Mike and I stood in the ancient city of Ephesus, many miles and cultures away from our home. We had been walking ancient stone streets, standing in beating hot sun, and listening with awe to our tour guide as he laid years of history all out to us. I moved to an old wall, seeking some shade, and the tour guide said, “Put your hand there, on that wall. Paul stood there and drew crowds as he taught the Ephesians about Jesus, as he brought the good news” in this most exotic of cities. I touched the wall with respect and felt this crowd of witnesses filling my soul. So much antiquity. So many lives and experiences and wisdom. I could almost hear Paul, raising his voice to be heard, drawing in the crowds with his eloquence and his message. Surrounded by tourists and baking in the Mediterranean sun, I felt the power of his ministry,
In the epistle today, Paul was writing to the church in Rome, not Ephesus. He was writing to small bands of faithful followers of Jesus who were embroiled in a chaotic society. Between Roman rule, violent and unscrupulous governors, power hungry church officials, and the constant battle of hunger and illness, the women and men who comprised the early church were always under stress and sometimes danger. Paul’s words were life-saving, lifting reminders that nothing can separate anyone from the love of Christ.
As I read those words this week, I was, sadly, struck by some similarities between those times and this time. We are dealing with unprecedented violence, escalating power grabs, dangerous divisiveness among Christians themselves, and way too much poverty and illness. We resemble the first century AD in a remarkable and uncomfortable way.
Out of our chaos, we hear Paul bidding us to listen to these words of strength and faith— “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? …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.”
Nothing, no time or space or act of nature or man can separate us from God’s love, God’s compassion.
I think I’ve told you before that my parents spent over 3 years in a Japanese concentration camp in the Philippine Islands. They were civilians, working in the Philippines during the depression in the U.S. When Pearl Harbor was bombed, the PI became fodder for peace negotiations and all Americans and Europeans, captured by the invading Japanese were put in concentration camps. As the war progressed, American military were also incarcerated in these hell holes. The situation in the camps became more dire as the war progressed. At the end of the war, when the United States was chasing Japan from the islands, everyone’s life was in danger from both the retreating Japanese troops and the incoming United States bombers. The shells fell very close for many nights in a row as debilitated, starving POWs rejoiced and shook with fear in the same moment. My mother told me how this verse came to her and stayed as she hid in whatever shelter could be found during the rescue efforts. She, at 30, was facing more danger and terror than most of us will ever know. And it was this verse from Paul to the church in Rome that stuck and upheld her.
We, too, are experiencing some horrific sights. Most of us in this listening group are not terrorized. But our brothers and sisters of color are often afraid, and justifiably so. We are merely watching the train wreck from afar, aware of demonstrations that end in violence, policies that are increasingly unreasonable, words spoken by our leaders that sound unjust and unimaginable. We are also dealing with the pandemic and all its ramifications, increasing concerns about our Earth, and some sudden economic stresses. We feel (at least I feel) a sense of unreality at all that is happening at once. It seems that there is not just one chaotic mess, but overlapping circles of chaos, now becoming intertwined like unending piles of tangled electronic cables. We sense a loss of reason, a lack of plan, a sense of doom in all that is transpiring. It can be overwhelming.
We, as Christians struggle with the amount of suffering and pain in the world. We are acutely aware of and sensitive to it. We read about violence, brutality, and uncontrollable illness in every headline. We can easily become overwhelmed.
At the same time, the church seems to be receding, becoming less available, and certainly less physically present. We watch the services like we watch a Youtube video. We participate in Zoom meetings like 2 dimensional figures, putting on our best smiles and smoothing down unruly strands of hair. We contact our friends from church via phone calls and text messages, wishing for hugs, handshakes, and proximity.
We wonder, where is God in all this? Does the pain in our world somehow mean that God is absent or uninvolved? Does the lack of church mean lack of Jesus? We hear Paul answer through the years, “By no means!” God is stronger than all evil and sin, however real the presence of bad is. Through the resurrection, Christ transforms our suffering into endurance, into character, into hope and love and courage. God uses the struggles we face to bring us to spiritual maturity, to a closer knowledge of God. We are called, and as we become aware of that call again, we recognize ourselves in the face of Jesus and in the face of our brothers and sisters who are in pain. Paul reminds us so that we can remind others that “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” These are not idle words. This is hope. This is belief in a better world, in an active God who transforms us and those around us into something good.
Paul asserts confidence. Knowledge and the active experience of God’s love bring peace to Jesus’s followers. If God’s promises are true, if Paul is correct, we will never be separated from God’s love, from God’s companionship and community and compassion. Never.
So we, in turn, are called to participate in God’s work of companionship and compassion. We are to walk alongside our brothers and sisters as equals. We are to reach out to this world that God loves so deeply. We are to share the good news of resurrection and redemption and of God’s unconditional love for humanity. And we are to repeat those words, as often as we all need to hear them, that Paul gave 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.” Nothing separates us from the love of God. Nothing—not pandemic, nor violence nor government policies nor every disaster of 2020 can separate us from the love of God, from the power of His compassion, from all that we are in Him. We are called, we are His, and nothing can come between that love and us.
I want to close with words from our wise Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry.
“And so just remember to encourage everybody to be gentle with each other, to be kind and maybe a little extra kind even. Because everybody’s a little bit on edge and everybody’s tired and everybody’s weary and for good or ill, we’ve only just begun. This is not even, to borrow from Churchill, this isn’t even the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. We’re in this for a while….
The choice is ours. Chaos or community. And I believe we must choose community and we must lift up our voice and help our countries and our cultures and our society choose God’s beloved community, God’s dream.”