God’s Unconditional Love
Sermon delivered at Ward UMC and 16th Section UMC 1/24/2016
Romans 8:37-39New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
28 We know that all things work together for good[u] 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.[v] 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.
God’s Love in Christ Jesus
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.[w] 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.
When I was in my teens and early twenties, I loved Southern Gospel music, and I will always remember the sight of Vestal Goodman from the group The Happy Goodman’s marching up and down the stage at Robinson Auditorium with white handkerchief waving and reciting this verse.
When Paul wrote these words it had been about 25 years since Christ had died. There was conflict in the early church—we’ve talked about it before. The Jewish Christians continued to follow the Jewish law first and then follow Christ. In fact they were so convinced this was the way to live that they persecuted those Gentiles who had become Christ followers if they did not first live according to the Jewish law.
When I read the letter to the Romans I go back and look at the famous Roman Road to salvation, because everything in the book of Romans teaches us the way not just to salvation but to sanctification. And I treasure this knowledge, this understanding that God’s unconditional love is a real thing, and not only should be believe in and rely upon this love, but we should show this love to others.
There is a phenomena today where those asked about their religious affiliation write “None.” The “Nones” have grown to almost 24% of the adult population in the US. Many of the Nones have religious backgrounds, and 70% believe in God, yet they do not see the need to be in His presence along with other believers. The main reason these people give for not going to church are Christians—we are thought to be hypocritical, we are thought to be judgmental. But do you know what I believe? I believe the real reason is not what non-church-goers believe about us. I believe that people are using our sometimes bad behavior as an excuse. I believe the main reason people are staying away from church is that they cannot fathom that a God could possibly be so big as to love them regardless of their past or present sins.
As a pastor you have to learn to listen to what is not said as much as what is spoken. When someone tells me they are not religious but they are spiritual, what I hear is that they believe in God, yet they do not understand the need to have a relationship with Him, to learn from his word, to spend time in prayer. Instead, one who claims to be spiritual can often be found meditating, but not on the word, instead perhaps on a particular word. Instead of focusing on God, a person who is spiritual will often focus on one word or an image to center themselves so that they can find peace, not in god but in themselves.
People who are spiritual but not religious many times grew up in households that have been sporadic in their church attendance. The traditions that strengthen our faith like reciting the Apostle’s Creed or saying The Lord’s Prayer are either unimportant to them, or perhaps even unknown to them. Can I tell you what I fear from this spirituality gap growing among us? I fear that in the very near future when I am called in to sit at someone’s bedside who is quickly leaving this world, that praying the Lord’s Prayer or the 23rd Psalm will bring only a blank stare instead of the glow of peace that I have seen so often as I have helped usher someone from this world to the next. I am afraid that as I sing the old hymns of the church to one who can no longer speak, their lips will not move to catch the familiar words but instead I will see only confusion.
So how do we reach this growing percentage of Americans who believe being spiritual is all they need? How do we convince those who are no longer in the church that these verses in the latter part of Romans 8 are true? How do we help them understand and believe that God truly loves each one of us unconditionally? First, I think we need to show them that we believe that God’s love is unconditional—that it is complete, unlimited, and it is absolute regardless of anything we say or do. If we really believe that how does that belief transform us? We no longer work to receive God’s favor, but instead we work to share God’s grace with others.
We stop trying to change others into imitations of us, but instead we strive to become imitations of Christ and we encourage all we meet to do the same.
If we believe in God’s unconditional love then we will welcome those who do not look like us into our body of believers. Larry is humiliated when I see someone with large disc earrings and piercings and tattoos and go up and ask about their adornments. When people see that you actually just want to talk and are really interested in their story, their faces light up and they begin to show you each visible tattoo and what it means. I have spoken to young men who have their grandfather’s military history on their arms, or young women who have their mother’s name on their shoulders because she has succumbed to breast cancer and this is her way of keeping her near.
I met a family a few years ago during the last week of their son’s life. He and his dad and traveled to China in May, and now in July he was dying from pancreatic cancer. The mother was distraught, not just because she was losing her son, but because he was not a church goer and she believed he would not go to heaven. I used this verse from Romans to comfort this precious mother. I told her as a pastor of course it is my wish that all believers would frequent the house of God. But I could not find anything in the scripture that says our entry into heaven is dependent upon anything we do. Instead, salvation and our subsequent entry into heaven is dependent upon one thing and on thing only—our belief in Jesus Christ, as the son of God, and our acceptance of the free gift of grace that brings with it salvation. There is nothing I can add to what Jesus has already done. And her son assured me that his account were settled and that is all I need to know.
Do you get it? God’s will for us is that we all receive salvation and we all cross into heaven. Does that mean that all mankind goes to heaven whether they believe in Jesus or not? No, but It is not up to me or to you to decide who goes to heaven and who does not.
There was a young man in WWII who died protecting France. His friends took him to the cemetery that was next to the Catholic church and asked for burial of their friend. The priest dutifully asked if the man was baptized, and of course the men did not know, so the priest sadly turned them away. So they took their friends body and dug a grave just outside of the fence. The next day they returned to be sure that the grave had not been disturbed by wild animals, but try as they could they could not find the grave. So they went to the priest, and he admitted that during the night he had struggled with his decision and so he went out by himself and moved the fence so that the young man was now included in the sacred grounds of the cemetery. That is a story of grace, that is a story of unconditional love. And this is a story that needs to resonate within each of our hearts so that we can share God’s grace, God’s love with others. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.