Text: Romans 8:26-39
Paul, the New Testament Paul, is a fascinating complex man. He was born a Roman citizen to Jewish parents in Tarsus (modern day Turkey). His given name was Saul. As a young man, he studied Torah in Jerusalem and became a Pharisee. After his studies, he was best known for persecuting the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and Judea. While traveling the road to Damascus one day, he had a blinding light, fall off your horse conversion experience; after which he spent three years in Arabia and then returned to Damascus to preach Jesus as the Messiah. He eventually fled Damascus to Jerusalem because of persecution and while in Jerusalem he met some of the disciples. He began preaching in Tarsus and the surrounding region focusing his preaching ministry to the Gentiles. After a number of “missionary journeys” he returned to Jerusalem where he was arrested and later executed.
Paul never met Jesus during his brief years of ministry. Nevertheless, he was perhaps Christianity’s most important early convert and the first major missionary to preach the Christian gospel to non-Jewish people. Being a Roman citizen, he was at least moderately well-off, which granted him a certain respect wherever he went in the empire. By trade, he was a tentmaker. Paul was not one of the twelve disciples. However, the New Testament records that he did interact with some of the original disciples, especially in Jerusalem.
Thirteen letters, or epistles, of the Second Testament (New Testament) begin with the formula “Paul, servant of God, to the people of…” Some scholars believe that as many as half of these thirteen letters might not have been written by Paul but rather from members of the “school of Paul”—either dictated by Paul or written by people who came after him and shared his theology. Most scholars believe that at least seven of these letters were definitely written by Paul: I Thessalonians, Galatians, I & II Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Romans. I note that to point out that our text for today is believed by most scholars to be Paul’s writing.
Paul’s influence on Christian thinking arguably has been more significant than any other New Testament author. At the heart of Paul’s theology are three affirmations: “Christ is the end of the law”, the Christian church is the body of Christ, and the world outside the Church is under judgment. In his commentary The Epistle to the Romans Karl Barth argued that at the heart of Paul’s theology is the affirmation that the God who is revealed in the cross of Jesus challenges and overthrows any attempt to align God with human cultures, achievements, or possessions. In other words, God’s ways are not the world’s ways. And as sinful humans we are constantly in danger of God’s judgment.
What is most interesting about Paul’s writings is that modern theologians hold that the teachings of Paul differ markedly from those of Jesus as found in the Gospels. One theologian states that “Paul differs from Jesus in terms of the origin of his message, his teachings, and his practices.” Some theologians have even gone so far as to claim that, due to these apparent differences in teachings, Paul was actually the “second founder” of Christianity.
Over the years, I have given Paul a hard time—and I would say with good reason. While I struggle with how he often contradicts what Jesus taught, those are not my core issues with Paul. They should be! No, my issues with Paul are more personal. To say it bluntly, he doesn’t like my people—women pastors and gay people. To Paul, the core of my very being is sinful. Who I am—who God created me to be and how God gifted me, according to Paul’s teachings—his theology and doctrine—separates me from God’s love. You see, to Paul sin separates us from God’s love and unless we repent from our sinful nature and turn from our wicked ways, we are alienated from God. That is Paul, the Paul stuck in right belief.
But today’s text shows us another Paul—the pastoral Paul. Paul, the Paul stuck in right belief, writes: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became the transgressor.” But the pastoral Paul writes: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”
The right belief Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” But the pastoral Paul writes, “ What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?…Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…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.”
I have a confession. I didn’t want to preach on this text. All week, I asked myself, “Can I set aside the “right belief”, righteous, judgmental, condemning Paul and let the pastoral Paul speak to me, to us, to the church?” I had my doubts. But somewhere along the way, actually on Friday morning as I sat facing the drop dead deadline for having the worship guide complete, I realized that more than staying stuck in my personal issues with Paul, I needed and we needed to hear from the pastoral Paul. We need the message, especially now: that nothing, nothing, nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God. It is a pastoral call to believe what feels like the unbelievable. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
I imagine that all of us have stories that tell a story of how something has come in between or separated us from love and loving. Here is mine.
In junior high and high school my best friend was—let’s call her Christina. Christina and I were inseparable. If someone were asked to describe us, they would have said of us that we were exact opposites. And in many ways we were. But Christina and I had a connection in the way that opposites attract. She was a girly girl and I was not. She liked boys. Secretly, I liked girls. She wore makeup and dresses. The closest I came to makeup was sunscreen and my wardrobe consisted of two pairs of faded jeans and five t-shirts. We were both extroverted. We loved to laugh. We often got in trouble together at school because we loved to laugh. We also cried together when our hearts were broken. We were always getting into trouble, the good innocent kind of trouble. As I said, we were inseparable.
When we graduated from high school Christina left Shelby for college. I stayed in our hometown to continue my education. We kept in touch and whenever she was home we spent time together. When we graduated from college, we took a trip out West where a good friend of hers was living. It wasn’t long after graduating from college that Christina got engaged and was married. Through all the wedding planning I was a loyal friend, suffering through the dresses and all the girl things that make someone like me uncomfortable. The wedding was beautiful and I was happy for my best friend in the world. About six months later, I received a phone call from Christina’s mother saying that I needed to come home, that Christina’s husband of six months had walked out on her. I didn’t hesitate. I got in my car and drove four hours home to be with my friend. We were inseparable that way. If one needed the other, we were there.
As my friend began to pick up the broken pieces of her life, she moved to where I was living to try and start her life over. I was grateful to be able to be in closer proximity to Christina so as to offer more regular support. As the days passed she began to heal and find life again. In the midst of it all, we laughed and cried and had fun together. Again, we were inseparable. Eventually, Christina met someone and began a new relationship. I, too, was dating someone and for the first time decided to tell my best friend that I was gay. For years I thought that nothing, nothing in all of creation could separate me from my best friend. The bond, the love we shared as best friends, was, I thought, unbreakable and inseparable. But on the day that I can out to my best friend, I learned differently. Something could separate us. Something did separate us. My best friend growing up doesn’t speak to me and hasn’t for years.
Human limits of love and loving make it hard for us to believe in a divine love in which nothing—NOTHING, no-thing—can separate us from. Sure we say in our best moments and even maybe believe it a little bit, that nothing can separate us from the love of God. But in the recesses of our minds and hearts, and from our human experience, there is that space that still holds the unbelief or the disbelief. The space that holds the old tapes: I’m not good enough. I’m not worthy. I’m gay. I’m divorced. I don’t have enough faith. My faith is not strong enough. I was unfaithful to my spouse. You fill in the blank. We secretly think, maybe there is that something that can separate me from God’s love.
Right belief Paul is like the Biblical narrator of our old tapes. This man clearly struggled with his own old tapes of not being good enough or worthy enough. Paul struggled mightily with “getting it right,” to the extent that he listed out sin after sin that keeps us alienated from God. I doubt there is a single one of us who could outdo Paul when it comes to judging ourselves! And yet. And yet. Paul, this man of ultimate right belief ultimately yields to his own pastoral wisdom and confesses: “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.”
For all the problems Paul creates in his bi-polar messaging – we need to get it right, we don’t have to get it right; we are not good enough, we are exactly as we need to be – ultimately, Paul has the message we need today. Believing the unbelievable is what our world needs right now. Believing that nothing in all of creation can separate us from God’s love is a message that our world desperately needs to hear.
There is so much happening in our world that is threatening how we understand the love of God. And our temptation is to reach for right belief Paul. This is wrong. That is wrong. This is immoral. That is a sin. Our own fear and yes, our own righteousness, have put us in the position of being right belief Paul. As I reflect on what I believe I am called to do in the world right now, I know how deeply compelled I am by the social gospel. I know that I am motivated by a vision of the kingdom that feels right and good and sacred to me. But as I listen to my own tapes in these days, I hear how much I sound like right belief Paul. Can I actually believe that I cannot be separated from God AND that my political foes carry that same birthright as children of God? Can I believe that in the unfolding of the human story, we collectively cannot be separated from God? Can I carry the belief that “nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers” can separate us from God?
As I end this morning’s message, I realize I am creating dissonance. One Sunday I call you to stand for the kingdom and fight against injustice. The next Sunday I tell you that none of us can be separated from God. Can both be true? Can we believe and act out of both? Can we engage our opposition and let go of the belief that our value in the eyes of God is not determined by our actions? If we can hold that unbelievable belief, how would it change our interactions? How might it change our world? What hope might it give us?
Here at Pullen Church, on a daily basis, I believe we are proclaiming unequivocally that God is for you. How? By serving over 800 meals a month to those who are hungry, by offering our building once a year to host a free health clinic, by sharing our space with organizations like SafeChild and the NC Literacy Council and Repairers of the Breach, by forming Care Circle support groups to help women and families who need extra support, by fighting Islamophobia and racism, by supporting the work of The Hope Center, by welcoming those that the church has typically turned away, and dozens of other ministries that happen in this place and throughout our community by you, the people of Pullen. In all these ways and more we are showing our commitment to Paul’s pastoral proclamation: “God is for you, and nothing can separate you from God’s love.”
I imagine that I will always struggle with Paul. But of this I am sure. What the world needs, what we need, what I need right now is to stop focusing on the right belief Paul and listen to the pastoral Paul. Nothing, nothing in all creation can separate you—us—from God’s love. May God give us the courage and strength to hear pastoral Paul and believe the unbelievable: that nothing can separate us from the love of God!