Love Letters: Faithful
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Love Letters: Faithful”
Rev. Amy Morgan
October 13, 2019
11 On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.
12 As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance,
13 they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!"
14 When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean.
15 Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice.
16 He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan.
17 Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they?
18 Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?"
19 Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
35 Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
36 As it is written, "For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered."
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,
39 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.
One church was pure. And the other was defiled. After centuries of persecution and martyrdoms, Christianity had finally become a legal religious practice in the Roman Empire. The problem was, during the times of persecution, some Christians had recanted their faith, turned over holy scriptures for destruction, and even ratted out other Christians for arrest. And some of these Christians were priests and bishops. And even though they confessed and asked for forgiveness, some church leaders declared that these traitors could not receive forgiveness and restoration. Furthermore, any sacraments they had performed, including ordination of other priests and bishops, were ineffectual. In other words, their treachery cut them off from the church, the Body of Christ, and the love of God.
Augustine, bishop of Hippo, argued against these church leaders, known as the Donatists. He saw how this hardline viewpoint was fracturing the church and confusing believers. And, he took Paul’s message to the Christians in Rome seriously. Nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.” Not persecution, and not betrayal. Augustine went so far as to say that those who had been baptized by a traitorous priest were direct recipients of Christ’s grace, rather than the grace conferred through a “pure” priest. Therefore, he argued, it was perhaps of greater merit to have been baptized by one of these recanting priests. For Augustine, the Church is still the Church of sinners on earth, and in that tension between God’s perfection and the Church’s folly, Christ fills the gap, ensuring that there are no barriers to God’s love for us.
The church in Rome in the first century was facing what they perceived to be barriers to God’s love. Historians believe there was some kind of expulsion of the Jewish population of Rome, probably due to conflicts between Jews and Jewish-Christians. In his letter to the Roman church, Paul addresses divisions within the Christian community, about adherence to the Law of God and Israel’s place in God’s plan for salvation. Some Christians felt that trying to follow the law separated one from the love of God. Others felt that not following the law caused separation. Some in the community had been exiled and others had not. Some had been persecuted and others had not. Who was deserving of God’s love and who was excluded from it?
Into these divisions, Paul speaks these magnificent words of radical hope: 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.
Not persecution or betrayal, martyrdom or treason, following the law or freedom from it, Hebrew lineage or Greek or Roman. Nothing in all creation can come between us and God’s love. Whatever we suffer, and whatever suffering we inflict, God’s love is greater, God’s love overcomes all.
The Great Reformation of the 16th century created yet another crisis regarding separation from God’s love. Those who broke with the Catholic Church because they felt misguided doctrine or institutional malpractice were coming between believers and God’s love were warned that their betrayal of the One, True Church would disqualify them from God’s love.
John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Reformation, turned often to Paul’s letter to the Romans to reassure his followers that, whatever adversity they may face, their salvation is secure.
In these historic wranglings for institutional power and authority, these excommunications of one group or another from the loving embrace of God, we often miss the people whose lives are at stake. The one worried that God will not love them if they aren’t part of God’s chosen clan, or if they don’t follow all of God’s rules. The one stripped of their ordination because the wrong person laid hands on them. The one on their deathbed terrified that their salvation is in jeopardy.
A friend of mine once confessed to me that she was afraid God hated her.
“Why?” I asked her. “Why would you think that?” She had gone to church faithfully for years, participated in youth group, read the Bible. What could she have done that would make her think God hated her?
“Because I’m gay,” she said.
In the South, the plain and simple fact that homosexuality was a sin was as widely accepted as the fact that the earth was round. While it wasn’t something my pastor preached about, I knew that’s what people generally believed. I’d read my Bible. I knew what it said.
But I also knew that God loved my friend. I knew she was a Christian. I knew she was good and loving. And I just couldn’t accept that God hated her because of who she loved.
At that time, I couldn’t have given you a scriptural or theological argument for why I felt that way. But Paul had one. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
Last week, Comedian Ellen DeGeneres received backlash for being spotted at a Dallas Cowboys’ football game with former president George W. Bush. Her critics accused her of all kinds of betrayals for befriending and fraternizing with someone whose policies were detrimental to people in the LGBTQ community. DeGeneres responded by saying that “We're all different. And I think that we've forgotten that that's OK that we're all different.”
This may seem to trivialize the hurt felt by those directly affected by Bush’s political legacy. But I don’t think DeGeneres approached this matter with any sense of triviality.
It is easy to be friends with people who like us, who support us, who do good things for us. It is easy to tell them God loves them, too. It is a great deal harder to be friends with people who are different. Not just people who hold different political views. But people whose politics or actions or beliefs have hurt us or those we love. People who have betrayed us. People who have criticized us. People who have excluded us.
This doesn’t mean we tolerate or accept abuse or hatred. We aren’t complicit in injustice because we admit that God doesn’t hate the people who hate us. Even our enmity toward one another, our inhumanity toward one another, cannot separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
John Calvin wrote that “faith does not certainly promise itself either length of years or honor or riches in this life, since the Lord willed that none of these things be appointed for us. But it is content with this certainty: that, however many things fail us that have to do with the maintenance of this life, God will never fail…In short, if all things flow unto us according to our wish, but we are uncertain of God’s love or hatred, our happiness will be accursed and therefore miserable. But if in fatherly fashion God’s countenance beams upon us, even our miseries will be blessed. For they will be turned into aids to salvation. So Paul heaps up all adverse things, but glories that we are not separated from God’s love through them.” (Institutes 3.2.28)
God’s love is not a promise of health, wealth, or even happiness. But it does assure us that God is with us through all trials. And it is only because of this love that we are able to acknowledge that love flows to everyone, even those who are the cause of our troubles.
That gospel message is sorely lacking in our world today. In our City Council meetings and in the RH Line, we can hear about all the people who should be separated from God’s love. We accuse one another of licentiousness and greed. We point out one another’s hypocrisy. We denounce each other’s corruption. Dinner table conversations are consumed by anger with our national political leaders. This ugliness is practically inescapable.
But there is one place in town where people can go to live into a different reality. And that’s right here. In this building, we talk about injustice and we address the sin and evil that infects our lives and the world around us. It’s not an escapist reality we enter here. But it is a reality that recognizes that the love of God in Jesus Christ is for everybody. The people we agree with, and the people we passionately disagree with. The people who love and support us, and the people who hurt and hate us.
We know it is not easy for us to love our enemies. But we also know that we have all been the enemies of God, and God loves us anyway. And so, no matter what we have done, or what has been done to us, God’s love is greater, and God’s love is faithful.
In this place, we proclaim that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Not conservative or liberal politics. Not logical reason or blind faith. Not homosexuality or homophobia. Not self-righteousness or sin. Not elitism or simplicity. Not mental illness, or trauma, or abuse. Not bigotry, or ignorance, or radicalization. Nothing, in all of creation, is able to separate us, or anyone else, from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
If that isn’t the most important thing our community and our nation can hear right now, I don’t know what is.
And we are the ones who can share that message. That is the radical hope that has been entrusted to us. That is what people experience when they walk through those red doors.
That is the message that would be silenced if those doors weren’t open every week.
When we give to the work of the church, of this church, we may be giving to pay utility bills and ensure we’ve got a great staff to keep things humming. But that’s not the reason most of us give. It’s certainly not the reason my family gives to this church.
We give, all of us do, because we know that the world must know the depth and breadth of God’s love for all creation in Jesus Christ. Our gifts are our love letters to God, our expression of gratitude and joy for that inclusive, expansive, challenging and wondrous love.
That is the love that allowed Augustine to welcome recanting Christians back into the church. That is the love that allowed the Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome to find unity and peace. That is the love that gave John Calvin confidence that no adversity could endanger God’s love for us. That is the love that allowed me to tell my roommate that God loved her, just the way she was. That is the love that allowed Ellen DeGeneres to befriend George W. Bush.
And that is the love that opens up onto the streets of Loveland from this place. A love that will let nothing stand in its way. A love that never gives up. A love that is faithful forever.
If that’s a love you can believe in, I hope it is a love you will give to and support in the coming year. With all our gifts, we will continue sharing God’s boundless love with our neighbors in the homeless community and our neighbors in the business community. We will share that love with youth in our church family and with young people who have no family and no community to support them. We will share that love with children in our church and children whose parents can’t afford diapers and clothing. We will share that love with everyone who comes here looking for it.
The pure church is not the one undefiled by failure, or sin, or betrayal. The pure church is the one that relies solely on the love of God in Jesus Christ and proclaims God’s boundless love and grace. Let us continue to be that church, and to be those people, who make sure the world hears that radical gospel of hope: nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Nothing.
To God be all glory forever and ever. Amen.