The First Presbyterian Church of Blackwood
21 E. Church Street
Blackwood, NJ 08012
Sermon Notes (Sunday, August 6, 2023)
Rev. Dr. Scott Morschauser
“What Shall We Say to This?”
Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
These verses from Paul’s Letter to the Romans are among the most magnificent in all of Scripture and are among my personal favorites. They have provided me with encouragement and hope throughout my life. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has brought them back to me and shone God’s light in Christ on me even in the darkest times.
I really became aware of these passages watching a TV series from forty years ago called A.D. It was based on a novel by the British author, Anthony Burgess, in which he dramatized the spread of the gospel in a world and to a world, that the writer called “the kingdom of the wicked.” Not surprisingly, the apostle Paul was a focal point of the series.
In one of the closing scenes, Paul is facing his execution. As he is awaiting the fall of the executioner’s blade, he is kneeling and praying the words I just read to you. That image on the TV screen became seared into my memory- - -but it wasn’t the ferocity of Caesar’s vengeance that impressed me, but the fervor of Paul’s faith, his trust in the promise of Christ, even as the “kingdom of the wicked” seemed to be triumphant over the kingdom of God.
Given its enduring impact on me, it came as a shock when I discovered that not everybody reacts to the apostle’s words the same way I did. One day, a woman came up to me after my preaching a sermon, and told me that her college-age son had been reading the eighth chapter of Romans and was peppering her with questions.
“What do you mean that in everything God works for good with those who love him? What about all the tragedies that happen? And what about this stuff about being called and justified and glorified? That doesn’t seem fair: that God chooses some and not others.” Finally, the young man showed his disdain for the declaration, “We are more than conquerors.” It smacked, he said, of conceit. That Christians think of themselves as better than everybody else and regard the rest of the world as losers. “What arrogance!” he pronounced.
The mother, who was very religious, was distressed, because she had viewed Paul’s words much in the same positive and uplifting way that I did- - - and still do. “What about that?” she asked in frustration and sadness. Or to paraphrase Paul himself, “What shall we say to this?”
Sadly, I have to tell you that that young man’s cynicism is sometimes borne out. Some time ago, my wife and I went on a trip to the Sight and Sound Theater in Lancaster, Pa. to watch a dramatization of the life of Christ. The conclusion of the performance was a portrayal of the Last Judgment. It was sobering, to be sure, but what was disturbing was that as different parties were being cast into perdition, with their specific sins announced, members of the audience were cheering and shouting and hooting, as if they were at a football game. It was obvious that they did think of themselves as “the winners,” and those transgressors as losers, and to them, deservedly so.
I suppose this attitude might even be fostered by a popular paraphrase of the Bible, which translates our verses as: “With God on our side like this, how can we lose?.. . . Who would dare tangle with God by messing with one of his chosen?”
What then shall we say to this?
Perhaps the very first thing to be said is that, despite how some people might take these verses, Paul’s brothers and sisters in Christ were not privileged in any material way. They were not powerful in terms of their political clout. On the contrary, they were regarded as outcasts, subject to scorn by the elites, derided and rejected by the movers and shakers of the age.
Importantly, the apostle’s words about “tribulation, distress, and persecution,” as well as the whole gamut of misfortunes that he lists, are really prophetic. He’s preparing the church in Rome for the not-so-distant future, when the most terrible of storms will break over this little band. When the full fury of sin against God will be unleashed, upon them- - - and upon Paul himself. This is what well might happen, and well did happen. They will be privileged, indeed, to bear witness to Christ in the most fearful of times.
This was not an easy thing to hear- - - even as it is the greatest assurance that no human hell can nullify God’s claim upon us. Nor can anything- - - no matter how monstrously inconceivable in the imagination of man- - - rip us away from the grasp of Christ.
Though we seemingly be powerless, the power of the Cross and Resurrection is more powerful still. Though we may be rejected by the kingdom of the wicked, God reigns over us and for us. Though we be without allies and friends in the high reaches of society, we have the Most Steadfast of Allies and the Greatest Friend in the highest of places, as God has pledged that he is with us, through his dear Son, and remains so, ever, and always.
This Truth undergirds everything that Paul writes, and it is the key to understanding what he is saying. Even as he will say it over and over again; in different ways, with different nuances, but it is the same Truth, which God says to us- - - in Christ.
So, when Paul declares that “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him,” this is not to be understood as it is sometimes taken- - - that devastating and destructive things are really events sent by God as instruments of his divine benevolence. Of God’s slamming the door by toppling a house on top of us, in order to open a window. Of our being led to make lemonade out of shattered dreams and broken hearts.
No. It is clear that Paul’s roster of horrors- - - “nakedness, peril, sword”- - - humiliation, threat, violence from the hands of man- - - are horrible. Signs of the kingdom of the wicked’s rebellion against God by trying to be God and venting its frustration upon the people of God.
Nor is he providing an easy answer for those misfortunes of the so-called natural world- -- which theologians have called the “shadow side of Providence”- - - and for which any explanation often takes on the misguided counsel of Job’s supposed, but false friends. While the reason for such tragedies will be revealed to us in eternity, the apostle is speaking about something else here; he is using Scriptural language.
“God works for good” is a way of expressing “God fulfills his covenantal plan” “in everything”: not “through everything,” but “in spite of anything,” no matter what. In everything we experience, that we face, God fulfills his eternal will for us. Jesus Christ is God’s “good”- - - His saving work and purpose in, and through, and as Jesus Christ, is always in effect.
Paul then proclaims the same thing when he reveals, “that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” The “love of God” is much more than just an expression of lofty emotion- - - though it is certainly that, it is intensely personal! But this is once more part of the biblical vocabulary of covenant. God’s binding himself to us. God’s working out of that bond is expressed as “love”: unswerving loyalty, unshakeable allegiance. God’s faithfulness to us in Christ is firm, despite the wavering of our own faith; it is steadfast, notwithstanding how much our spirits are shaken and circumstances around us change.
God works for good in the love of Christ from which we cannot be separated, not even by death.
Some of you well know that Romans 8 is often read at funerals- - - and rightly so! But God’s word is for the church for its life- -- for living amidst the kingdom of the wicked and its pursuit of death-dealing idols. And it is to this present reality that Paul alludes when he writes: “Those whom God predestined, he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified.”
And yes, that skeptical young man I mentioned might view this verse through the prism of material favor. Of seeing Paul’s words as expressions of revenge, that the shoe will be on the other foot, and we shall be in charge, and we shall be the winners.
But this is about commission, vocation, purpose. This is the language of discipleship. Of God’s choosing for us in Christ before all things, notwithstanding our choosing against him. Of being called by Jesus Christ. Of being justified, that to follow Christ is the right way, amidst all the lures that would lead us off a cliff, despite all the other voices that would browbeat us into submission.
Of being glorified. For the Rome of Paul’s time and for much of the world’s history, to be “glorified,” was to achieve fame, be granted power, to be elevated by and above the adoring crowds.
In the Scriptures, “to be glorified,” was linked to a term that meant “to bear a weight”: of being given great responsibility. The apostle is referring to receiving God’s commission to be his people; the community of disciples. Of living life as intended by God and revealed in and through Jesus Christ, whose glory will be shown in his assuming the role, the weight, the merciful burden as the Servant who suffers. The light sent right into the darkness; and declaring “his kingdom come,” smack in the midst of the false boasting of the kingdom of the wicked.
Yes, we are claimed by Christ and we not only live this Truth, but are to live by this Truth. Yes, we are in his eternal presence and will be so for eternity. But the bond of Christ, the covenant of Christ, the love of Christ embraces us, holds us fast now, protects us now, amidst the temptation that we, too, are to employ tribulation; that we too, are to bring distress; that we, too, are to persecute; that we too, are shame; that we, too are threaten; that we, too, are to employ violence, and so become the very thing we are to hate. That we, too, forget the True Shepherd and instead, follow wolves in the sheep’s clothing, and be conquerors in their stead.
What then shall we say to this? To this our time, which is no different from that of Paul’s. To this world, which is still in bondage to the corruption of sin, and enslavement to its idols. To this present culture, that deigns itself God, and so reveals its woeful identity as “the kingdom of the wicked.”
What then shall we say to this?
“If God is for us, who is against us? In all these things, I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, 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.”
That is what we say, have to save, must save, and thanks be to God, can save. And because of this, yes, we are “more than conquerors through him who loved us”- - - we are better, through Christ, than the kingdom of the wicked. And nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Of that we are sure, because He is Lord, he is Savior, no matter what, and still, and always.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.