Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – July 31, 2011 – St. John’s, Goshen
As our second reading today we have heard the last verses of the eighth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. That chapter brings to an end the section of the Epistle (chs. 5-8) in which Paul has offered a concentrated summary of his Gospel: the revelation of the love of God in Christ, who died for us even while we were still sinners, and in the Holy Spirit, who has been poured into our hearts to enable our love of God in return; the drama of the universal sinfulness that leads to death of the spirit and of the universal reconciliation won for us by Christ; our participation in Christ’s death and resurrection in baptism; the inner conflict that continues to trouble even the Christian; the freedom gained for us in “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus”; the multiple ways in which that Holy Spirit acts within us, giving life, rescuing us from slavery to sin, making us children of God able to call him “Abba,” “Father”, teaching us how to pray, sustaining us and all creation as we await the redemption of our bodies.
And after all this, Paul’s rhetorical question: “What can separate us from the love of Christ?” Twice he enumerates the causes why someone might doubt the love of Christ. The first list summarizes the difficulties that Christians often faced in his time: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, the sword. But even in the midst of these, Paul could confidently say, “we more than conquer through him who loves us.” The second list is more cosmic, including all the different superhuman powers that at the time were considered to threaten human beings: none of these, he says, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is an ambiguity in the phrase “the love of Christ, or of God”. Christ, or God, can be the subject of the love, so that it means Christ’s, God’s, love for us. Or Christ, God, can be taken as the object of the love, so that it means our love for him. Some scholars take it in the first sense so that the meaning of this passage is that no evil we encounter or endure should be taken to mean that God does not love us, no cosmic power is greater or stronger than the love of God for us. The whole section, then, from chapter 5 through chapter 8, setting out all that God has done for us in Christ and continues to do for us in the Holy Spirit, is taken to provide the reasons why Christians may have an unshakeable confidence in God’s love for them. As St. Paul said in the verses just before today’s reading: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not give us all things with him?”
But the other meaning of the phrase “the love of God” is also possible, and then the point of the passage is that there is nothing in these difficulties, these evils, whether physical or human or cosmic, that can lead those who love Christ to abandon him. In the last weeks we have heard St. Paul say that “the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us”; and that “in everything God works for good with those who love him.” And at the very beginning of chapter 5, he had already said, “We even rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us because the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Even our loving God, in other words, is God’s work. That is why we can hope against hope. We are not relying on our own efforts. We find ourselves trusting God, hoping even against all that appears; we find ourselves loving God despite all. If one hesitates to say this of oneself, then look at so many people in whom we have seen it verified that not even the worst of tragedies, the sharpest of pains, the bitterest of betrayals have been able to shake their faith and hope, to corrode their love of God.
Surely we do not need to choose between these two ways of understanding this splendid passage from St. Paul. The first interpretation concentrates on what might call the objective dimension of Christianity, that which meets us in the Gospel about Jesus Christ: what we believe about what God’s love has done for us in Christ. The second focuses on the subjective dimension, the inner transformation effected by the Spirit that floods our hearts and frees us from all that might keep us from returning love for love. In both senses we too should be able to rejoice with St. Paul that there is nothing at all that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.