Sunday, February 6, 2011

Does God Love Everybody? (Romans 8:31-39)

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charges against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved 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.

Today, we are wrapping up our series of messages I have simply entitled, “Ask God.” For the last several weeks, we have wrestled with real questions that thinking people have either for God or about God. We started by asking “Does God Condemn Suicide?” Then we wondered “Does God Control Everything?” Then, “Does God Get Angry?” Last week, “Can I Believe in God and Science?”

Go ahead and take your sermon notes out of your bulletin and grab a pen or pencil as we wrestle with this week’s final question: “Does God love everybody?” The key to understanding these questions lies in understanding the character & nature of God; let’s open ourselves up to what God reveals to us about God’s self. May we pray.

Does God love everybody? YES. Today’s Scripture reading couldn’t be clearer in that regard. In this letter to the church at Rome, St. Paul rhetorically asks, “Who or what shall separate us from the love of Christ?” He then answers his own question with a lengthy list – hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword – all of these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ. Not even death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, and if that wasn’t enough, just to make sure we got the point entirely and didn’t miss anything, nothing else in all creation, shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That is the promise of God for us today. Nothing – you name it, no matter how bad, nasty, or awful it is – is strong or powerful enough to stand between God and us. St. Paul isn’t a gambler, but he stakes everything on the goodness and love of God. The kindness, the mercy, and the love of God are stronger than anything and everything else. You can make your own list, if you want: parents, children, your boss, employees, colleagues, foolish choices, bedeviling sins, public failure, private disappointments, anxieties, school, a bad business deal, and on it goes. Paul remains adamant in his conviction: nothing can separate you, nothing can separate me, nothing can separate anyone else, from God's love.

Paul’s own journey in Christian faith confirms this. Paul knew that he would suffer much for the sake of God and God’s kingdom. "Prison and hardship" awaited him in every city (Acts 20:23). Brutal treatment, constant harassment, and strong opposition were his regular fare (1 Thess. 2:2, 2 Cor. 7:5, 1 Cor. 4:11). In the book of Acts alone Luke records at least eight murder attempts on Paul's life (Acts 9:23–24, 9:29, 14:5–7, 14:19, 20:2–3, 21:31, 23:12, and 25:3). Through all of this and more, Paul remained insistent: nothing in all of creation can separate you from God's love. Those words are the climax of the entire book of Romans, the summation of Paul’s entire theology, and words for the church today to keep at the center of everything we do.

And yet, we find in so many places and among so many church members the unstated conviction that there are people who fall outside the periphery of God’s love. Why is that? Ours is a club culture. We are good at drawing boundaries around people, separating them into different categories, and figuring out who is in and who is out. We start this at an early age; think about it.

In childhood, think about the ramshackle clubhouse you built in the backyard with your friends, and what was your first order of business? To put a sign on the door that said, “No girls allowed.” Or, the Barbie palace you assembled in the attic with a similar injunction against boys, because “Boys are icky.” Now, I know for a fact that we boys are icky, but is icky-ness alone a reason to keep us at arms’ length? Or, think about the table you chose to sit at or were relegated to sit at during lunch in middle school or junior high. Or in college, we had another way of distinguishing in-groups from out-groups; they were known as fraternities and sororities. Then, the neighborhoods we lived in and the schools our children attended and the particular country clubs we joined – just another way of distinguishing “us” from “them,” another way of making sure that “we” were always kept separate from “them.”

Unfortunately, many times that same club mentality found its way into our churches, and many began to operate more like church clubs than Christian communities. Show me a church that acts more like an exclusive members-only club than the living, breathing body of Christ, and I’ll show you a church in decline. Show me a church that wastes all its time debating who should be in and who should be left out, and I’ll show you a church that no longer deserves to call itself a church. Friends, we are not here as some sort of church club, we are here to be a Christian community.

Well, communities are messy. People living their lives together gets really messy. But, rules tend to keep a lot of the mess outside, which is why clubs always have rules. They may be official rules or they may be unspoken, but clubs always have rules. So, one way to tell if a church is operating like a church club rather than a Christian community is to check its rules. Are there a lot of signs around the place that say, “No”? Sometimes these are actual signs – no parking, no smoking, no running, no eating, no drinking. Somewhere along the way, these became the rules of the club.

Many times, they are signs that are not written down, and the only way you find out some of these unspoken and unwritten club rules are when they are violated. By now, you all know that I don’t always wear the same thing on Sundays. Sometimes I am in one of my robes, sometimes a suit, sometimes a sport coat and tie, sometimes a sport coat or blazer without a tie, sometimes jeans, and a whole lot of combination of some of those. Some of you hate it when I wear jeans, and you know who you are, and so do I, because the first time I wore jeans, the only thing you commented on was the fact that you didn’t like that I was wearing jeans. Now, I have worn to jeans to church off and on for about the last 15 years, but you wouldn’t know that, because it was the first time that YOU ALL had seen me wear them.

What you also wouldn’t know is the first time I wore jeans in worship here was for a very deliberate reason. Some of you may remember that about a year and a half ago, there was a young couple who was passing through Charlotte and found themselves stuck here. They were trying to find odd jobs, maybe a place to live that was nicer than the Days Inn on West Sugar Creek Road where they were staying, or maybe they were going to return home. They didn’t know.

They were only in town a few weeks before they decided to head back home. While they were here, they told me they wanted to come to church, so I was surprised when they didn’t come. The next week, they told me they were embarrassed to come because they didn’t have “church clothes;” they only had jeans and t-shirts. So I promised them that if they came to church the next Sunday, I would be wearing jeans.

Rules hold a club together, but relationships are what holds a community together, and we are a Christian community, not a church club. And so, as a Christian community, not even rules shall separate us or anyone else from the love of God.

Still, we can be tempted to make club rules, and what I’ve realized is that we often make these rules out of fear. Fear of those who are different or who do things differently than we do, fear of change, fear of loss of control, fear that things won’t be perfect anymore if we let anybody and their messy lives in the door. Friends, life is messy.

As your pastor, I am privy to the messy places in many of your lives – you’ve invited me in when things aren’t perfect, when the wheels are falling off, when you’re in distress. Can I tell you what does me good to see and hear about? When someone in this church or the surrounding community finds their life crumbling around them, and I hear about someone in this church stepping in to help and offer healing, to make God’s love real in a very tangible and practical way. When I hear of someone willingly and quietly stepping into the mess of someone else’s life to be the hands and feet of Jesus to that other person. That’s Christian community. When we build each other up in the love of God, when we declare with our words and our actions that nothing shall separate anyone else from the love of God.

Can I tell you what breaks my heart? Anytime I hear about an incident where it appears that unspoken rules matter more than people. We have a banner out on our front porch that says “We love our neighbors.” That’s out there for a reason – as a very public way of saying that people are more important than any stated or unstated rule. When people in our community think about St. Paul United Methodist Church, the only thing I want them to think is “That’s the church that loves people.” When you’re out in the community, at work, in the grocery store, wherever, and people find out where you go to church, I want the first thing out of their mouth to be, “Oh, I know that church. It’s the church that loves people.” And I want you all to take pride in that!

Nothing shall separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. The text says that if God is for us, who shall be against us? And do you who Paul is talking about when he says, “us?” He’s talking about all of us. Not just a particular church. Not just Christians. Everyone. Every single human being. Nothing shall separate any human being – no matter who we are, no matter what we have done – from God’s love. That’s really the only rule we need to worry about. That’s really the only rule that is required for building a Christian community rather than a church club. If every church and every follower of Jesus Christ would simply start practicing that rule, can you imagine what would happen?

Close your eyes for a moment. Think about the person or the group of people you love the least. Maybe it’s even an enemy. Nothing shall separate them from the love of God. Those are words of comfort when we apply them to ourselves, and they are words of challenge when we apply them to our enemies.

Do you have an enemy? For the followers of Jesus, we are called to invite them in rather than keep them out. Jesus himself told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44). St. Paul tells us the same thing only a few chapters after the text we’ve studied today – “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14).

Sure, we can keep making rules to keep people we don’t like out, to keep our enemies out, to make sure people do it our way and on our terms, but for anyone who truly wants to follow Jesus, that’s just not an option. You can keep doing that if you want to be a church club, but for an authentic Christian community of people following Jesus, that simply won’t work.

Now, that’s hard. I don’t want to love my enemies. I want to hold grudges and make them pay, and if I’m completely in control of my life, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. But that’s the rub – I’m a follower of Jesus, which means I’m not in charge. God is. And God wants me to love my enemies, because nothing shall separate them from the love of God – not even me.

It means we all need to share God’s love freely and abundantly with everyone, regardless of their socio-economic status, regardless of their political party, regardless of whether they went to Duke or Carolina, regardless of whether they live in Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan or Turkey or Syria or Egypt, regardless of whether or not they are in this country legally, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of who they are, what they have done, how big an enemy they are – because of the truth of today’s Scripture – none of these things shall separate us or them from the love of God. Because the love of God compels us, we will not impose barriers on who is accepted; we will invite all, we will welcome all, we will embrace all.

“But Pastor A.J., if we let all those people in and love them, what will happen to our church?” What will happen is that we will be the Church – a Christian community rather than a church club, a place where relationships matter more than rules.

We love our enemies because that’s exactly what God did. Who were God’s enemies? We were. You and I and the entire human race. We were. “While we God’s enemies, he made friends with us through the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10).

Think about that for a minute. Before you decide what you want to do to your own enemies, think about what God did for God’s enemies. We – you, me, all of us – were God’s enemies. And what did God do? God offered us a relationship. God sent his Son. God was willing to allow his Son to die for us. We are God’s enemies, but God loves us and offers a relationship to us. God tells us over and over again, “Nothing shall separate you from my love. You can run, you can hide, you can fight back, but I will continue to love you.”

And then God proves it. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. God proves it. God prepares a table in the presence of God’s enemies. Who are God’s enemies, again? We are. God prepares a table for us. God calls us, his enemies, to the table, because God desires a relationship with us. Does God care that we are his enemies? Doesn’t seem to. God just keeps inviting, calling, welcoming. Not bothered by the fact that we are sinners. God made a promise, that nothing would separate us from God’s love in Christ, and God makes good on that promise again and again.

Come, everyone, saint and sinner, friend and foe – come to the table of God’s love. On the menu today, you’ll find heaping helpings of grace and love, forgiveness and hope, fellowship and promise. Come everyone, come all of you, come and dine. Come, taste and see, the Lord is good.

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