Todays readings for 8th After Pentecost Genesis 29:15-28 Psalm 105:1-11 Romans 8:26-39 Matthew 13:44-58
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” So says St Paul, down through the ages, to us this morning. I say to St Paul, tell that to the people of Mosul, Christians who have been chased out of their homes, their town, that has been a Christian settlement for 2,000 years. Or what about the Christians in Nigeria, being actively persecuted, their girls stolen, raped and forced to convert. Or to the people of Palestine, both Christian and Muslim as the conflict there increases. Today as we pray for the peace of the world we are very conscious of how fractured, and battered and vulnerable our world is. There is a great deal of trouble in our world. So how is it that “all things work together for good for those who love God”?
We are not directly affected by the things that are going on in our world, at least, not to my knowledge, but we do respond vicariously to the pain and suffering of others, we feel empathy for those who have lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods. And we all have our own sufferings to bear. Have you ever had a dear Christian friend who at a moment of pain has said to you, ‘Oh Well, “all things work together for good”, you can’t see it at the moment but down the track you will,’? And sometimes, of course that platitudinous misuse of this verse does come true, and you realize that what you desired was not really the best for you at all, but when it comes to the destruction of homes and lives it is not appropriate.
The problem is that the verse is taken out of context- St Paul, and I apologise to him for my earlier remarks, is not talking about these kind of sufferings at this moment- he will be in a couple of paragraphs but here he is talking about the death of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives so that we might be made brothers and sisters, with Jesus, in God’s family. That is the good for which all these things work. We are, he tells us, known by God, called by God, justified by God and glorified by God. This is good! This is the ultimate reality, we are God’s children, loved, justified and glorified. The problem is, that in the midst of suffering it is hard to remember this.
So Paul goes on and in these verses that are in many ways the most significant that he wrote, he addresses directly the problem of suffering.
“So what then are we to say about these things?” Paul asks us. “If God is for us, who is against us?” Again, the citizens of Mosul forced to flee could tell him exactly who is against them, but Paul is referring to an eternal reality, the judgement, which is to come. If God is our advocate, who can accuse us? If you think back to the Gospel reading for a moment we have a parable that speaks of the judgement. All the fish are gathered together in the net, which most commentators deem to be the church, and then the good are sorted from the bad at the end time, by the angels. If we are loved by God, there can be only one outcome as it is Jesus himself, Paul says, who intercedes for us. There is no need to be frightened by the idea of judgement, and indeed there is no need for us to judge others- it is God who is the judge, and God who justifies, and Jesus who intercedes. When I am confronted by the way we humans choose, constantly, to judge one another, I am very, very glad that it is God that I am relying on, not my fellow human beings. When I see the judgement being made that the Christians are not living according to God’s expressed wish in the Quran, so can justifiably be slaughtered, or indeed that the Shiites are wrong not to be Sunni the judgement of my fellow human beings is terrifying. Or that Muslims have no place in the Jewish homeland and so can be slaughtered. Or that political differences between the Communists in North Korea and the capitalists in the USA justifies the expansion of Nth Korea’s nuclear capability. Or even a little closer to home, when I see one branch of the Christian church, judging another because they accept women priests, or gay people, or do not believe in seven day creation, I am glad that ultimately God is the judge, because God is a God of love. Paul asks us the question,
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” and the answer is a resounding, ‘nothing and no-one’.
Paul goes on to list some real and tangible threats to us as humans, things that are being experienced all around us as I speak. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” Paul knows all about the real dangers that the early Christians were facing, which are the same kinds of dangers that the Christians in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Palestine and many other places face today. He even quotes Psalm 44, which reflects those kind of pressures, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” These are not platitudes uttered to make people feel better, this is the cutting edge, the coal face, where people are dying because of their faith, and he tells those facing those persecutions that they are “more than conquerors through him who loved us.” The poor dear Christians who have lost everything may feel destitute, frightened and traumatised but ultimately, in the eternal scheme of things, they are conquerors. We are not facing those kinds of horrors, however, so what about us?
Well let us make our own list, think about the things that could potentially separate us from the love of Christ. I think in our society the things that we have to fear are different. What about wealth, or security, or complacency or a seeking after power? Are these things more dangerous for us? What are the things that can separate you from the love of Christ? Give people a minute to think.
Paul ends this chapter with one of the greatest passages ever. He says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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”. Those words give us both an immediate comfort and a cosmic picture of the enormity of being loved by God. Paul lists here everything that he can think of beginning with death itself and then life- the things we were thinking about a minute ago, the powers whether human or spiritual, things now, things to come in the future, the natural world, height and depth, though what he means by that I am not sure, and NOTHING can separate us from God.
These are words that provide comfort to us in many situations and are part of the service for the critically ill. Recently, I had the great honour of accompanying a wonderful Christian woman as she approached death. She was the wife of a priest who has endured quite a lot at the hands of the Anglican hierarchy, though not in Melbourne, as well as the many pressures of ordained ministry, including a protracted period of mission service in Africa. This woman had made use of every experience that she had in her own pastoral ministry both to the people she worked with, the children she taught, others at the church she attended, and in constant support of her husband in his ministry. On one of the last days that she was conscious, I read these words to her. She couldn’t speak, but just nodded her head in agreement, her current suffering, and facing death, did not make any difference to the ultimate reality that she was loved by God and would be united with God, eternally. And it is in that sense that all things work together for good.
So as we look at our world, a world full of conflict and pain, a world controlled by greed, a seeking after power and a desire to be the judge for others, we can know positively, that it is God, who loves us, who desires us to be with him as his children in glory, who has the last word. Whatever we suffer, however we die, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.