|Le Trinite — Cristoff Baron|
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
28 We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30 And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31 What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33 Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 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.
At times like this, as the entire world is enveloped by a pandemic that has affected millions, how do we pray? What words fit the occasion? As a pastor and preacher, I know I’ve struggled at times at finding the words to share in worship. When Paul wrote these words we have before us, he didn’t have a pandemic in mind. However, the words remind us that no matter our situation, the Spirit will intercede for us, using our mumbles if nothing else to speak to God. With this promise of the Spirit comes a promise—Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
This is the third reading from Romans 8 that the Revised Common Lectionary invites us to consider. We’ve been assured that in Christ there is no condemnation. Instead, we experience freedom from sin. We’ve been assured that the suffering of the present is nothing when compared with the glory that awaits us. Now, we hear that the Spirit prays for and with us. Because God sees our hearts, God hears our prayers, even if we’re not able to articulate exactly what’s on our hearts. If you view this reading from a certain angle, with an openness to the possibility, you might see here hints of the Trinity.
Paul speaks of the Spirit using our sighs or groans to communicate what is on our hearts, but which we can’t find the words to express. In a previous paragraph, Paul spoke creation itself groaning as it awaits its liberation, even as we groan as we await our redemption (Rom. 8:19-25). So, the thought is continued, only that now we know that the Spirit groans along with creation and God’s people as we await the revelation of God’s future for us. This reference in Romans 8:26, which suggests that when we, in our weakness, can’t find the words to pray, has been interpreted in Pentecostal and Charismatic circles as a reference to the gift of tongues or as it’s sometimes described—a prayer language. While Paul likely, in my estimation, doesn’t have this idea in mind, the concept of a prayer language, as I was taught it in my Pentecostal experience does make sense [on the gift of tongues or glossolalia, see my book Unfettered Spirit, pp. 122-126].
The promise of the Spirit’s act of intercession leads to another promise, and that for those who love God, things will work out for the best. In making this claim Paul brings in the word predestine when it comes to those who will love God. That is, God directed that those who embraced the call would be conformed to the image of Christ so that Christ might be the firstborn of a large family. As we discovered in the previous reading, we have an inheritance, together with Jesus, for we are children of God by adoption (Rom. 8:14-17). This word about foreknowledge and calling serves as a sign of God’s initiative in the process of salvation. God makes the first move in Christ. As Sarah Heaner Lancaster notes: “Paul’s remarks about predestination are words of encouragement to the recipients of this letter that God would, in fact, bring the goodness of salvation out of their suffering. Paul is not speaking here of predestination as determinism of all events. Nor is he speaking of any theories of predestination that developed much later (such as eternal decrees)” [Lancaster, Romans, Belief, p. 150]. In other words, Paul isn’t a Calvinist. What Paul is focused on here is God’s initiative and faithfulness to the purpose of salvation, which in 2 Corinthians 5:17ff, he defined in terms of reconciliation. One can, regarding salvation, envision as did Origen, that this involves some form of universal salvation. For those of us who operate from a more open and relational perspective, the way forward lies open, though God will remain committed to the reconciliation of all things. Thus, as Karl Barth suggests, those whom God calls, God foreordains to be conformed to the image of Christ. The way I read Barth’s reading of Paul, is that God has disclosed that those who love God will take up their calling to “bear witness to the death of Jesus and consequently to his resurrection” [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 323].
That leads us to Paul’s next point: “if God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31 CEB). Since God risked God’s own son to reach us, then who can bring a charge against God’s people. The one who was crucified and raised serves as our defense attorney. Since this is true, nothing can separate us from Christ’s love, not “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword” (Rom 8:35). Paul draws from Psalm 44:22, to speak of the threat of death that faces the people of God, but victory is assured. This assurance, at least as I read the text is not based on a deterministic understanding of reality, where God orchestrates things. No, it is because God will not give up the cause. God in Christ perseveres. Therefore, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not death or life. Not angels or rulers. Not present things or future things. No form of power or anything created can separate us
Living in and through difficult circumstances always raises questions about the nature of faith and even the existence of God. Paul’s response is simply this, while suffering may occur, God goes with us. The short term may involve suffering, but in the long term, we will be more than conquerors. That is because nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. In this, there is hope, “for if God is for us, who can be against us.”
Note on the image: the artist, Cristoff Baron had a series of pieces, this being one of them, which I viewed while visiting the Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame in France (September 2019).