In the same way, our victory is not dependent upon our personal skills and abilities, church financial resources, tax exempt status or the worship privileges and opportunities afforded us by our political freedoms. Don’t misunderstand me. Do I value those things? Of course, but sometimes I value them far too much and so do you. In some ways, we’ve grown to depend more on them than we do on God power for the church’s growth and success.
So, let me end this week by challenging you to see God’s presence and love in the midst of your struggle. Listen closely to Paul’s closing assurance… “For I am persuaded [absolutely convinced] that not even death or life, angels or rulers, things present or things to come, hostile power, height or depth, or ANY other created thing will have the power to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, OUR Lord!” Cling to that promise. Stand confidently and firmly rooted in it. Nothing can separate us from His love in Christ. Absolutely NOTHING!