It’s been 10 months since I last spoke from the pulpit at my previous church. So it seemed strangely familiar and just plain strange to be standing and speaking there last week. The pulpit seemed bigger than I remembered it. The microphone had been replaced with a different model. I felt at home yet not home.
I hadn’t planned to be there at all; in fact, I had planned not to be back preaching there any time soon, and had decided I wouldn’t return to lead a funeral or officiate at a wedding. I still think that’s the best practice as I now have other responsibilities and out of respect for the current leadership of the church.
But then I was contacted by a family member of one of the couples I used to visit. Although I had met them at the church, they had never officially been members. But they had often invited me for coffee or asked my husband and me to join them for lunch. I spoke at their 50th wedding anniversary. Now he was in the hospital and waiting to go to hospice, and she had moved out of their house. I was asked if I could visit, and when the time came, the family asked if I would lead the funeral.
I encouraged them to make the funeral arrangements with the current church leadership, but with their agreement I read the Scripture and offered a meditation at the memorial service. “We understand that you’re no longer at that church and are doing this more as a friend,” the family said, and yes, that’s how I thought of my small role. I wanted to be there, and sharing in the memorial service helped me say goodbye too. Other than that, church staff took the lead in planning and leading the graveside service and memorial, and church members volunteered as ushers and to provide hospitality at the reception.
It was good for me to reconnect with people at the church that I haven’t seen for sometime, though that seemed both familiar and strange too. A lot has happened in 10 months, as some have moved, some have faced new health challenges, yet I still felt our deep connection borne of the Spirit and of all we’ve shared.
Out of respect for privacy, I won’t publish my entire meditation here, but minus the personal details, below is the Scripture that I read at the memorial service, followed by a few thoughts [shared as words of comfort and encouragement for anyone who has lost someone dear].
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? 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. 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. – Romans 8:35, 37-39
These verses from the book of Romans issue a clear message: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Yet our reading begins with a question: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” It’s one of a series of questions in Romans 8:
- “What shall we say about these things?” (verse 31), a reference perhaps to these things of faith discussed in the first half of the letter to the Romans.
- “If God is for us, who is against us?” (verse 31), with the implied answer, no one!
- If God gave up his Son for us, “will he not with him also give us everything else?” (verse 32), with the implied answer, yes!
Then our question at the start of our reading: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?”
Only the examples that follow are not about “who.” Instead they’re about “what”—about various experiences in life: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword. Can any of these separate us from the love of Christ?
Romans is clear in saying NO!
Hardship, distress, and other difficulties cannot separate us from the love of Christ. When bad things happen, it’s not because God has it out for us, or because God has somehow abandoned us. When we face trials and troubles in this life, God is right there with us. And it’s because of God’s love that we can survive these things and even be victorious over them. As our reading insists, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Then to make sure we get the point, the final sentence of our reading lists a number of specific things that will not separate us from the love of God: death, life, angels, rulers, things present, things to come, powers, height, depth, anything else in all creation.
Notice the pairs of opposites in this list that are meant to include everything in between: so death and life and everything in between; things present and things to come and everything in between, height and depth and everything in between.
And if all of that wasn’t exhaustive enough, the list also includes angels, rulers, powers, and anything else in all creation. There is no “what” or “who” that can separate us from the love of God. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
The apostle Paul as the author of these verses says he is “convinced” of this. He himself had suffered many hardships. At various points in his life and ministry he had been imprisoned, whipped, beaten, almost stoned to death, shipwrecked, in danger from rivers and robbers, hungry and thirsty, shivering in the cold (2 Corinthians 11:23-37). Yet despite all he had experienced, he remained convinced of God’s love in Jesus Christ. The One who had called him would not abandon him.
For us too, we know there is hardship, distress, persecution, famine, and peril. Some of you have experienced these things personally, and even now there are many in this world who are suffering. There IS evil and great suffering. Far from denying these things, these verses from Romans names them. But God does not abandon us to whatever difficulties we face. God is on our side. Distress and suffering are not the end. For God is with us and loves us.
In his commentary on the book of Romans, Paul Achtemaier says: “Evil exists. It is not to be denied, it is to be resisted. Yet evil is not the wave of the future, God’s loving care is” (Romans, John Knox Press, 1985).
Even now, death is not the end—for God is with us and loves us in this life and the next. “God IS love” (1 John 4:8).
The hardship of death is real, but it is not God’s last word to us. The hardship of loss is real, but it is not God’s last word to us. The hardship of grief is real, but it is not God’s last word to us. For nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Writing/Reflection Prompt: It took me years to understand what people meant by a “good” funeral. In your experience, what makes a funeral “good”?
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