It is a simple question: nine words and a question mark. It is a probing, provocative, and pointed question. St. Paul asks it in his letter to the Romans, our second reading. It is just nine simple words: What will separate us from the love of Christ? (Rom 8:35). St Paul is writing at the end of a long passage in his letter that begins in Chapter 5 and reaches its thunderous conclusion in Chapter 8. You have to imagine St. Paul as the orator, having built up his argument, the crowds leaning forward in anticipation. He has already answered the question, Who will deliver me…? (Rom 7:24) with the resounding affirmation of Jesus Christ,, the Lord, as the deliverer. St. Paul has already convinced us that in the grace of God we have been saved and given new life: Or are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4) We have been given newness of life, led in the Spirit of God to be children of God (Rom 8:14) and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. (Rom 8:17). All of this pure gift, not earned, no way to purchase for the price has already been paid in full – it is the deal of a lifetime – an eternal lifetime.
It is a simple question: nine words and a question mark. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Yeah! Who wouldn’t want this gift? Or having this gift would give it up? …and then from the edges of memory comes the recall of people that we know who never accepted the gift, walked away…we have an intuition to pause, to reflect on this simple question, but St. Paul charges on: Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? (Romans 8:35) No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. (Rom 8:37). We are again swept up in St. Paul’s fervor, his energy, his hope, his faith, and his conviction. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is a part of me that wants to fist pump, shout “Yeah!!!!”, and charge out the front doors.
And there is part of me that wants to sit quietly with the nine simple words and find answer for my life, my community, this place: What will separate us from the love of Christ? I think we are all called as individuals to answer the question what separates “me” from the love of Christ. The answers are many and legion – and perhaps most begin with my cooperation with temptation and sin. The love of Christ is there, calling me to prayer, loving action, charity… but I choose anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, or gluttony. In each one of the deadly sin is a form of idolatry-of-self. I choose myself instead of the love of Christ.
As I said, each of us as individuals, should examine our lives to answer the question and seek Reconciliation. But the question is also addressed to “us”: What will separate us from the love of Christ? “Us” the body of Christ, the church, in this place of downtown Tampa – what will separate us from the Christ, the Head? I am sure there are seven deadly sins for a church body – maybe just larger scale versions of the traditional deadly sins. But one hallmark of that separation will be that the love of Christ is simply not present or evident in the body and members of our parish. Then the question becomes “Who will we separate from the love of Christ?”
This weekend someone sent me a YouTube music video called “Take Me to Church.” Within it, part of the refrain is haunting: “Take me to church I have done so many bad things, it hurts. Get me to church, but not to the ones that hurt….” But not to the churches that cause or continue the hurt. Not to the one who cannot or will not be the fountain of Christ’s love, pouring a never ending river of Hope, Healing, Help, Hearing, Holiness, and Hospitality into the world.
The woman who wrote and sang those lyrics spent time in the notorious, child-abusive Magdalene laundry of Ireland. In 1992 she protested against the hidden culture of child-abuse within the Irish Catholic Church. As part of her protest, she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on US national television, adding the words, “Fight the real enemy.” Yes, I am speaking about the Irish singer, song-writer Sinéad O’Connor. To say her relationship to the Catholic Church is complex is an understatement. She has had many more strong and shocking criticisms of the Church in the ensuing 24 years since she tore up the photo of the Pope. And yet, imagine… in 1992 openly protesting the hidden child abuse within the Church… and as we all too sadly know, she wasn’t wrong. When you listen to the breadth of her music, you hear the complexity of her faith and choices. She is a child of God, perhaps on the outside looking in, who writes “Take me to church I have done so many bad things, it hurts. Get me to church, but not to the ones that hurt….”
The questions remain: What will separate us from the love of Christ? or “Who will we separate from the love of Christ?” In part, the answer becomes – Not being the community, that can take a deep breath, welcome Sinéad O’Connor, and say, “You tried to tell us and we didn’t listen. Please forgive us.” For being the church, the community of faith that hurts when it should hear and heal. For not being the living body of Hope, Healing, Help, Hearing, Holiness, and Hospitality with Christ as our Head.
There is a whole world out there that needs to know the love of Christ in their lives. It is a big task, but it was for this that we were baptized. It is for this that we are called to be the community that will not separate itself from the love of Christ, nor push others away. To be the Church that dares to call itself Christian and does not take on that name in vain. To be the love of Christ in our families, among our friends, for Sinéad O’Connor, and for the world.We are called to be the Church that hears today’s gospel command: “There is no need for them to go away; give them some food yourselves.”
As individuals, as communities, as denominations, and universal churches we have all had our days when we are the churches “that hurt.” When we have separated ourselves from the love of God or have choked off the flow of God’s love into the world. But Christ is with us and leads us to our best days. On my best days, with St. Paul, I too am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.