Sunday, July 31, 2011 – Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Q: What is able to separate us from the love of Christ?
Short answer: nothing.
But it’s not like Paul to leave it at that. He elaborates with a list of things that can cause people to think – God is absent, no longer loves me, or is powerless to help me. What can make us feel that way? Anguish, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, the sword. A powerful elaboration, but when they are strung together in a list like that, each one tends to lose its impact. So take just one of them and think about it. Take anguish. Dictionary definition: great suffering, as from worry, grief, or pain; agony.
Anguish is no small thing. Worry, grief, pain – they all have a way of taking over and coloring our perception of everything else. People trying to help say things like, “oh, but you’re worried about nothing,” or “It must be awful for you, but you’ll get over it.” They want to help, but being in anguish is like being in your own private hell, and you know those well-meaning people aren’t in it with you. The pain is all your own, sitting implacably on your heart.
Paul had his periods of anguish. He referred to his constant worry for all the churches he had founded. He described feeling anguished over his own Jewish people and their failure to recognize the messiah. But when he came out of the anguish he realized that God had been with him through it all, not preventing his anguish but sustaining him through it, and was still there when the anguish dissipated.
As with anguish, so with any other worldly threat: distress, persecution, famine, the sword. Nothing in this world is more powerful than God’s love. And nothing out of this world either. Angels, not even malevolent ones. Not present and future things, which may be a reference to astrology, very popular in those days. Height and depth may refer to the signs of the zodiac and the elevations of the planets above the horizon. Nothing in the whole demonic realm, what he means by “principalities and powers.”
Speaking of which, sometimes a young person who has dabbled in the occult – astrology or witchcraft of Satanism – approaches me and asks if their situation is hopeless, whether God has abandoned them to an evil power. I tell them no. Far from hopeless. You’ve been foolish but God is wise. There may be occult powers, but God is infinitely more powerful. Maybe you abandoned God, but God did not abandon you. God, our Almighty Creator, loves us unconditionally and permanently. There’s nothing we can do to make Him hate us. The proof? Jesus Christ. Just before today’s passage, Romans has this familiar passage:
In view of that, no situation is hopeless, no matter how desperate. What can separate us from the love of Christ? Short answer – nothing.
So really, we have nothing to fear. Except for one thing. Notice that Paul mentions all manner of external threats. Well, anguish may seem internal, but it hits us as if from outside, against our will. The one thing that can separate us from God is internal, our own choice.
None of us has the power to make God hate us, but we each do have the power to reject God, and His love that pursues us and calls us. Each of us, by the power of our own free will, is able to rationalize what is immoral, identify ourselves with what is wrong, cling to what is evil, cling so determinedly that when God’s justice destroys what is evil we choose to go with it into the abyss.
That possibility should scare us! If it does, that’s a blessing; a healthy fear of our own waywardness that keeps us humble, repentant, and responsive to God’s unconditional, permanent love.
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