Together for Good
© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 27, 2008
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 27, 2008
Here is a big claim, which could make us wonder if Paul’s hat band was a bit too tight when he wrote it: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
Paul begins in this, one of the most well-loved passages from his letter to the Roman church, speaking of the way or ways in which our own faltering and insufficient prayers are nevertheless made sufficient by the Spirit who “helps us in our weakness,” interceding for us “with sighs too deep for words.”
I once read an interesting account1 of something that happened to J.B. Phillips, acclaimed author in the tradition of C.S. Lewis and considered a protégé of Lewis. In the last book he wrote before his death2 he recounted something that had happened to him at the pinnacle of his career in ministry. He was, at that younger age, a highly acclaimed author, sought-after speaker and teacher. Then, without understanding what was happening to him he began to feel a sudden distance from God, his self-confidence evaporated, his abilities at writing and speaking vanished, and his sense of God’s presence seemed totally absent. It was a dark night of the soul for him. He knew “at the top of his mind” that God was present, but at “the bottom of his heart” he couldn’t feel it any more.
One day, as he sat in his study pondering it all, he had a vision of his mentor, C.S. Lewis, who had been dead for many years. Phillips was speechless, and at last Lewis broke the silence, saying “It’s difficult to smash the image, isn’t it, J.B.” and he vanished.
What was the meaning of this visitation? Earlier in his career, Phillips had written a book many of us probably have read and may still have on our bookshelves, titled Your God Is Too Small. In the book Phillips described the caricatures of God to which we often fall victim, and the utter emptiness of heart which follows from it, and now he was living out this very reality.
What’s important to take away from this is that while we all may experience dry periods of doubt when our prayers seem to bounce back at us from the ceiling, perhaps feeling we have lost touch with the God and Father of Jesus Christ, this God — Abba as Jesus called him — this God has never lost touch with us. While we may stop being on speaking terms with God, God never fails to be on speaking terms with us.
It’s important to remember that prayer is first of all God’s movement toward us much more than our own movement toward God. Any distancing we may feel, any restless yearning, these are evidence of God’s activity in our hearts.
Perhaps thinking on these very sorts of matters, immediately following his encouraging words on the sufficiency of our insufficient prayers, Paul exclaims in our text for today: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose!” It is an amazing declaration when you parse it out.
So many traumas come immediately into our homes by way of our newspapers and TV screens — our grandparents and great grandparents never had to put up with so much of it cascading down on them in great undifferentiated quantities: earthquake here, outbreak of famine there, political turmoil in Serbia or Kosovo, crime and brutality right here in Las Vegas, they come at us one right after another — disaster here, insoluble problem there — no wonder we so often feel ourselves to be at loose ends, pulled this way and that until we find that nothing much touches us deeply anymore, whether it is in the realm of joy or of sorrow doesn’t really make much difference. Our senses become dulled by the sensational that clamors for our attention. No one could be blamed for feeling that it takes quite a leap of faith to believe that God is God of all the world, that his purposes are working themselves out despite all appearances to the contrary.
If all the good we do can be undone by the acts of people with evil intentions, or the acts of a madman, why do any good at all?
The signs and wonders which Paul reports led him to believe that sooner or later, one way or another (but most likely another), those things that are out of line, that in our day are crooked and misshapen, the good in the world which is now hidden, will all be made right. It is a rather staggering conclusion to come to when you think about it. In light of the shipwrecked lives and nations and hopes and dreams that lie scattered all around the world, what on earth led him to such a crazy deduction? Being a cynic is easy, no challenge for a person of even middling intellect, since the world offers so many signs of its own self-destructive potential. Many may not believe in God, but even a freshman course in World History will convince any thinking person of the sinfulness of humanity, believing in sin is a cinch. So what would cause someone like Paul to find reason for such groundedness, such solid hope in the face of a world so filled with trouble and woe? Paul believed in a gracious God, one who would go to any lengths to set things right, especially when our own resources for doing that fall short. But why?
There’s no use saying Paul was simply daffy, a gadfly, just a cock-eyed optimist. Anyone who knows his story of suffering for the gospel knows that as he recalled Psalm 42 in this Roman letter he wrote from his own experience as much as from scripture:
For your sake we are being killed all the day long,
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
Paul knew what it was to suffer, and he knew it personally, and he knew it often. It’s so amazing to me that the very item that people often throw up in our faces as a reason they choose not to be believers is the very thing that Paul embraces as a sign of God’s faithfulness! So many folks will say they cannot believe in a God who permits suffering in the world. Paul takes his suffering as the very scene of Christ’s victory. After all, Jesus didn’t die in bed, he was crucified. And it was in his cross, in his suffering, that his greatest victory was achieved. Paul senses that in his own suffering, the victory of Christ is already coming to pass. He offers it not as a prescription — go out and find some suffering for yourself that you may know Christ — but as another sign that even in this Christ is Lord and we may rest confidently in his lordship, that even in suffering, all things will begin “working together for good.” It is a brave affirmation; either brave or daffy! Anyone can follow a lord who seems in charge in rosy circumstances. Paul declares that not only rosy circumstances, but even tragic, awful, terrifying circumstances are so filled with the presence of Christ that they cannot be all there is, that even the worst that can happen to us cannot set us outside his presence and his purposes for us.
What shall we do with our suffering? I don’t have some list of complete answers to such profound questions. I confess to you that I am as often bewildered and angry and lost in the midst of human suffering as you may be. But I do know this. When the disciples were on the lake when the storm blew in, when Peter lost confidence and began to sink, when people came to hear Jesus and were prepared to go hungry in order to do it but he fed them somehow anyway, when people’s children were healed, when things were about to fall apart and people knew that their own resources just could not take them any further, that is when Jesus could be counted on in the gospels to reach out a hand and take hold and not let go. The saving grace of God does save.
We cannot be separated. That’s what Paul says, and you have to admit that it is a pretty amazing claim to make. What couple, after years of marriage, has not been assaulted in the night by thoughts of what it might be like when he is gone, how will I cope when her familiar voice has been silenced, when separation becomes that unavoidable reality of mortal human life? How will it go, how can we face it? I don’t honestly know. But I do know that Paul discovered a gift which he gives to us, a gift of presence, a gift and a promise that no matter how else it might look, Jesus will not leave us. Do we believe it? Sometimes we do. Sometimes we just can’t see how it can be so. It doesn’t matter either way. Our seeing how it can or cannot be so is, after all, much less important than the fact that God has declared that it is so. The truth of the everlasting presence of Christ is not dependent on our believing or not believing it. It is a gift, and that’s how it is with gifts. Whether we believe, understand, accept them or not does not change a true gift in any way.
Perhaps even more so when we cannot believe that it is so, when our prayers seem to bounce back at us from the ceiling, when our own energy can no longer sustain our believing, perhaps that is when the gift of the presence of Christ is most obviously the unexpected, unearned gift that it is and will always be. We don’t require suffering and separation to know that it is so, but we can know even in those desperate times, perhaps especially in those desperate times, that Christ does not leave us, no matter the height, the depth, the things to come, the threat of war or death, the petty gods that our world offers, in all these things it is Christ who makes us conquerors just when we thought we were finally defeated. The Christ who died and was raised raises us just when we thought we were sunk.
Are you feeling a hunger which you find you cannot satisfy? You don’t have to leave the presence of Jesus to satisfy it. Now that is what the church has to say to the world, and it is a risky thing to say, but that is what we have to say. Actually, when you think about it, it’s about all we have to say. But it’s enough. Are you seeking something in life but can’t find it? Are you angry at God? Have you just about heard all the trivialization of Jesus on gospel TV shows that you can stand and want to hear no more? No matter how lost, how lonely, how very confused, how set apart from any human comfort we may feel, we need not go away. Jesus’ presence does not depart from us, even if we curse God and die, as Job was once counseled to do. If nothing can separate us from that source of life and love, as Paul discovered, then Jesus’ presence and promise can survive even the worst we can muster up against him. His presence will be stronger than our absence, we can count on it.
In the Lord’s Supper, it is not bread we eat, it is the presence of Christ. It is not wine we drink it is the symbol of the very blood of Christ, showing to what lengths he is willing to go to be with us and for us. If Christ is for us, who can be against us? He is as near and as humanly necessary to us as the sustenance of our very next meal. He is as willing to go the limit for us, even to die for us as we are willing to pour water from a pitcher to quench our daily thirst. Christ’s presence. How much more plain can Paul make it? He wants to stay with us. The world, even the disciples, would send us packing, but no, Jesus wants to be with us longer, never to let us go, never to leave us, finally, to our own devices, to our own meager resources.
As we sit in our pews this morning, he is as near as the hymnal, as close as the breathing of a friend sitting near by, as intimate as the food digesting in our stomachs, as filled with promise and hope as the morsels that come from his table. He is so close. Who can separate us from such love?
© copyright 2008 by Robert J. Elder all rights reserved
1 “What If Prayer Becomes a Burden?”, a sermon by Dr. Elam Davies, preached at 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, 2/2/88.
2 Letters to Young Churches, by J.B. Phillips, (MacMillan, 1953).
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