I’ve shared with many of you that for many years, my mother had Alzheimer’s Disease. As it tightened its grip on her, she lost the ability to do pretty much everything. She couldn’t speak or move her body much. She wasn’t able to show any expression on her face—no smiles, no frowns, no tears. But there was one thing she could do until the end of her life, and that was to hold on to you—your hand, your arm, your nose if you weren’t careful! And she held on tight! She only weighed 67 pounds when she passed away, but her grip was so strong that we would have to pry her fingers from ours each time we left her side. And in that grip, everyone she touched could feel the love she had so freely expressed before Alzheimer’s took its toll. That is the kind of grip God has on us. We can never be separated from God’s love which saves us and frees us.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been digging pretty deeply into the kind of freedom God offers. By reading Paul’s words to the Romans, we’ve learned that by God’s grace and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we’ve been freed from sin—that the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us gives us the power to resist the sinfulness that remains in us and to choose instead to live in Christ-like, God-pleasing ways.
We’ve learned that when we are able to put to death the worldly “desires of the flesh,” as Paul calls them, we are freed from spiritual death and enabled to enjoy abundant life. The world’s me-first values of material success and ego-boosting admiration cannot sustain a rich and contented life of joy and peace. But, we are freed from those standards and freed to live by kingdom standards—ones that offer us joy and peace now and into eternity.
Freed from sin and death, we are freed to live in hope—not in a wish for the impossible or a worldly hope for something that may or may not happen. We are freed to live in the divine hope we have in Jesus Christ. Our hope is a trust in the promises of God, and we live out of that hope so that others may come to know it, too. Today, as we finish our study of the 8th chapter of Paul’s letter, we learn what it means to be freed for love. And what a love we have been freed for—a great gift we have been freed to accept!
Now you might wonder why we need to be “freed” to accept God’s gift of love. The truth is that a lot of people feel undeserving of love—human or divine. Maybe you’re one of them.
Some years and a couple of churches ago, I worked to develop a ministry for returning combat veterans. A friend who has suffered from PTSD since his days in Viet Nam was attending a therapy group offered by the Vet Center in Toledo, and he told the members what I was doing. They invited me to come to their group so they could share with me their thoughts and feelings about faith. Most of them longed to have a relationship with God, but they were sure that what they had done during wartime made them unworthy of love—from people or from God.
And it’s not just people who have histories they’re ashamed of who feel this way. A childhood spent hearing parents say that we’re not wanted can cause us to think that God the Father feels the same way. Constantly failing to live up to a brother or sister’s example can make us feel small compared to our Brother Jesus. A relationship that consists of being belittled and being made to feel powerless can leave us feeling too small and weak to merit God’s love. We may not love ourselves, and we’re afraid that if other people, and especially God, knew what we are really like, they wouldn’t love us either. These feelings of unworthiness can bind us so that we are not free to reach out and grasp God’s love, even if we deeply yearn for it.
And the truth of the matter is that none of us is worthy of God’s love, if by “worthy” you mean that anything we can do is sufficient to earn it. But the good news is that God knows this, and instead of requiring us to earn it, God gives it to us as a gift and we have been freed to accept it. We have been freed from the voices that tell us that we aren’t and can never be good enough for God and so we shouldn’t expect God to love us.
We have been freed from the death that fleshly desires bring—the human expectations that make us think that only by looking and dressing the right way, living in the right house, driving the right car, and circulating with the right people make us worthy of love. We have been freed to see ourselves as inherently lovable because we are children of God, not because we live perfect lives, or live up to someone else’s standards, or manage to cling to our spot on top of someone else’s pedestal. We have been freed to accept God’s love fully and without fear.
In Jesus, God showed us what this gift of true love looks like. It looks like forgiveness and mercy. It looks like gathering close to those who are on the outside or feel they are. It looks like compassion and kindness. It looks like grace.
It looks like the love Paul describes—a love that we are given both because of who we are and in spite of who we are. It is given to us as part of God’s desire to gather all people to God’s self and to have us live lives that take the same form as Jesus’. It is given to us because we are children of God—children God knew as we were being intricately woven in the depths of the earth, before we were knitted together in our mother’s wombs. God knows us so well, that when we don’t know how to pray, God’s own Spirit, dwelling in us, steps forward and intercedes for us with perfect knowledge of God’s will.
God’s love is a sacrificial love. God so desires for us to enter into this relationship of love that God withholds nothing, including his own Son, so that we can see that this gift is intended for us. We have been freed for love—freed for the sake of love. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God’s love, offered in Christ, is a fierce and immoveable love—one that will stand up to any challenge. “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul asks. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Who will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus? Not death, because in Christ we are assured that God’s love for us doesn’t end when our earthly lives end. Not life, either. Life and its worldly temptations have no hold on us anymore; they are rendered powerless by the Holy Spirit, living in us. Angels and rulers and powers—seen and unseen—there’s nothing they can do that can stop God from loving us. Neither the challenges and suffering we face in the present, nor anything that may happen in the future, will change the fact of God’s love for us.
Remember the Marvin Gaye song made famous by Diana Ross? “If you need me, call me, no matter where you are, no matter how far. Just call my name, I’ll be there in a hurry, you don’t have to worry. Remember the day I set you free, I told you you could always count on me. From that day on, I made a vow I’ll be there when you want me someway, somehow, ‘cause baby there ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you.” Or, in Paul’s words, neither “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.”
Paul knew this love. By the name of Saul, he was enslaved to sin and death. His pride in his heritage and status as a Pharisee drove him to root out Christians wherever he could find them. He was a zealous man—not zealous for God’s mission in the world but zealous to protect the Jewish faith as it had become—a burdensome faith of traditions and rules rather than a commitment to mercy and justice and love of God. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.”
“But,” Paul continues, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me.” Nothing that Paul had done could cause God to stop loving him, and for the sake of that love, Jesus revealed himself to Paul in that dramatic encounter on the road to Damascus.
Paul was freed by love for the purpose of receiving love. But there was more. Paul said, “God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” Paul was freed to receive God’s love, but he was also freed to share the good news of God’s love in Jesus to others.
We share this freedom with Paul. For the sake of love, God freed us from the strangleholds of sin and death. For the sake of love, God offered us hope in Jesus Christ, and through Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, freed us to accept the love God offers. But that love is not a gift we are given for ourselves alone. As we are freed to accept it, we are also freed for proclaiming and sharing it.
It is the Holy Spirit dwelling in us that gives us the power to exercise this freedom to spread the good news of God’s love. Without the Spirit’s power, the sinfulness in us might get its hooks into us again. It might call up those feelings of unworthiness and make us think that we’re not capable enough or strong enough to be the bearers of God’s love. We may fear disappointing ourselves or others and feeling like a failure. We may even feel like taking some new, bold, risky step for love is a betrayal of the past we treasure.
But these are Satan’s ways of scaring us off the mission we are given—to proclaim the good news of God’s love in and for the world. They are aimed at making us doubt God’s immoveable, unshakeable love for us. They are intended to make us avoid any risk and let us off the hook when we refuse to live and love sacrificially. Their goal is to maintain the standards of fleshly desires that keep us from desiring God. They are aimed at preserving tradition over creative new ways to reach those who have yet to learn that God loves them. Their purpose is to preserve personal preference over kingdom purposes.
We can fall prey to this in our individual lives and as a congregation. We carry within us the hurts and sorrows of the past, when human love failed us. We look around and see others with bigger and fancier homes or bigger and fancier churches, and we may start to think maybe we don’t have those things because we don’t deserve them. And it’s a short step from there to thinking if we don’t deserve earthly things, maybe we don’t deserve God’s love either. And then the doubts start building up a wall in us. And that wall prevents us from reaching out to receive the love God is extending to us and prevents us from handing it back to others.
That may have been one of the things troubling the church in Rome as Paul wrote his letter. Remember that not long before, the Jews had been expelled from Rome, Jewish Christians among them. The thinking was that since God’s chosen people had rejected the Messiah, maybe they no longer held their special status and that their expulsion was an earthly confirmation that they were no longer worthy of being loved by God. When they were allowed to return to Rome, the Jewish Christians and the Gentle Christians may have found that walls of worldly thinking and human sinfulness were threatening to come between them, and between them and God’s love.
But God’s love is more powerful than any wall. And when we start to have doubts about whether we are worthy enough, or strong enough, or gifted enough, all we have to do is return to the foot of the cross, see Jesus’ arms open wide to receive us and our unworthiness, and allow his love to flow into and over us. And then the power of his Spirit is unleashed in us once again, so that we are once again freed to offer that love to others, boldly and without fear.
God says to us, “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough, to keep me from getting to you.” For the sake of love, God gave us the Son, even Jesus Christ, as the means by which we are forgiven, accepted, and saved. By our faith in him and the power of the Holy Spirit in us, we are freed to fearlessly accept God’s gift of love. By that same faith and that same power, we are freed to extend Christ-like love to others, confident that God’s love will never be withdrawn from us.
“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.” By this assurance, we are freed for love. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young