What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? God who did not withhold God’s own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved 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.
In September 2018, my wife Lisa and I were grateful to be able to take a long-dreamed of Mediterranean Cruise at the invitation of my older brother, Mike, and his wife, Judy. After the cruise we spent several days visiting the Eternal City, Rome. I had heard that visiting Rome is like visiting a museum, there is so much noteworthy history there. It was, indeed, amazing to see.
By the time the Apostle Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans (54 CE), there existed in Rome a well-established church of Gentile and Jewish Christians. He writes to clarify some issues of the faith in order to avoid confusion among the believers and to encourage unity. Paul was writing to a congregation located in the very center of Roman military might and control, and which soon would become the leading church in Christendom. While there, I kept trying to imagine Paul writing his Letter to the Romans, to Christians living in the very city I was visiting. He had never been there, but by this time Rome was legendary and Roman occupation forces were throughout the Mediterranean.
Our visit to the Roman Coliseum, in particular, left me feeling disappointed and despondent. I wanted to feel more than tourist interest while walking about the Coliseum, but the pressing crowd kept distracting me. Rather than having a private tour that would invite reflection and deep questions of faith, there was little room to walk about without determined effort. I found it difficult to be “in the moment.” (By contrast, a recent Internet image showed a completely empty Coliseum.) Still, we were there and it was, what, interesting? Yes. Fascinating? Yes. And sobering. Yes. Even disturbing. While Roman citizens enjoyed protected status (and Paul was a Roman citizen), non-Romans were disregarded, to say the least. An individual’s life and death hung in the balance at the hands of Roman will. Life was cheap.
Paul knew this. Roman armed overreach and brutality was an everyday part of life in the Mediterranean world at the time. Paul did reach Rome toward the end of his life as a prisoner and was martyred there (62 CE?). It would be another ten years before work on the Coliseum was begun. The Coliseum would become a place of death for gladiators, animals, Jews and Christians, and others. Paul did not write Romans with the Coliseum in mind — to instill courage and hope in the face of certain death. Everyday life was a struggle to be met with faith and endurance.
The uncertain balance of life and death is a reality in the face of COVID-19. A few weeks ago, I heard that a dear friend from college was hospitalized with the virus and died within four days. All of us have been reminded of our mortality and the impermanence of life. Last year, Hawaii was paralyzed by a false missile alert that gave everyone only four minutes to find shelter, and, for all intents and purposes, to live. It is understandable that we fear the time when we will cease to exist. After all, this life is all we know. Throughout life, there are many times when we fear the worst might happen. Paul would remind us that God still loves the world, and will never let us go.
Paul’s words at the end of Romans chapter eight are powerful. Nearly every morning, as I step out of bed, I repeat the affirmation, “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And I often add, “Neither death, nor life, … nor things present, nor things to come.” I sometimes substitute today’s concerns of life and death: “Neither COVID-19, nor a nuclear missile, nor Alzheimer’s, nor our worst fears, will be able to separate us from the love of God.” God holds us now, in love, even though it can be hard to see; God will hold us in love, in eternity. For the whole creation belongs to God, and God is love.
Romans 8:38-39 is reflected for me in these words by George Matheson, written in 1882, and I share them with you.
O Love that wilt not let me go, I rest my weary soul in thee; I give thee back
the life I owe, that in thine ocean depths its flow may richer, fuller be.
O Light that followest all my way, I yield my flickering torch to thee; my heart
restores its borrowed ray, that in thy sunshine’s blaze its day may brighter, fairer be.
O Joy that seekest me through pain, I cannot close my heart to thee; I trace
the rainbow through the rain, and feel the promise is not vain that morn shall
O Cross that liftest up my head, I dare not ask to fly from thee; I lay in dust life’s
glory dead, and from the ground there blossoms red life that shall endless be.
Written by: Steve Haley (9:00 AM Service)
Questions for Reflection:
Whose life is cheap? What do you think God has to say when we treat life as cheap?
Where is death and struggle in your life or around you? What does responding with “faith and endurance look like?
What is something that you feel might separate you from God? What does it look like to be connected to God’s love?
When what we fear the worst might happen, what does it like to trust God who will not let us go?
“God holds us now, in love, even though it can be hard to see; God will hold us in love, in eternity.” How would the way you live change if we lived knowing this is true instead of in fear?