A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on June 9, 2019.
Our reading from Romans this morning isn’t one you often hear on Pentecost, but it is a favorite of many. If 1 Corinthians 13 is the go-to wedding scripture, then Romans 8 owns the same role for funerals. It is a real privilege of the pastoral office to stand beside people who are weighed down by the power of death and proclaim with Paul, “No, these things cannot and will not prevail.”
I often say at funerals — this is where God does some of God’s greatest work — in the midst of community. God consoling us, so that we can console one another. And in the place where the power of death is palpable, one can only make this proclamation as together we hold Paul’s conviction, that not even death can separate us from God’s love.
But even beyond the liturgical setting of a funeral, this text has much to offer. For Paul speaks not only about death, but also of any matters that threaten separation. And every human being has some experience with that. We have all experienced something of exclusion, indifference, disenfranchisement, hate, humiliation, and the longing to believe that God is really and truly for you. Every human being has experienced something of these things in their own way.
It is impossible for me to name all that ways that may have happened. It can’t be done. So instead I would like you to think about how you have experienced separation, humiliation, indifference, exclusion or the longing to believe God was really for you.
If you please, I would like you to think back to a specific experience in your own life. Visualize it. Remember the details that surrounded it. How did you feel in the moment? How did you feel afterwards? How do you feel now thinking back upon it?
We all have some experience of loss, because at the heart of the human experience is separation. Every choice we make along life’s journey necessarily separates us from some other option. We cannot do everything, therefore when we say yes to anything, we are saying no to something else.
It happens in our relationships as well. At some point we are separated from those things and people that we love. To be human is to experience loss and grief. It can’t be escaped. At some point we all come to know the painful power of separation.
Which is why I suspect Paul spends such time laying out the powerful causes of separation in the eighth chapter of Romans. There is hardship and distress. Persecution and famine. Nakenedness, peril and sword. And Paul is just getting warmed up.
The weight of all the forces that bring separation would seem to tip the scales completely over. Few, if any, do not know the weight of these powers, which makes it all the more remarkable that Paul begins and ends this section in promise. And it is in that promise where hope is found.
Paul connects the promise to the Spirit’s work. Incidentally, it is the same Spirit that worked for connection back in the second chapter of the book of Acts. The Spirit that gave folks the ability to speak in other languages so they might be understood and connected to one another. The Spirit that poured itself out on the diverse peoples gathered together, where despite their difference they all heard the mighty acts of God. And it is the same Spirit Jesus promised would come and not allow us to be separated from him. In John’s Gospel it is called the paraclete which means “one who walks alongside” — a companion.
Paul proclaims this same spirit helps us in our weakness. The Spirit prays on our behalf when we don’t have the words. When we are feeling lost — feeling disconnected — unsure what to say — the Spirit interceded with sighs too deep for words. The Spirit will not allow our inability to communicate to separate us from God.
And yet despite this Paul knows we will still feel disconnected. We will still feel the effects of separation. I suspect this is why as you go through the passage you will count so many demons that Paul mentions that threaten to undo us — suffering, weakness, frustration, bondage to decay, ignorance, trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, death, life, angels, demons, powers, the present, the future, heights, depths, and as if that were not enough, Paul adds the catch all “anything else in all creation.”
And by no means is Paul’s list exhaustive. We can add our own demons to Paul’s list: parents, children, your boss, employees, colleagues, foolish choices, bedeviling sins, public failure, private disappointments, anxieties, school, a bad business deal, suicide and we could keep on going. The list is long and growing all the time, which makes it all the more remarkable that Paul would remain adamant in his uncompromising conviction: nothing can separate you from God’s love.
Of course Paul knows this truth firsthand. Think about Paul’s own Christian journey — this unequivocal language isn’t cliche — this is not mere metaphor — rather this is a deeply held conviction born out of his personal experiences. A few days after his conversion God promised Paul that he would suffer much for God’s kingdom, and that “prison and hardship” awaited him in every city. And that was his experience.
Paul had to withstand brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition. The book of Acts is littered with attempts on his life. Paul reckoned that he and the first apostles were likened as sheep to a slaughter; people in last place; public spectacles; dishonored fools; vagrants who were hungry, thirsty, homeless and in rags. Ultimately, Paul was martyred in Rome. Yet through his life and death, Paul conviction never changed — he remained insistent: nothing in all of creation can separate you from God’s love.
On this day when we celebrate the Spirit’s work in and among our lives it is worth noting some of the Spirit’s greatest work is in the Spirit’s work of keeping us connected. Connected to God. Connected to one another. Connected to God’s mission for the world.
For on this day the Spirit reminds us that when we feel alienated, separated or estranged, perhaps by others or even by or from our own self, when we sense that everyone and everything is against us — in those moments it is easy to forget Paul’s declaration and the Spirit’s work — that God is unequivocally for you. Nothing can separate you from God’s love.
I would like you to think back on that moment you considered at the beginning. The moment of exclusion. The moment of disconnect or longing. The moment of indifference or hate. Think back to that moment, close your eyes and hear these words of promise spoken for you. Contrary to the reality you felt in that moment… Nothing. Nothing. Nothing you’ve done. Nothing that has been done to you. Nothing you have failed to do. Nothing in all of creation can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Let your memory rest in this promise. Let your memory be washed over in grace.
And let us make it our life’s work to make sure that not only is this promise not forgotten, but that all might know and experience its power as well. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor 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.” Amen.