Reflection: Comfort during Covid19

Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
26th of July 2020

Romans 8:26-39

‘We know that all things work together for good for those who love God.’

Recently I found out that the Haitian Creole Bible translates Matthew 19:26, ‘for God all things are possible,’ as ‘with God we can make do’. Haitian history would not allow them to say that all things are possible with God. But it did allow them to say that with God they were able to endure.[1] I wish I knew how they translated Romans 8:28, because I think this verse would be just as difficult. Can we honestly say that all things work together for good for those who love God?

Victoria is in the midst of a second wave of Covid19 infections; most of them seem to be acquired in workplaces; and we know that some people have gone to work even when sick because they are in casual employment and don’t have sick leave. People are now dying because over the past few decades we have allowed the casualisation of the Australian workforce, with so many people in insecure work that commentators now refer to them as the ‘precariat’. And this is in Australia, one of the richest countries in the world. We are seeing how much worse the situation is in countries without our resources. Over 15 million people have been infected with Covid19 worldwide, and over 600 thousand have died. Which elements of this situation can work together for good?

Masked

Paul’s world was no different. Paul himself was living in a time of danger, in a society in which Christians were ‘reckoned as sheep ready for the slaughter’. The trials that Paul lists: hardship; distress; persecution; famine; nakedness; peril; sword, are the same hardships that in other places Paul describes as part of his life as an apostle. Paul wasn’t naïve about the evils of the world. So what is Paul saying when he writes to the Romans that he and they: ‘know that all things work together for good for those who love God’?

There are two things, at least, that he is not saying in this passage. Paul’s description ‘those who love God’ doesn’t mean ‘people who love God in a particularly rich and worthy way’. It means all of God’s people: it was a common way of describing the people of Israel in the Bible, and here Paul is using it to refer to all Christians, Jews and Gentiles. We can’t hear this phrase and imagine it means that things work for good only for those people who love God enough; that if things don’t appear to be going well for someone then the problem must be their lack of love for God, and that if only they really loved God everything in their life would go well. We cannot look at the people dying from Covid19 and imagine that the problem is their lack of faith.

Nor is Paul saying that everything will turn out well in the end, that God has a plan, even if we can’t see it. I’m always astounded by the stories of the great courage and care for each other that humans can show in the face of disasters: fires, floods, war; stories of the astonishing love and bravery that people exhibited during the Holocaust or the London Blitz. That doesn’t mean that God planned the Holocaust or the London Blitz to bring these about. The death of one member of a family might bring the rest of the family closer together. Having a heart attack might give someone a new perspective on life. In this time of Covid19 we may be learning what parts of our life are of real value and which we can discard. But God does not send death or heart attacks or pandemics as life lessons.

An alternative translation of ‘all things work together for good for those who love God’ is ‘in every way God works for the benefit of those who love him’.[2] It is God who is working for our good, not things in general. It is not that situations of horror or pain will turn out to have been good for us. It is that even in the midst of that horror and pain God is with us and will not allow them to have the last word. Instead the ‘last word’ will be our ‘glorification’ with Jesus, ‘conformed to the image of his Son’. Ultimately, we will have the same relationship with God that Jesus has, the relationship that God intended when creating humanity in God’s own image.

Paul is telling the Romans, people who may be facing every single one of the trials he mentions, hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword, every danger and difficulty that may befall the followers of Christ in the Roman Empire, that none of these can deprive their lives of meaning or themselves of God’s love. As Paul goes on to say, in that passage that I have told you time and time again is one of my absolute favourites: ‘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.’

Knowing this, knowing that the end of the story will be our glorification and that nothing can separate us from the love of God, has enabled Christians throughout history to act with extraordinary courage. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the members of the Confessing Church knew that nothing could separate them from the love of God when they opposed the Nazis. Archbishop Oscar Romero knew it when he spoke out against human rights abuses in El Salvador. Martin Luther King Jr knew it when he worked for civil rights. Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis; Romero and King were assassinated. But there is no doubt that in their deaths they were not separated from God’s love. People like Bonhoeffer, Romero and King were, in Paul’s words, more than conquerors. They knew that God was for them, and so no one and nothing could finally be against them.

God has preordained, called, justified, and glorified humanity – through the death and resurrection of Christ. The crucifixion of Jesus looked like his overthrow by evil, his defeat by death and the rulers and powers of the world. Yet the crucifixion, the apparent failure of Jesus’ life and ministry, was in fact the triumph of God’s love of humanity. In the crucifixion God’s own beloved son died for our sake; God Godself died for love of us. Now, Paul tells us, the very one who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, intercedes for us. What looked like the greatest defeat was in fact the greatest victory. The love of Christ shown in the crucifixion and resurrection reveals to us the eternal love of God. Nothing can separate us from that.

Knowing this means that we, too, can live with courage, because nothing can ultimately defeat us. It means that we can face this time of Covid19 without immobilising fear. Just as Paul faced hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword, we may be facing sickness and death, unemployment and poverty, isolation and loneliness. None of these things will ‘work together for good’. But equally, none of them can separate us from the God who is for us, and who is always working for our good. Not even death can separate us from God, so we don’t need to be afraid even of death itself. Contrary to the theology of the wackier fringe churches we do not believe that our faith will keep us safe from the Covid19 dangers faced by others, any more than their faith in God protected Jesus or Paul from execution by the Romans. But it does mean that we can say with them, ‘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’. I hope that that comforts you, as it does me. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Anthony G. Reddie, Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique (Routledge: London, 2019), p. 213.

[2] Brendan Byrne, Reckoning with Romans: A Contemporary Reading of Paul’s Gospel (Michael Glazier, Inc: Wilmington, 1986), p. 164.

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