We Shall Overcome – July 30, 2017
Romans 8 is the culmination of Paul’s key theological treatise on sin and salvation. And the end of the chapter, which we read today, is the pinnacle of Paul’s proclamation of good news. In 8:18 he writes that “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed in us.” The problem of suffering is the problem that Paul addresses in today’s readings.
We all suffer. Hurt and suffering are all around us. Some of that suffering is self-inflected, but much of it is beyond our control. Let me give you a brief example of some of the suffering I’ve witnessed as pastor and priest among our parish just in the last week: a woman sent to jail, a child with a serious and life threatening illness, the brutal beating to death of a 2-year old child by his father, extreme poverty, the threat of being evicted from one’s home, the loss of one’s ability to use any part of one’s body as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) steals one’s ability to move and even speak, mental illness that so deludes an individual that he or she isn’t capable of recognizing the delusions that are creating that person’s own isolation and loneliness, Alzheimer’s disease robbing a vibrant man of memory, excruciating back pain, the death of a loved one, surgery, despair and guilt. Each one is enough to make me weep, and I often do. We all experience times of suffering. Despite the wonderful promise of a passage like Romans 8:28 – “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God” – it doesn’t mean that if we have enough love for God that we won’t suffer loss or pain or hardship or that we will somehow get to skip over the difficult things that the world may have in store for us. No. Romans 8:28 says in essence that God can turn the suffering to God’s good purposes; it doesn’t promise that we won’t suffer. We wish that were the case, but it isn’t.
So, what does Paul tell us today about suffering? Several interesting and wonderful things. First he tells us that God is with us. We are not alone. The Spirit of God that dwells within us speaks through us with sighs too deep for words – sighs that God who searches the human heart understands and hears. God does not ignore our suffering. God is with us in the midst of it. God hears us. And God even helps intercede for us when we don’t know what to pray.
Another thing Paul tells us is that God has chosen us. We have been chosen by God to bear his name. God knew us before the beginning of the world. God knew us before we knew ourselves. God has called us. God has “justified” us. In the new life God has created for us through Jesus’ death and resurrection we are made right and whole and sound. More than that, God invites us to share in the glory of God’s Son.
Back to suffering. Paul asks some rhetorical questions: If God is for us who is against us? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? (Remembering that God is on your side) who then is there to condemn us? What can separate us from the love of Christ? These rhetorical questions are meant to make us think. When we realize that God – the creator of the universe, the Lord of everything on heaven and earth is on our side, what have we got to be afraid of? If God has won for us eternal life in Christ, let the powers of death and suffering do their worst. We still live in his love. We still share in his victory.
Paul names some of the sources of our suffering: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril and war (or the sword). That’s a pretty stark list. No one wants to suffer as a result of any of those things, but they happen. They happen to the best of us and they happen to the worst of us. He goes on to name powers over which we have no control: death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height or depth. “NO!” Paul tells us emphatically! These things may effect us, but these forces don’t rule us. Not one of them can separate us from God’s love for us in Jesus. Not one of them can make any less loved by God. None of them can undo us.
I’m reminded of the old spiritual:
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome,
We shall overcome, some day.
Oh, deep in my heart,
I do believe
We shall overcome, some day.
There are many painful things we suffer in this life. Suffering is real and painful and hard. Paul doesn’t attempt in any way to sugar coat it. But God is with us. In Jesus’ victory over death we are victors. God continues by our side. God literally resides in us through the Holy Spirit. God takes up our cause and prays for us even when we don’t know what to pray ourselves. God can help us turn the suffering to good, if we are open to it and let him. And nothing – nothing – can separate us from God’s love. We shall overcome.
That’s the amazing good news of this passage of Romans 8 – one of the most powerful statements of good news in the scriptures. But what do we do with that good news? What are the ethics of the good news that nothing can separate us from God’s love? Most obviously it should stir our hearts and give us strength in the midst of adversity. How good to know that God takes suffering seriously, that God is with us in the midst of it, that God’s love is stronger even than the worst that we can suffer and it is that love that claims us and owns us. So, the first thing we do with this message is to believe it, trust in it and rejoice in it.
The next thing I believe that God wants us to do with this amazing message of good news is not to simply claim it for ourselves alone, but for the sake of the whole world that God loves. If God is with us in our suffering we are to be with one another in suffering. If God embraces people’s suffering we should also embrace the suffering of others. We should be with them in it. We should help them and love them. We should do our best to help turn suffering to good. The suffering of others should affect us deeply, just as suffering affects God. We are called to stand by and with our friends and neighbors and family in their suffering.
There is also a larger social / political aspect to human suffering. We should claim God’s victory of love and justice over the powers of sin and separation that are always threatening to undo us and undo the world God came to save. Paul wrote earlier in Romans 8 that the whole cosmos – the creation – was waiting with eager longing for God to renew it and for the children of god to be released from suffering. We should claim that God’s love is stronger than the forces of hate and injustice wherever we find them. As marchers in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960’s joined hands and sang “we shall overcome” we need to find our voice and continue to proclaim God’s victory in the face of the powers of separation and suffering. In Jesus’ love we shall overcome. We shall overcome someday.