Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
In all these 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. Romans 8:35, 37-39 NRSV
You wouldn’t know unless you’ve had the misfortune of having to plan a funeral, but this excerpt from Paul’s letter to the Roman church is one of the readings approved for use in that service. These comforting words are often understood as a poetic testament to the bond we share with loved ones beyond death. However, similarly to another famous excerpt from another letter often read at weddings as an ode to love between two partners, (but actually referring to community relationships), the intent is not to be personally warm and fuzzy. Instead, Paul offers a dramatically inclusive vision of a salvation open to all.
Conservative Focus on Individual Salvation
This whole letter was used by Martin Luther to inspire his doctrine of sola fide, the idea that salvation comes through faith alone and not our actions. This was once revolutionary, even progressive for its time. Eventually, though, it became reduced to the idea that salvation and even spirituality are meant for the individual alone—“me and Jesus.” (If you didn’t grow up in the South and/or in an Evangelical church, you may not have thought much about your personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but this was a huge concern for me.)
Conservative Christians are often criticized for single-mindedly focusing on this personal aspect of salvation. It is exemplified through clean livin’: refraining from drinking, smoking, sex outside of marriage, sometimes gambling or dancing, etc. Much can be said about flaws in this theology. From a spiritual standpoint, though, it puts the cart before the horse. So what should be the fruits of a life focused on God, like not needing physical pleasures and distractions to feed your soul, become instead the means to that spiritual life. Deny yourself such things, and that itself will make you closer to God. There are probably good reasons to refrain from some or all these things some or all of the time. But thinking that will make you closer to God is not one of them. Trust me, I’ve tried. Abstaining from those things did make me feel morally superior for a time, which is awesome, but is unfortunately the sin of pride.
Liberal Churches Have Issues, Too
Episcopalians like myself can’t get too comfortable gloating about the problems of conservative Christians, though. In my own quite liberal diocese, a disciplinary panel last month called for our bishop to be suspended for misconduct committed in trying to sell church property. Regardless of what anyone thinks about the specifics of the case, it’s a great tragedy and scandal that a dispute between Christians, especially ordained ones, should get this far, including lawsuits in secular courts (which Paul by the way, specifically admonishes us against). Jesus said our love for one another should be a light to the rest of the world, and instead we look absolutely no different, or if anything, a good deal worse. At least the secular world doesn’t speak high-minded words about the love and fellowship while simultaneously stabbing each other in the back.
I’ve become impatient with churches that put giant banners out front or signs inside proclaiming how inclusive they are, how welcoming, how diverse, that they are a sanctuary for those in need, that they are on the right side of this or that social issue, when behind closed doors of many of those churches, people are treated poorly, even viciously, and discarded when they become inconvenient. I have personally both witnessed and experienced this, and so many friends and colleagues have suffered similar treatment it seems like getting hurt by the church is more the rule than the exception.
How You Treat People Is Just as Important as the Causes You Stand For
Sexual scandals and financial mis-dealings grab headlines, but when such things happen in an institution, other dysfunction is also present. There are thousands of abuses taking place that we will never hear about, but which wound people nonetheless. So dear liberal churches: before championing social justice causes, why not take an accounting of how you treat the people who sit in your pews and work in your offices?
It’s so much easier to hide behind a politically correct front of your progressive position on things than it is to actually practice reconciliation and spiritual growth with the people around you. The inclusive vision of salvation which liberal Christians subscribe to is not only a political issue about being on the right side of history but a personal issue about treating people around you well.
Paul’s Message to Both Conservatives and Liberals
Truly, neither angels nor powers can separate us from the love of Christ—only we ourselves can do that. Do not be separated from that love and led into sin by thinking that your life is morally superior to others because you don’t drink or smoke or …(fill in the blank). And do not be deceived by thinking that because you have stood up for the oppressed and marginalized, that that excuses you from treating the people around you with love and decency.
Conservatives and liberals can learn a lot from each other, but we can all learn from Paul who believed that despite the persecutions and hardships he was suffering, he and his companions were “more than conquerors.” His confidence was correct, and the tiny movement he was so instrumental in has had a global reach for centuries now. But the power of Paul’s message is not to be found in the vast cultural influence of Christian art and literature, nor in the gold and treasures of the Vatican and other wealthy churches, nor even in the life-saving missions of charity Christians undertake around the world. The power of Paul’s message is in our day-to-day encounters, one Christian to another, one person to another. The power is when we see that neither we nor them can be separate from Christ’s love.
The Present Kingdom
Those of us who have been wounded by the church yet nonetheless stay in it have perhaps a special understanding of Paul’s words. We know that neither angels nor rulers, nor powers, nor closed-minded theology, nor prejudice and dismissiveness against our race, gender, sexual orientation or economic status, nor anything they can do or say to hurt us, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. When we live in congruence with the words we speak about our belief in that saving love, that is the kingdom of heaven. That kingdom is present and available to us in the here and now.
Based on sermons preached July 30, 2017 at St. Philip’s, Los Angeles and Sophia Alternative Worship, Pasadena