Nine Words and a Question Mark

It is a probing, provocative, and pointed question. Yet, it is a deceivingly simple nine words and a question mark. St. Paul in his letter to the Romans, our second reading, asks: What will separate us from the love of Christ? (Rom 8:35).

St. Paul answers: “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). How can we not be 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.

This is from the apostle who, in the same Letter to the Roman, has already told 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, not for sales as 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?

What I love about Scripture is that is not a book of answers. All the good stuff is in the questions or laced within the lines of a parable.  St. Paul found that out the hard way on the road to Damascus when knocked to the ground, the Risen Christ challenged him, asking why he was persecuting the Christians? Why he was persecuting Christ Himself? The good stuff is in the questions.

Did St. Paul get all the answers that day is a blinding flash of grace … nope. He got the big picture: Jesus is Lord, the promised Messiah – but not necessarily answers. After Damascus he spent at least 3 years in the Arabian desert seeking answers to the hard questions. Then spent another 10 years on mission and preaching and only then in what is perhaps his last letter he can answer: What will separate us from the love of Christ? He answers: “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.” (Rom 8:38-39)

“For I am convinced…” Wow. “I am convinced.” Am I? Are you? Are we as a community? Nine words and a question mark.  When have any of us taken time for our version of the Arabian desert?

We need to sit quietly and find answer for ourselves and for this community of faith. What will separate us from the love of Christ? A good place to start is 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. Giving in to the small things, sin against love of neighbor, impatience leading to a lack of charity, too quick to frustration, too quick return the clever comment, too slow to reach out to help, too afraid to stand out from the safety of the crowd, too quick to dismiss all the times I chose anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, or gluttony. “We are only human…right?” In each one of the deadly sins is a form of idolatry-of-self. I choose myself instead of the love of Christ.

What will separate us from the love of Christ? As personal a question as it is, it also a question for the community. 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 in the way in which we face the world.

Several years 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….” Not to the one who cannot or will not be the fountain of Christ’s love, pouring a never-ending river of Holiness, Hope, Healing and Hospitality into the world.

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 strangers, for the ones who try our patience, for the one who ask too much or too often. 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.”… and naturally, instinctively responds.

We hear the call, but I would suggest it calls from the other side of nine words and a question mark: What will separate us from the love of Christ? Have we engaged the question as individuals? As families? As a church community?

In tomorrow’s gospel for Monday, St. Matthew will tells us, “Jesus made the disciples get into a boat and precede him to the other side of the sea, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening, he was there alone.” (Mt 14:22-23)

These readings are not a book of answers. It has questions that should stop us in our tracks intuitively knowing how weak our answer would be. It is that instinctive moment that will lead you up the mountain to pray, into a virtual Arabian desert to sort things out.

It is that moment that reminds you we are children of God and heirs to kingdom – if only we remain in Christ.

Bring that instinctual moment to this Eucharist when, in this sacred moment, there is nothing that separates us from the love of Christ.

Then find your Arabian desert and begin to assess faithfully and honestly what it is that keeps you from the love of Christ. And then take that to the mountain of prayer. And in time, with the grace of God, we too can answer: For I am convinced… I am convinced that nothing separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen

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