Sunday, July 15, 2018

Inseparable Love: Sermon on Romans 8:35-39

It was a cold night on the sea. A storm was approaching from a distance, but hadn't yet overtaken the shivering sailors of Sparta as they sat and stood around the deck. They were on their way, under the command of Lysander, to wage war on the allies of Athens. But this storm this night, in this cold and this dark, had a few of the younger sailors unsettled, in spite of all their vaunted Spartan bravery, heirs of Leonidas and the three hundred. One asked doubtfully, through chattering teeth, “What hope have we in the storm to come?”

An elder pointed above, to two stars overhead, and asked, “Do ye remember the story of them gods of our city? Men tell of a queen of Sparta, Leda her name, and her husband King Tyndareus – though unbeknownst to her king and husband, Leda was visited by the king of the gods, Zeus, one day in disguise, sating his sovereign lusts. Leda gave birth to children, among them these twin boys, Castor and Polydeuces. Oh, the adventures they had together, thick as thieves! Side by side, they chased the Caledonian Boar. Side by side, they sailed on Jason's Argo. Side by side, they rescued their sister Helen from Theseus' grasp. Not a thing did one do that the other didn't. Theirs had no rivalry, no contest, no variance of path; only unbridled friendship and untainted brotherhood. Wild on horseback and fierce athletes, the two of them, and never the one without the other.

Oh, over a pair of twin sisters they began a feud with their twin cousins – twins against twins, Castor and Polydeuces against Lynceus and Idas. Castor and Polydeuces stole the latter's cattle, but Lynceus and Idas saw them in the act, caught them in the act, and Idas in his fury thrust a spear through Castor. Polydeuces gave chase, killed Lynceus, was in danger of retaliation – until a thunderbolt consumed Idas. Polydeuces ran back to his brother, his dearest friend, dying, death rattling in his throat. Polydeuces wept hot tears, cried out to Zeus, begging to die at his brother's side, 'for glory is departed from a man robbed of his friends,' said he. Zeus came to him, told him the secret truth: Leda had lain with Zeus and the Spartan king in such quick succession that the twins were, in a fashion, sons of both – but Polydeuces heir to Zeus and immortality, and Castor heir to the king and the inevitable pains of death. Nonetheless, Zeus offered Polydeuces a choice: 'If freed from death and the harsh years of age, it is thy will to dwell beside my throne upon Olympus, companion to Athena and to Ares, god of the shadowing spear, this choice is thine to take; but if, in thy heart's travail for thy brother, thou art in mind to share all things alike with him, then half thy days shalt thou beneath the earth draw breath, and half within the golden citadels of heaven.' And Polydeuces had no need to think twice: he gladly bartered half his divine heritage away to his brother. Oh, you may hear from some that they trade off, passing as ships in the night, but believe them not. One day, the two together are among the heavens; the next day, the two together make their home in the darkest valleys of gloom; but together always. And in the sky Zeus placed their stars, to watch over ships, but surely those of their kinsmen and fellow-citizens of Sparta on the sea.”

And so the Spartan sailor might well have consoled his shipmates with the old myth – a moving myth, of the exalted heroes who share and share alike, half-immortal each. Castor and Polydeuces were, through love, made inseparable. Polydeuces – or Pollux, as the Romans would later call him – refused to let anything, not even a mortal wound, not even death itself, separate Castor from him. Just a myth – but a myth with beauty to tell. Their popularity spread far and wide, vastly beyond Sparta. Paul passed by the Anakeion, their temple in Athens. He surely passed by their statues in Corinth, day by day, as he wrote his letter to the Roman churches. The early Roman Christians, as they went about their business and passed through the forum, walked beneath the gaze of statues of Castor and Pollux set in front of their temple there. And when Paul finally left Malta where he'd been shipwrecked so that he could journey and be with the men and women who'd read his letter, the ship that took him there, Luke tells us, had carvings of Castor and Pollux on its prow (Acts 28:11).

Paul and the Roman Christians alike rejected their temples and statues and observances, but maybe, just maybe, they could appreciate the sentiments of the story. Things in the Roman churches – and note the plural – had not been great. The spread of the gospel had met reception and opposition there in the Jewish community – and it had gotten heated. Fed up at the strife, the emperor Claudius had given an order expelling Jews from Rome. It was this that sent Priscilla and Aquila to Corinth where they met Paul. In their absence, the Gentile converts had taken the lead in Roman church life, crafting an approach all their own. And then the Jews, including many Jewish Christians, returned. Now nobody saw quite eye to eye; we'll find out more about that in the months to come. But there were many churches – some more Gentile, some more Jewish, some with one position, some with another. And there were some Gentile-heavy churches that evidently got the idea, from treatment like this, that God had chosen them to replace the Jews as God's chosen people, even to replace Jewish believers – that the Jews as a whole, even the believing remnant, had been rejected, separated from God's electing love. After all, look at how they had suffered in their exile from the city! And didn't everyone know that disaster was a sign of rejection? Didn't even Jewish wisdom say that “seven kinds of punishment come to the world for seven categories of sin” (Pirqe Avot 5:8), with famine, distress, and the sword among them? Didn't Jewish writings themselves identify God's wrath with “evil diseases, famine, thirst, pestilence, and the sword” (4Q504, frg. 2)? If the expelled believers were suffering all these things, when the Gentile believers were building the church fine on their own, how could the afflicted exiles under God's wrath not be separated from the love of Christ?

We might consider it an odd way to think. Or do we? Rome, when Paul wrote, was full of churches judging each other, full of believers judging each other, full of churches and believers reading love and wrath into the big events of their communities and the littler events of their lives. The emperor's order comes down, and you know some Gentile believer mad at the Jewish guy in the other pew thought to himself, “Ha, serves him right.” You know that, even after the Jews were readmitted to the city, Roman churches at odds would start to look for every twist and turn of fortune as signs of God's favor or disfavor. You know there were surely at least a couple believers in exile who came back, heard what the others were thinking and how they were judging, and started internalizing it, thinking, “Maybe I am rejected. Maybe all this was punishment. Maybe God isn't for me any more. Maybe I'm outside the love of Christ.”

And is it all so different today? Aren't we tempted to think like that? To worry that we'll be rejected, turned out, turned away, cut off? To wonder what we've done wrong when things go wrong? To see God's favor or God's disfavor, God's love or God's wrath, in the numerical growth and decline of churches and denominations, or in the circumstances of our lives, or the health of our bodies? “Tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” – the seven classic woes that Paul and the Jewish Christians expelled from Rome were actually suffering or close to suffering, and some of which will enter our lives, too – well, aren't we tempted to think they offer evidence that God isn't with us, that God isn't for us, that we've been “separated … from the love of Christ” (Romans 8:35)?

Paul has three things he wants to say to that. The first one is pretty simple: “No” (Romans 8:37). The answer to his question, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” (Romans 8:35), is none of those things. Such things like that cannot be used as evidence that God has divorced his people, or a segment of his people – that they, or we, stand now under God's wrath instead of God's love. Tribulation doesn't prove that. Distress doesn't prove that. Famine or drought don't prove that. A radical collapse into poverty to the point of nakedness and destitution doesn't even prove that. Not even being attacked or executed proves that. All of these are real, live possibilities for faithful Christians. The story may have had Zeus protect Polydeuces by dropping a thunderbolt to make Idas crispy, but seldom does fire fall from heaven to immediately smite those who want to hassle us. God, the real God, may not intervene to keep you out of tribulation or distress. God may not fill your table in the time of famine. He offers no guarantees against poverty and homelessness. God may well allow distressing things to cross your path – allow cancer and car crashes, danger and dementia, exclusion and ejection, falls and famines. Is it evidence God loves you any less? Evidence God is punishing or rejecting you?

The Roman Christians needed proof, so Paul opens up Psalm 44 for them. It's one of those psalms that starts the right way – praising God for his ancient deeds, when he expelled the Gentiles from the promised land and planted the Jews there as a free people (Psalm 44:1-2). For that, the chosen people could always say, “Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us” (Psalm 44:5). But after a moment's thought, the psalmist sees something confusing in his day: “You have made us like sheep for the slaughter and have scattered us among the nations” (Psalm 44:11). They became a “laughingstock,” tarred by “disgrace” and “shame” (Psalm 44:14-15). 'Scattered among the nations,' 'sheep for the slaughter' – just like what happened to the Jewish Christians again under Claudius and in their wanderings.

Was it evidence they did something wrong? The psalmist says no: “All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way” (Psalm 44:17-18). The psalmist's people were suffering, and it had no relation to whether they were right with God; there was no just punishment involved here. And so the psalmist cries out to God to “rise up; come to our help; redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love” (Psalm 44:26). But first he summarizes the situation: “For your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered” (Psalm 44:22).

And that's the verse Paul quotes for the situation in his day (Romans 8:36). All those seven woes – tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword – they came against the psalmist's people, and the word of God itself says that it didn't mean they'd done something wrong. Their heart hadn't turned back that time. Their steps hadn't departed from God's way. They hadn't forgotten God or been false to his covenant. They were still chosen. Their sufferings were no proof they'd been separated from his love. It was for his sake that they were suffering in their exile. It was godly suffering that God chose to allow, but it was no sign of God's disfavor. God was still with them. God was still for them. You can suffer all these things without it being a sign that God has stopped being for you. You can go hungry, and it doesn't mean God's abandoned you. You can be in poverty, bankrupt, homeless, and it doesn't mean God's forgotten you. You can be in harm's way, you can even be facing down death, and it doesn't mean you're separated from the love of Christ (Romans 8:35).

There's a second thing Paul wants to tell all the Roman Christians, and us too. Remember, Rome is full of these churches busy judging each other. The Jewish-heavy churches especially were all but wiped out by Claudius' decree; they're persecuted, they're embattled, they're still struggling to hang on. Plenty of the members of the churches in Rome, some more than others, are populated by immigrants and the poor, even though there are some fairly rich and well-placed Christians, too. Some, fresh from exile, having been starved and deprived, are struggling to rebuild a life in Rome – struggling to keep a roof over their heads, struggling to stretch their food from one day to the next, struggling to cover all the bills, struggling with new forms of sickness and disease picked up on the way. They're weak – in fact, we know that plenty of Roman churches divided people into 'the strong' and 'the weak,' in more ways than one (cf. Romans 15:1).

Some of us know what that's like. Here in the United States, we're fond of mentally dividing the world into 'the strong' and 'the weak,' 'the deserving' and 'the undeserving,' 'the worthy' and 'the unworthy,' 'the haves' and 'the have-nots.' The strong think, “Why can't the rest just get their act together?” We divide the world into winners and losers. Major figures in American public life speak openly today about how those who are with them are “winners,” those who are against them are “losers and haters.” From our school days onward, we learn to think of some as being the 'winners' at life, and others as being the 'losers' at life. And what makes the difference? The folks who have it all together are, to the American eye, winners – clean bills of health, good clothes, good diet, in keeping with our upper- or middle-class ethos and our cultural values of production and consumption. The folks who struggle are, to the American eye, losers – maybe compromised in health, maybe malnourished or out of shape, maybe dressed poorly, maybe at variance with our cultural values, maybe in jeopardy of losing a home or defaulting on a loan, maybe unable to keep a job, maybe cultural outsiders. Subject to things like what Paul listed.

And here's Paul's second message: Poor and broken believers are not losers. Depressed and wounded believers are not losers. Homeless and destitute believers are not losers. Exiled and aimless believers are not losers. Sick and disabled believers are not losers. Immigrant and foreign believers are not losers. Fatigued and worn-out believers are not losers. Unemployed and unemployable believers are not losers. Awkward and ill-at-ease believers are not losers. Persecuted churches are not losers. Underresourced churches are not losers. Small and shrinking and struggling churches are not losers. Confused and troubled and distressed churches are not losers. None of the faithful are losers. Poor believers, depressed believers, disabled believers, worn-out believers, sick believers, afflicted believers – not losers, but winners, and more than winners! For “in all these things, we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37)!

That's right, and it means underresourced churches are winners! Small churches, even shrinking churches, can be winners! Confused and troubled and distressed churches can be winners. Persecuted churches – winners! Churches in exile, churches out of place in society, churches that see nowhere to go – winners! And not just winners, not just conquerors; “more than conquerors,” super-winners! The kind of winners who do more than just put up a good fight, but who have the promise of one day seeing all their past tribulation, all their past distress, all their past persecution, all their past famine, all their past nakedness, all their past danger, all their past execution, all that knocked them down and beat them up, one day carried off the field of battle in body bags – that's being a super-winner. And depressed believers are super-winners, disabled believers are super-winners, destitute believers are super-winners; disadvantaged churches are super-winners, distressed churches are super-winners, declining churches are super-winners. Not through anything they themselves bring to the table, but “through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

And so we have that promise, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper” (Isaiah 54:17) – not when the day is done. Because you, if you have faith – you, if you endure – are a super-winner. Through the name of Jesus, we have that promise that we will indeed “tread down those who rise up against us” (Psalm 44:5). It's not because we trust in what we bring to the table – whether the psalmist's bow and sword, or our own talents and health and easy living – but a continual glorying in God in spite of all that has us down (Psalm 44:6-8). That is being a super-winner. And that is for the persecuted and exiled church, that is for the struggling church, that is for the churches of Rome, and that is for us, and that is for you. Through the love of Christ, you are more than a conqueror; you are a super-winner.

And you don't have to worry about anything coming in and getting between you and the love of Christ. It's like Castor and Polydeuces – the love of Christ gives itself for you over and over again; it never leaves your side; it never succumbs to circumstances; it's with you in the highest highs and the lowest lows, never forsaking you, never allowing the slightest distance from you. The divine love that chose you will never stop choosing you, never stop choosing to be for you, never stop choosing to be with you. Nothing can divorce you. Nothing can obstruct you. Nothing can separate you.

That's why Paul is so totally “convinced,” he says, “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” (Romans 8:38-39). Death can't do it – not the sum total of every form of weakness, every form of sickness, every disability and depression and distress and disadvantage. It can't come between us and God's love. Life can't do it – not the sum total of every form of strength, every form of prosperity, all health and happiness and comfort and privilege. It can't come between us and God's love either. No otherworldly power, no thisworldly power, no underworldly power can separate us from God's love. If Michael and Gabriel and every archangel tried standing in the way, God's love would be unbreakable all the same. If Satan and Belial and Beelzebub and every demon legion marched across our path, God's love would shine through unobstructed. If every government, every corporation, every bank, every court, every media conglomerate were to propagandize you and bully you and knock you flat every day for a billion years, it would not hinder your access to God's love in the slightest – not so long as you find God's love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Not the highest highs nor the lowest lows can separate you from God's love. All the fate the Romans feared, all the astrological signs they watched the sky for, all the heavenly power reserved in stars and planets to dictate the course of events of life on earth, or so they thought – even if it were true, not all the powers of destiny and star could steer God's love away from you. Not a one, not the whole bunch, could dictate to God how long he loves you, or dictate to you whether he's yours forever. There is not a thing on earth or above earth or under the earth, nor will the limitless halls of eternity future ever evolve or reveal or develop or cobble together, any force that can deflect the tiniest spark of God's love from you; not a thing that can change his mind about you. Not all heaven and not all hell can separate you from God's love in Christ. There is nothing in all creation, not a one, that can get in our path, obstruct our access, fence off God's love from you or you from God's love.

That's good news for all the churches in Rome. For the weak churches and the strong churches, for the Jewish churches and the Gentile churches, for the little churches and the big churches, for the poor churches and the rich churches. Nothing can come between the poorest, weakest, tiniest church or believer, and the all-powerful love of God that chooses them or him or her for boundless hope in Christ. Nor can anything come between the wealthiest, strongest, biggest church or believer and the very same love of God, unextended and unmitigated. And the love of God is more than all victory; through this love, a prize greater than all conquest is all ours, no matter what the world sees, no matter what others see, no matter what we ourselves see.

Castor and Polydeuces are but a pale pointer to the inseparable love of God, with us in the highest highs and lowest lows the same, self-sacrificing to the full but victorious forever. The brothers of Greek and Roman myth have nothing on God's love as displayed in the nail-pierced but living and lively body of Jesus our Lord. He may well allow all sorts of affliction, even when we've done nothing wrong. But not all the weapons of this world or the next can prosper finally if formed against us. 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” (Romans 8:38-39). To him be the glory forever. With confidence we pray to the God of Inseparable Love:

Rise up;
    come to our help;
       redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! (Psalm 44:26). Amen.

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