Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Romans 8:31-39 God’s Love in Christ Jesus
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 charge 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 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.
Has anyone here read the book The Runaway Bunny lately? Just in case you haven’t, I’m going to read it to everyone to refresh your memory (website readers... do you have this book? I bet the library does).
Oh, this little bunny... I often wonder what frustrated him so that running away seemed like the thing to do. Have you ever been tempted to run away? Why do you think the bunny might have wanted to run away? You can type your answer in the chat or raise your hand and tell us if you are in person.
And, did you notice the mom’s response: “If you run away, I will come find you. Because I love you.” If you are a rock, I will climb the mountain to be with you. If you are a bird, I will become the tree that is your home. I will walk across the air to meet you on the trapeze. So much transformation happening in order to care for the little one. Why do you think the little bunny told his mom he was going to run away? How do you think the little bunny felt hearing that his mom would always find a way to be with him?
I don’t think the Apostle Paul knew anything about The Runaway Bunny when he wrote his letter to the church in Rome. Which is too bad, because I think he might have felt some resonance between his notion that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord and this bunny mom who will go to great lengths to find her son if he were to run away. Of course, we have a little more background about the letter to the Romans than we do to the bunny’s motivations. Paul wrote this letter to both offer instruction to the church and also garner support for his mission to Spain.
The scholar Neil Elliott in an introduction to Romans that there was a lot going on behind the scenes in that church: Jewish people, including people who considered themselves followers of Jesus and also Jewish, had just been allowed to return to the city after being kicked out by the previous Emperor. Elliott argued that they had likely lost property and connections to the broader community when they were exiled. It is hard to rebuild those ties and regain that financial footing. Elliott even suggests that there could have been tensions among Gentile Christians, who were never forced to leave, and Jewish Christians, who were trying to rebuild their lives in the city. So much of the government had grown to mistrust Jewish people and had targeted them for violence.
We can’t forget that Rome was inclined to use violence to concentrate its power. Paul seemed worried that the prejudices of the imperial government would filter into the churches. Paul wanted to help members of this church resist the imperial impulse to violence and encourage the more privileged among them to care for the ones who were more at risk. But, he also knew that caring for ones that the government hates can put you at risk, too. Today’s reading is about affirming that Christ is present with those who feel like their lives are precarious. Or, in the language of the bunny book, Christ is the wind that moves their sails, the gardener that tends their bulbs, and the tree that will be their home.
I wonder if the little bunny in the book needs some reassurance, which is why he tells his mom that he wants to runaway. He needs to hear that she will always want him and love him. While the people in the church in Rome are not talking about running away, they do have a real question: In the midst of hard things, can we know that Christ is with us? In the midst of violence and exile, illness and poverty, war and struggle, is this Christ’s spirit really here? The scholar Israel Kamudzando calls these the “questions of the human soul” in “desperate moments.” Has your soul had similar questions in desperate moments?
Paul’s response to these questions? “If God is for us, who is against us... it is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.” In all the ways that we and the world can be harmed, Paul assures the church, as Dr. Wil Gafney says in one of her commentaries on this text, “in all these things God is with us and for us.” This doesn’t mean, as Elliott argues in his commentary, that all of this suffering is good for us. Instead, he argues, that Paul is saying “amid all these things God’s purpose prevails.” This kind of hopeful potential, even in the midst of pain, is certainly good news, isn’t it?
Rev. Jayne Davis, in her work on spiritual practices, invites us to ask good questions, approaching our faith with curiosity. When you are feeling discouraged, I invite you to pull out Paul’s questions from this text, questions that Dr. Kamudzando suggests can be used as a template for prayer, and pray them. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? And, pray through Paul’s response, too: Neither death, no life, nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creations will be able to separate us from the love of God is Christ Jesus our Lord. And, then maybe eat a carrot with your mom, firm in the knowledge that you do not have to be lost to be loved. And, if you feel lost, you will still be loved.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Lent 3," in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Jayne Davis: https://www.churchleadership.com/leading-ideas/7-spiritual-practices-for-the-new-year/
The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown, pictures by Clement Hurd (Harper and Row Publishers Inc, 1942)
Neil Elliott, "Romans," The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994).
Israel Kamudzando: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-17/commentary-on-romans-826-39-4
Art image credits for two images: https://pixabay.com/photos/gaztelugatxe-bizkaia-vizcaya-4377342/ and Photo by Barbara Zandoval on Unsplash.
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.