‘All things work together for good for those who love God’
‘If God is for us, who is against us?’
‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ?’
These promises have comforted and reassured Christians throughout the ages. But they have also been distorted to justify inappropriate action - or sometimes a lack of action - on the part of Christians.
Paul’s assertion that ‘God is for us’ has been used by armies to claim divine protection as they set off for war. ‘All things working together for good’ is sometimes glibly treated as a way of imagining that God will get on with the business of caring for his own so that we don’t have to – or, even, that if people are faithful to God nothing bad will happen to them. So if you suffer, it is obviously your own fault. I’ve heard very committed Christians utter the complete tosh that even catching a cold is evidence of a lack of faith.
These are appalling and twisted ways of interpreting the points that Paul was trying to make, and they take his words completely out of context.
If anything should make us think twice about investing cherished Bible verses with naive and self-centred meanings, it is the events that we have seen unfold in the news this week.
Firstly, the worst drought to hit East Africa in 60 years is putting the lives of 11 million people at risk. So far the country worst hit is Somalia, where 1 in every 10 children is at risk of starving to death. Hundreds of thousands of people are already trying to leave the country, many of them dying on the journey or shortly after arriving at aid camps in other countries. The situation is expected to worsen.
God doesn’t call us to sit back and say, ‘Well it will all work out somehow.’ Or that he’ll look after his own. Or that it is their own fault. Or even, as I hear people at St Peter’s say, charity begins at home. Christ’s mission and ministry reached across religious and national divides. God’s preferential option for the poor is not for Christians. It is for poor people, regardless of which faith - or lack of - they adhere to. But we are called to act as Christ’s hands in a suffering world.
The only thing keeping the images of starvation off our television screens at the moment are the actions of a so-called Christian fundamentalist thought to have blown up government buildings in Norway, before pitching up at youth camp and shooting dead 85 people, mainly teenagers. I wonder if he drew strength from the idea that God was for him and nothing could be against him?
Fundamentalism of any sort - Christian, Muslim, Communist, Fascist - is intolerant and oppressive. The actions of this one young man may be extraordinary and exceptional, but they are rooted in the same hatred and fear that fuels all intolerance. There is nothing about the love of Christ present in the actions of the Norwegian gunman, and we stand together with other Christians this morning in saying, “Not in our name.” One of the possibilities already beginning to emerge in the light of Norway is that Christian Europeans might now be better able to identify with, and offer support to, the millions of law-abiding and peaceable Muslims who also say in the aftermath of extremist acts of terror, “Not in our name.”
Paul did not write to the church in Rome to offer bland reassurances that nothing bad would ever happen to them, or that God was on their side and destroying their enemies. The situation in first-century Rome was quite the opposite, with Christians being roundly persecuted. It is in this context that he says, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” These were not imagined possibilities for Roman Christians, they were everyday life. But even in the face of such desperations, Christ love is constant.
Paul quotes Psalm 44, one of the so-called Psalms of Complaint. It is a national lament and a prayer for help. In spite of their faithfulness to God, the people of Israel experience terrible suffering. We’ve heard from our ancestors about all the great things God did, they say. But all we experience is hardship. “For your sake we are being killed all day long, we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
What kind of consolation is Paul offering to the church? Not that God will save his people from suffering, but rather through it and perhaps even because of it [see Tom Wright]. That in some way the hardships encountered are gathered up into God's purposes, and lived out by his people as an extension of Christ's love. We see in the terrible imagery of Jesus Christ on the cross, not the beloved Son of God being saved from his suffering, but rather one who would triumph over it and in so doing extend God’s love to the world.
We have our own share of suffering here at St Peter’s - of terrible illness, of grief, of mental anguish. Paul tells us that in the face of these troubles Christ prays for us. That even when it is hard for us to find the words to say to God the groanings of our heart are understood and carried before God in prayer. What we are promised is that even in terrible suffering God the Father stands alongside us, God the Son brings hope, and God the Spirit brings healing.
As a community of God’s people we share the conviction with which Saint Paul ends this passage,
“...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.”