Words from the letter to the Romans:
If God is for us, who is against us?
This week, in particular, that feels like a really helpful question. It’s one that we can hang onto, especially at a time like this when we are collectively trying to find our feet again, trying to gain some kind of equilibrium. So let’s try to explore that question. If God is for us, who is against us?
It’s easy to identify an enemy ‘out there’, an anonymous presence that is out to sabotage all that might be good in our lives, all that might give us life and joy. We hear a certain international politician speaking about the ‘bad people’ – people who are in some way different to us, people who have malevolent intentions. The bad people. But those bad people are also God’s people. Those so called bad people were created and formed, as we were, by a loving and benevolent God who only wishes well for all of humanity.
The knowledge that God wishes well for all of humanity is spelled out by Paul in the letter to the Romans as he tries to encourage a bigger, more expansive understanding of the nature of God.
Paul is writing about a God who is not just for the chosen people of Israel, but is the God whom he encountered anew on the Damascus Road, the God for whom Paul discovered a revitalised love and devotion. He shares his theology in order that his readers might know that God more fully and find ways to follow him more closely. He shares his own experience of knowing God more deeply as a result of following the teaching and ministry of Jesus Christ.
Paul tells us that ‘those whom God foreknew he predestined to be conformed to the image of his son’.
Don’t be distracted here by Calvinist ideas of double predestination where some are chosen to be saved and some to be damned. That’s not what Paul is speaking about. Paul’s predestination in this epistle is referring to the relationship between God and God’s people – it’s about God’s yearning for people to respond to the freely offered love of God, to respond and therefore to grow and to journey towards God rather than away from God.
Read in context, the meaning is generous rather than condemnatory – God foreknew that some people would find it easier than others to respond to his love for them. Some commentators suggest that the word translated here as foreknew could be interpreted as foreloved. Before the beginning of time God loved and God continues to share that love. Our calling is to respond. No-one is beyond the love of God; no-one is incapable of loving God, but we have free will and respond as we are able and as we are motivated. Responding to God’s love draws us into the Body of Christ, draws us into that relationship and response that was modelled by Jesus and that is the legacy we seek to honour.
This theme is illustrated in today’s Gospel parables. The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast that transforms the flour into something that is life sustaining. It’s like the treasure that was hidden in a field. The joy of finding that treasure isn’t to hold onto it, to sit and gaze and revel in it. No, the joy actually is about a more expansive gesture, a more holistic response. The person who found the treasure went out and sold his worldly goods in order to buy the field.
The person who found the treasure recognised that there was something else, something bigger and fuller and even more joyful. Something that was available to him for the asking. It wasn’t without cost, but it wasn’t unachievable. And that is a good illustration of the nature of God’s love for us and our call to respond. Our response is never without cost, it’s rarely without some kind of effort but it is available for the asking.
If God is for us, who is against us? God is for us as God offers each one of us that unbounded, unlimited love. Whoever we are, whatever we’ve done, nothing separates us from the love of God. Nothing, that is, except ourselves. We make choices, we make decisions, we form priorities. Each time we make a movement in our lives, we take ourselves towards or away from God. We can focus on responding to God and turning ourselves God-ward, seeking to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. Or we can turn away from all that would give us life with God and try to do things our way.
If God is for us, who is against us? I suggest that the answer to that question is ourselves. The bad people aren’t out there – they’re in here.
The God facing and the God rejecting parts of ourselves cohabit. They present us with choices and temptations. Sometimes we’re drawn with little effort towards God; sometimes we’re lured with barely a backward glance away from God. And often we’re not sure which way we’re going and we find it hard to discern God’s will.
Let’s remind ourselves of what we’ve read in this morning’s epistle though – we are predestined to be loved by God. All God asks is that we find a way to respond. And that would all be very simple if we lived in a neutral space with no distractions or influences or temptations. But that’s not our reality. We know that there are negative influences in our lives and in our world. We see that being played out on the international stage, in more local situations and in some of the detail of our own lives. And those negative influences can present themselves in a very appealing and seductive way. We can find it hard to resist. What might strengthen our resolve and our intention is to remind ourselves that we are predestined to be loved by God; and that in loving and being loved we are aligning ourselves with Jesus Christ, we are living the Gospel life that has been promised to us.
If we really trust and believe that God is for us, then we give weight to the God facing internal narrative. We give weight to the God loving, life giving forces that urge us on. And if we really trust and believe, we are better able to identify and turn away from the negative and life sapping distractions that come our way. Each time we turn from negativity and towards God, we teach ourselves that this is something we can do, it’s a bit like muscle memory – and we make it just a little bit easier to do it the next time and the time after that.
As children of God, predestined to love and be loved, we can say with confidence, God is for us.