What will separate us from the love of Christ?
Paul begins his theological reflection in this passage with a rhetorical question. Then he goes through a list of possibilities that, in the logic of the world, could be causes of, or reasons for separation. Then follows it with an emphatic response to the question:
ʺBrothers and sisters: What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? No, in all things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.ʺ
Here he has listed real things that have certainly caused real life separations in our lives, or in the history of the world. Some of the things he lists above are the results of separations at the personal level, like anguish and distress. Some are related to the larger social and political levels, like persecution and wars. Separation is a familiar experience to all of us. It is something we fear at a primal level. But Paul tells us something that we also know as Christians believers here, that is, we are not defeated by these separations because we have put our faith in the one who loves us so much that he willingly died for us and rose again, destroying these false separations forever.
Then Paul takes his argument to another level when he says: ʺFor I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.ʺ This is clear statement of faith. It expresses an idea that transcends the earthly realm, indeed, that transforms the earthly realm. This is a statement of a truth that is larger than the world. These things that, in the eyes of the world, are legitimate fears and real causes of social and political concern, are as nothing in comparison to the infinite, unconditional love of God.
I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but there is something else in this passage; something between the lines, that really makes this faith statement by Paul even more powerful. There is one thing that can, indeed, separate us from the love of God. What is it that is the cause of our separation from others? What is it that holds the potential for separating us from God, forever? Sin. Yes, sin, in all its manifold forms is the greatest force for separation in the world. It is the cause of anguish and distress. It is the parent of persecution, famine, nakedness, and all kinds of perils, including wars. Sin is the cause of all separation, human and divine.
But every Christian is buoyed by a further, incontrovertible truth: If ʺneither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creatureʺ can separate us from God then, certainly, neither can our sins, not even our worst sins, separate us from the love of God. This is a great truth. It is the reason for our faith, our hope, and our love. Because we know Christ, because we know the depths of his love, which he manifested in his death on the cross and in his resurrection, we also know that no sin, no matter how great, if truly, honestly, and humbly repented, will separate us from the inexpressible, loving forgiveness of God. They key in that last sentence is, of course, the idea of true, honest and humble repentance. Though we separate ourselves from others, and God, by sinning, if we finally see our sins for what they really are; if our sorrow is great enough to repent of them with all of our heart, mind and soul, in that instant God’s loving mercy descends upon us like the morning dew and we are washed clean. At that moment, we become the Prodigal Son and are welcomed back home by the Father. The family ring, the symbol of eternal union, is put back on our finger, and the whole of heaven celebrates the return of one who was lost, but now is found.
Willfully unrepentant sin is the only thing that can truly separate us from God, for eternity. Yet, here is the paradox that our Christian faith reveals: It was our sins that drew God’s love down to earth, in Christ Jesus the Lord, who crossed the chasm of separation that our sins created between us. He bridged that gap with his unconditional forgiveness. This is the truth: It is ʺthrough him who loved usʺ that all these things have been conquered.
Lord, we thank you for your love and your grace. We ask you to continue to help us to recognize the things, the small and the great, that separate us from you. Help us to turn back to you with humble, contrite, and repentant hearts. For it is our deepest desire to be united with you, both now and forever. Amen.