St Paul is the author of the reading from Romans that we heard earlier. He is a very controversial character. Before I was a Christian, I vaguely associated him with the hatred of women and people from minority groups. Even when I first went to theological college at Oxford, I was very anti-Paul. But the more I read the Bible and the more I thought about it, I became convinced otherwise and I see my ministry of preaching, in part, is to rehabilitate Paul.
I now think that he was extraordinarily liberal in many ways, that he was way ahead of his time, and he is certainly someone I look forward to spending time with when I go to heaven.
Let me try to get the measure of him.
There is a poignant moment when he leaves his congregation as he is about to head to Rome on a fool’s mission that ultimately ended in his death. He is on the beach with the people he has been pastor to – regular folk. They love him. They don’t want him to go, they are upset, and you don’t get upset by the departure of a bully or monster. They saw something in him that they loved and respected.
His life is a glorious disaster really. He makes huge blunders, stumbles into controversies, he falls out with friends and is reconciled. He has an awful medical condition – perhaps near blindness. He is a terrible preacher, and someone nearly dies having fallen asleep and falling out of a window during one of his talks. There is speculation that his wife had divorced him when he became a Christian.
He was feared and people suspicious of him. But he was brave and truthful and prepared to stick up for the underdog – always.
We get a picture of his state of mind in the way we get with no one else in the NT. He is a bit of a mess at times – he has low self-esteem considering himself the worst person in the world. He suffers with his nerves and can feel melancholy. He has a death on his conscience.
And so when we he talks about love and finding peace we do well to listen to him. This reading is beautiful. What a mind he had! Most modern of all the people in the Bible.
This reading we often so at funerals. It is a great comfort when people are bereaved, and everything seems over to hear that in fact there is hope that one day we will all be together again. The message is that love wins, love is eternal. Don’t we all have that longing? I do.
Paul explains two fundamentals of the faith. We can totally trust God to be on our side because:
1. We have been acquitted of all that is wrong with us, through Jesus’ sacrifice.
2. We will never be separated from Him.
This is a recipe for, even in the great storms of life, peace. In the end all shall be well. God is our advocate; he stands up for us. However tough we are, we need that, and we can never be tougher in the end than what life has to throw at us. I remember seeing my father ravaged by motor neurone disease just before he died. Boy was he tough, and east-ender and ex debt-collector and someone who loved his family. But the disease that was, or seemed, tougher.
Paul lists the things that threaten to drive a wedge between us, and God and it is brutal and totally truthful.
But first a note on how he introduces this list. Remember Paul had undergone a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. He had been rendered blind for a while and his world crashed down as he realised a very uncomfortable truth – that you can’t get to God through rules. No God’s grace is a free gift, unearned but offered.
He says this… I have come to believe that…
It isn’t a set of orders or commands. He has been persuaded by experience, by study, by talking with people, by praying that this is a new thrilling reality. God here among us.
Back to the things that could be barriers:
1. Life. How true. Life gets in the way doesn’t it? Busyness, adversity, success, illness.
2. Death…well it would do if it were the end, but it isn’t.
3. Angels…the Jewish wisdom of the time had that angels were antagonistic towards humans.
4. The powers of darkness…we have all felt this at times.
5. The height…astrology.
6. The world as it is – broken and sometimes dispiriting, and heaven to come – disappointing?
None of it can stand in the way of the fierce love of God for us. As C s Lewis pointed out – this is no tame lion. Is that uncomfortable. I find it comforting.
Like Paul I too have come to this understanding.
Which me finally to story of my father and the love of God and motor neurone disease. We had an uneasy relationship at times. I found him difficult and I say it I blush.
But we both wanted it to work. Then dad got MND and eventually he was in care home. I was full of resentment to him, which was wrong really and I spoke out that resentment in prayer to God. I remember clearly hearing God say – leave your dad with me, go and love him.
And so that day I went to see him, held his hand, and told him I had become a Christian. He asked me to bring my Bible. He told me that he had stopped believing as a boy when his father was killed in the war. I read the story of the prodigal son to him and he said, I believe again and I am sorry Son. And he left me a precious gift…You have made my life good, he said.
So, I was freed from any guilt, acquitted, and knowing we will be together again in the loving arms of God.
St Paul had a glimmering understanding of the fierce love of God. My prayer is that you will feel it too in the coming days and weeks.