Scripture: Romans 8:31-39
Conventional wisdom once stated that it was impossible to run a four minute mile. It was not just conventional wisdom, medical experts believed that it was just not physically possible for the body to move that fast. The evidence of the time seemed to support this as well. We really did not keep track of things like world records until the 1800s. The first person to be recognized as holding the world record for the fastest mile was Charles Westhall in 1855 with a time of 4:28. The fastest runners in the world kept getting the time lower and setting new records, but they could not get a time below four minutes. In 1945 a Swedish runner seemed to confirm the impossibility of a four minute mile by setting a new record with a time of 4:01.4. In the world of sports it became a given that a four minute mile truly was impossible. A four minute mile was just impossible. . . until it wasn’t. In 1954 Roger Banister of England broke the barrier and ran a mile in 3:59.4. He had done the impossible. Banister’s impossible feat stood in the record books for only forty six days, at which point Australian John Landy turned in a mile of 3:58. Since Banister first ran a mile in under four minutes, the world record has been broken eighteen times, and currently the record for the fastest mile is 3:43.13, well below what experts once thought was physically impossible.
The four minute mile is often held up as an example of how what we think can hold us back. Before Roger Banister some of the top runners who trained relentlessly and would run in the best conditions could not get their time under four minutes. Banister was not a professional athlete. He only trained part-time while pursuing a degree. He also ran his record mile in less than ideal conditions. It is often lifted up that the primary difference between Banister and the other top athletes of his day, is that Banister did not believe a four minute mile was impossible. Once he proved it was possible, within a few years at the highest level track events it became standard for the winning time to be under four minutes. It is often theorized that what kept runners from breaking the four minute mile was not a matter physicality, it was a matter of belief. They simply could not achieve what they believed to be impossible.
I think we run into a similar issue in our faith as well. This scripture tells us plainly, that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Yet, how often do people seem to forget that. Just like runners in the first half of the 20th century showed through their actions that they believed a four minute mile was impossible, we show through our actions that we do not believe that God’s grace is as great and absolute as it truly is. This morning’s scripture challenges us to consider what our life would like if we truly lived as if we believed that nothing, absolutely nothing could ever separate us from the love of God.
A large part of Romans is devoted to the idea of grace and how grace saves us from sin. Throughout Romans Paul continues to build and build upon his case for grace. In chapter nine he switches gears a little bit so this is morning’s scripture is his big conclusion on all that he has been stating about God’s love and grace. Leading up this point Paul uses a very slow and methodical approach to building his case. However, I appreciate in this morning’s scripture he states the main point plainly and powerfully. In verse 31, Paul puts out there: “If God is for us, who can be against us?” Paul then continues, “It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died more than that, who was raised to life is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
God’s love for us is so great that God was willing to give his own son on our behalf. Because this sacrifice was made on our behalf, the penalty of sin, has been paid, and God no longer will condemn us. What is even greater, is that this was not a onetime event that has happened, but Jesus our savior is with the God the Father and is actively interceding for us. Grace is not an event that happened in the past that we get added into, it is an act of love that we actively get to experience. Paul’s final word on the incredible nature of grace is that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God.
This is a fundamental truth of our faith, yet there are so many people who do not truly believe that. There are two great lies about God’s love that some people have bought into. The first is there are people who believe that God’s love does not apply to me. I have seen this on more than one occasion and it breaks my heart every time. Often the way it plays out is that a person who does not really do the church thing shows up at church for a special event like a baptism or a special performance their child or grandchild is doing. This person will make a joke about how I should not stand to close to them in case the lightning bolt is still coming, or they are surprised the walls did not collapse when they walked in. They are trying to make light of the situation, but the reality is those jokes come from a place of deep hurt. Those jokes come from a belief that something in their life is so terrible in the eyes of God that it is God’s desire to destroy them. I have met people, and you likely have to, who believe that their failures, their sins, and their transgressions put them outside of the love of God. They believe they do not belong in church, because how messed up they are. Nothing is further from the truth. Forgiveness through Christ is a free gift offered to all, and once we accept it we are right with God. After all, it is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Our sin, our regrets, the things we feel guilt over cannot separate us from the love of God, unless we let them. I know it is a cliché at this point but it does not diminish the truth of the statement: Churches were never ever meant to be a museum of saints, we exist to be a hospital for sinners.
This is what makes the second great lie so infuriating. The second lie that some people believe about God’s love is that it does not apply to other people. Now it is likely that almost no one will actively claim to believe this, but our actions speak and words often say more than we mean. Our culture has become so highly polarized that it becomes very easy to see it as us vs. them. It is easy to vilify others as “those kind of people” and see them as an enemy. If we spend too long in an echo chamber listening to why certain people must clearly be against us, then we lose sight of the simple fact that the people we consider enemies are people that God loves just as much as God loves us. The people that we vilify or have insulting memes shared about them are just as desired for reconciliation with God as everyone in this room is. When we give into the temptation to see the world as a fight of us vs them, then we by default assume that “those people” are less deserving of God’s love than “our people” are. It does not matter who we are, what we have done, or where we fall on any political spectrum. The grace of God has been made available to all people through Christ Jesus who died and was raised to life. Because of that there is nothing, absolutely nothing that can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
One of the things that I especially appreciate about this morning’s scripture is that Paul is dealing with more than just the theoretical. It is one thing to objectively know that nothing can separate us from the love of God. It is another thing to live that belief day in and day out. Paul rightly realizes that life is hard, and when we go through the worst life has to throw at us, then God’s love can feel really, really far away. Paul wrote, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or nakedness or danger or sword?”
These were very real threats that the first century Christians Paul wrote this to faced. Now today, we are not in danger of being stabbed by a sword, there is often enough of a social safety net that we do not need to worry being reduced to nakedness, and we are fortunate to live in a place where we have the freedom of religion. However, Paul’s point is still relevant. I imagine a 2020 version of this scripture might read something like “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or losing a job or cancer or Coronavirus?”
We live in a different century than when this scripture was written but the reality is the same. Life can be hard, it can wear us down, and it can feel like the deck is stacked against us. To drive home how hopeless this can make us feel, Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 and life can lead us feeling like “we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” Paul acknowledges the reality of how life can lead us feeling, but he continues with an even greater reality. Paul asked the question what shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall the worst life throw at us do it? And then he answers his own question in verse 37: “No in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
It is quite the interesting phrase, to be more than a conqueror. A conqueror is one whose victory is unquestioned. So to be more than a conqueror is to absolutely overrun the opposition completely. Paul’s point here is that if we believe that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from the love of God then that means that the worse that life can throw at us will not be able to do it either. In the midst of fear, in the midst of uncertainty, in the midst of anxious times we can have a peace and assurance that cannot be shaken. We can have confidence because we know that Jesus has already won the victory. We can know that our savior forever has sought and bought us with his redeeming blood, and because of that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that can separate us from the love of God.
This morning’s scripture challenges us to ask ourselves if we believe that, because if we do then in these troubled and unprecedented times we can have a peace and joy that other have never seen before. We can confidence that because of Jesus Christ nothing we fear can be greater than the assurance of knowing we do not stand condemned before our creator. I fully agree with the confidence that Paul write about in verses 38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, or any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. “ In other words what can separate us from the love of God? Nothing, absolutely nothing!