The Embrace can get between us and God’s love.

This lesson from Romans 8 is not one that we get to read often on Sunday mornings. We usually hear it in the context of a memorial service:

“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 Jesus Christ our Lord.”

It makes sense to read Romans 8 at a time of death. We’ve all been there – whether it is losing someone close to us, or even just picking up the newspaper and reading the headlines: “Norwegian man kills 85 at youth camp.” Paul’s words of comfort to that early band of Christians in Rome resonate for us as words of hope: death will not have the final word. Not even death can separate us from the love of God, and so we are forever connected to the ones we miss.

Death cannot separate us from the love of God…How about life?

Paul’s ultimate point is about God’s love – as Eugene Peterson translates it, God’s embrace. And nothing at all will get between us. But as Paul enumerates the things that might get in the way, the second one is…life. Not even life can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord…

Do you ever feel like life disconnects you from your faith? Stress. Work. Family. Money. Anxiety. Fear. Expectation. Self-Worth. Anger. Depression. Disappointment. Physical pain. Emotional pain. Does anyone not resonate with at least one of these? Life can be a struggle.

These can be the kinds of things that can strengthen our faith. When what we have or who we are is stripped away, for some of us, that’s the only time we can be vulnerable and open to that embrace. But they can also be the times when we are so overwhelmed that we don’t think we have time to pray, to check in with God, to do the things we need to do to nurture a healthy faith. Life seems to do its best to separate us from God’s love.

What about when things are good? We’ve got success, good friendships, good health, good outlook. Money’s in the bank, depression’s been medicated, life is good. Can these moments get in the way of faith? In some ways, this may be the more precarious of life’s positions. When things are going well, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve done it all by ourselves; and so faith can take a backseat. Sometimes, it seems, life succeeds in driving a wedge between us and God.

I want to be clear about one thing: I’m not equating faith with church. Faith is a much bigger category. Good church attendance doesn’t necessarily mean better faith. But neither am I convinced that we can do faith in isolation: a coal separated from the fire will burn brightly for a little while; but a coal surrounded by others burns longer.

Let me ask you this: does church ever get in the way of faith? In the same way that life encourages us to turn our backs on God, does church ever encourage us to turn our backs on faith? I’ve met people – I’m sure you have, too, or maybe you are one of them – who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”. And when you scratch the surface of that conversation, you almost always find someone who has been to church at one point in their life, but was turned off by something that happened there – a betrayal, a judgment, behavior during a church conflict, something took place that, for that person, illustrated hypocrisy. And they may say that they believe in God, they may even believe in Christ, but they don’t believe in church. “Do you pray?” I ask…and the answer is almost never “yes”.

Church can very easily get in the way of faith. We get so caught up in playing Christian that we forget to be Christian. Our assumptions about what faith is – a set of behaviors, kind of a moral “chutes and ladders”, a way of looking or acting – those assumptions can easily get in the way of faith.

One example of this among many was the early outcry among Christian leaders against the Harry Potter series for its encouragement of paganism and witchcraft. Cardinal Ratzinger (the current pope), James Dobson, Chuck Colson, all of these were among those who joined the chorus against the books because they planted seeds that led our children down this dangerous, anti-Christian path. It was only after the publication of the seventh and final book in the series that the author, JK Rowling, began talking openly about her faith – as a Christian. She didn’t say anything earlier, because she was worried that her faith would give away the ending. Responding to the earlier accusations, Rowling said, “I don’t take any responsibility for the lunatic fringes of my own religion.” Oh, and I have to point this out: she’s a Presbyterian.

Faith in Christ means a lifetime of conversion. It means that we never stop having those moments when the scales fall from our eyes and we recognize something about faith that makes us feel as though we are seeing for the first time in our lives. That’s the power of the embrace.

And it’s an embrace that I’ve seen here at OPC. It’s there in our mission, that the community is our congregation. We don’t serve or minister based on church affiliation. We serve because Christ first served us. We embrace because Christ first embraced us. And that embrace wasn’t predicated on our theological orthodoxy or our moral righteousness. It was based purely on God’s love for us.

I say all of this because we’ve got something here that we ought to share with the world. And we need to be careful that we’re not just playing church. What we do here is center ourselves in God’s embrace that we might be that embrace in the world around us. And when we do, we move beyond the dichotomy of life and death into this new reality of resurrection. The old life has gone; a new life has begun. Thanks be to God!