Sermon: He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. Romans 8:28-39
There is an old French game called “He loves me, he loves me not”. Maybe some of you have played the game yourselves. I remember first seeing it in old cartoons. In the game, you take a flower and begin to pick off the petals, one by one. As you pick off each petal, you alternate saying “he loves me” and “he loves me not”. Or “she loves me” and “she loves me not”. The aim of the game is to determine whether or not the person you are attracted to feels the same way. It is not the most surefire way of figuring out whether or not someone loves you. But the person playing wants to know the answer to a simple question: “Does he love me?”
We ask the same question and play the same game. “Does God love me?” We especially ask it during times of crisis, such as the pandemic we are in the midst of. When we see something bad happening, we wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not”. And we wonder because the situation makes it feel more like, “he loves me not.” For many, this is the reason they can’t believe in God. If God is good and wants good things, and if he has all power, the power to make anything He wants to happen, why doesn’t He end suffering? It would seem the answer is that He doesn’t have as much power as we thought He did or He is not good as we might wish Him to be. Or perhaps a God like that does not exist. It is the most profound argument made against the existence of God. For all of us, Christians and those who don’t identify with Christian faith, this is an important question to ask, especially in the middle of a pandemic. “He loves me, he loves me not”.
Anyone who has watched the news has seen the images of people, struggling for their lives, medical professionals filing past bed after bed, each representing desperate need. We have seen the images of truck after truck carrying bodies away from the hospital, buried without the chance for families to grieve together. We have heard interviews with nurses, describing how they FaceTime the families of patients so individuals with COVID19 can say goodbye to their loved ones as they slip away with only a single nurse present in their final moments. As we see these stories, we all have the same sense of grief, loneliness, and anxiety.
When we see so many people, sick and dying, we have to wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why are so many people suffering?” When we are worried for our safety and our family’s safety, we wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why am I so afraid?” When so many are out of work and wondering how to provide for their families, we wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why can’t I afford groceries for my family this week?” When we cannot visit friends and family, we have to wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why am I so lonely?” If God is big enough to end this crisis and He doesn’t, it’s reason enough for many of us to doubt that He does love us, or that he is even there.
Our text today grapples with the same question. After Jewish Christians in the church of Rome were expelled from the city, they had to wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why aren’t I welcome in my hometown?” When they faced persecution and danger from the hand of emperor Nero and fear for their lives, they had to wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why am I so afraid?” When Jewish and Gentile factions of the church were arguing about how to follow Jesus and couldn’t come to an agreement, they had to wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not. Why is there no peace in my church?”
As St. Paul writes to them and to us, he has a hard task. How is he going to answer these real questions that come out of so much pain? How will he be able to say God loves us when there are plenty of clues suggesting He loves us not? But Paul is emphatic in his answer. He looks at each challenge facing the church and knows them all too well. He himself has been in prison, beaten to the point of death, shipwrecked, and gone without food and drink. He is no stranger to suffering. He is no stranger to wondering, “He loves me, he loves me not.”
“We know that in all things God works for the good.” God is active in all situations to bring about His good goals. Yet God’s goals are far greater than we can imagine. People might struggle to see exactly how a situation can work for good, but that is because we can only see a small fraction of what God can see and what God knows. And His goals, His dreams, His plans, are far more than what we expect. God has chosen to enter into relationship with the people He has made out of love with the goal of making them like His Son. Paul is pushing his readers to stretch their imaginations, to see that the “good” God offers is far more than peace, money, and comfort. It is, instead, to be like Jesus, to become part of God’s new creation, to take part in the life he originally made humanity for, relying on His generosity rather than ourselves. God’s work, his new creation project, is setting all things right and He is still working at it. And He is sure to complete it. When Paul talks about the people God has called to be part of His family, he can say, “those he justified, he also glorified.” God’s new creation project might not be finished. Humanity might not be glorified, resurrected in a world without sin, evil, brokenness, and death. But God has begun the project, and God will, no doubt about it, finish the job. Nothing can get in His way either. Paul says that God uses all things, the good, the bad, the pleasant, the painful, to finish His plan.
Because God is for us, nothing can be against us. Even what feels like an enemy coming against us can ultimately be used by God for our benefit. Anything that stands against God’s family will just become another step in God’s new creation project, making all things right. The clearest example of that is Jesus’ own death. God spared no expense. To set this world right, He gave up the thing most precious to Him, His Son, to die. In this act of atrocious injustice, the violent murder of Jesus in His crucifixion, God surprisingly began His new creation project. Jesus faced the very depths of sin, evil, and death, and He came out the victor in His resurrection. He conquered the greatest of enemies. And if God didn’t spare His Son, then Paul says Christians can trust God to come through for them on anything in order to show His love, to show He is on His people’s side, and He will do anything to ultimately set the world right. The great Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, commented on this passage, “God, who once in his love embraced us, never ceases to care for us.”
In case his readers haven’t yet gotten the point, Paul goes into a series of dramatic questions, pushing our imaginations to realize that nothing, nothing, stands in the way of God’s new creation project. Can anyone bring any charge against God’s people? Can anyone prove them unworthy of God’s love? God has already declared His children forgiven. God has already declared us in the right. Can anyone make a case against God’s people? Jesus, the one who died for sin and rose again to bring new life, stands at the defense of God’s people. Jesus vouches for us. Jesus, who has already won the case against sin, evil, and death, is on our side. “But can anything get in the way of Jesus’ love for us?” Paul asks. What if things get so bad? What if persecution breaks out? What if famine strikes? What if it gets dangerous? What if it is really hard? Will Jesus still be there for us? Jesus has already won against all these things. Jesus is the super conqueror over any danger, any trial, any evil, anyone could ever face and He shares His victory with His people. Jesus makes every one of His people super conquerors too. And there is nothing, no power in heaven or hell, no danger in the past or in the future, no power on earth or in heaven that could ever get in the way of the love He has for His people.
As we and the church in Rome wonder, “He loves me, he loves me not”, the answer is crystal clear that God loves His people so much that He enters into the worst this world has to offer, all sin, all evil, all death, and He bears it Himself. And in the end, Jesus is raised from the dead, having conquered all that stands in our way. Because of His victory, the end is already determined. God will finish His new creation project and set every wrong, every tear, every moment of pain, suffering, and loss right. And as God’s new creation goes on, nothing that any of God’s people face can take them out of that love. In fact, Jesus has defeated the worst this world has to offer and has turned them into tools, opportunities, to lead His people deeper into God’s new creation project.
In our own day, as we face the challenges of the COVID-19 epidemic, the question we are left with is not “Does God love me?” but “How does God love me?” We do not understand exactly why God has allowed this crisis, but we do know He has victory over it and, for now, it is a tool to lead us deeper into His new creation project, to make us more like Jesus, and an invitation to live into it now. A 5th-century pastor, John Chrysostom preached on this text: “For if tribulation, or poverty, or imprisonment, or famines, or deaths or anything else should come upon us, God can change them into the opposite.” So how is God using this crisis as the opposite, to make you more like Jesus? As we see sickness and death around us, God invites us to more deeply hope in the resurrection that we will experience, guaranteed. When we fear for our safety, God has conquered every danger. When we are unsure of how to provide for our families, God gives us our daily bread. As we struggle with loneliness, isolated from friends and family, God offers Himself as the only love that truly satisfies. God is present and active in the midst of this pandemic. My mentor, Vito Baldini, serves as the mercy ministries director for a Philadelphia church planting network. God is actively spreading His love and resurrection hope through Vito. Social media is filled with videos of him, decked out in mask and gloves, standing in front of boxes of food being prepared to be sent out to those in need during this crisis. Vito recently said, “[The church] can offer hope in a time when people need that…by offering food and care for people in our communities.” Jesus’ self-giving love acts through Vito and church volunteers who are, safely, going out to vulnerable people, bringing them hope, love, and living out God’s new creation project. God loves us and works all things, even COVID-19, for our good, for those He called to be conformed to the image of His Son. Amen.