In his letter to those first Christians in Rome the Apostle Paul said, “If God is for us, who can be against us? God who didn’t spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will God not…graciously give us all things? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul goes on to list things some might think can or should separate us from the love of God. Finally Paul answers: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” There is no power in all creation that can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Excerpts, Romans 8.31-39) Please, read the whole passage in the Christian scripture. I’m not making this up.
At the time Paul wrote his letter to the Romans there was no Christian Church, nothing like the institution we have today. They were small bands of people, Jews and Greeks, men and women, sinners and heathens, whose lives were being transformed by the love of God as they came to know it in the good news of Jesus Christ. But if the Church had existed in Paul’s day I think he would have included Church in his list of worldly powers that lack the power to separate us from the love of God.
If you followed the General Conference of the United Methodist Church these past weeks, you know why I mention this now. The “powers” that gathered in Tampa to debate and adopt church law actually had a debate about whether or not God loves everybody. This text from Romans 8 was actually debated. Gad zooks! Some 47% of our delegates voted NO, we can’t affirm that. I’m told many African delegates said, no, we can’t go home and tell people that God loves sinners, those bad people, those heathens, those non-Christians; those people are indeed separated from the love of God, according to loads of delegates, including many from the old American South.
Friend, let us leap for a moment. Who was responsible for Jesus’ execution? Jews? Hardly. Jesus was a Jew. Most of his first disciples were Jews. Was it the Romans? Yes, in the sense that Pontius Pilate gave the order to execute him; but under Roman law at that time there was no basis for that death sentence. Pilate said as much in John’s Gospel; but then he caved to pressure brought to bear by a Super PAC. Who were they? The Chief Priests and the scribes, the Sanhedrin, and the Pharisees. Two things stand out here. First, these were the power players in the religious institution of that day. Second, and most importantly, they had their own interpretation of church law, mostly man-made law, BTW. Jesus interpreted the law differently. Jesus put grace first, rather than obeying the letter of someone’s interpretation of law. I don’t care if your law says you can’t heal someone on the Sabbath; grace goes ahead and heals them. God is love, people.
In our time the church is caught up in a global and epic struggle over the authority of Jewish and Christian Scriptures, challenging every interpretation of Church law as it has stood in the past. For me, the Methodist tradition has always been at its best when we put grace first; Jesus did. Jesus loved everybody before any church law existed. I believe Jesus still loves everybody. Before the gospels were written, before most of the New Testament was composed, Paul of Tarsus, himself a Jew trained in the law, a convert with his own experience of the living Christ, said, “there is nothing in all creation that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. If God is for us, who is against us?” The General Conference of the United Methodist Church? Maybe. But when we compare their conversation to Paul’s testimony in the New Testament, don’t we have to conclude that their debate on who is and who is not loved by God was largely irrelevant? Go home, ye Methodists, and tell your people God is love. If they leave your church, no worries; God will still love them.
All good things to you in Christ who loves you, no matter who you are,
david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin. for more about faith church, click here.