A sermon at a service remembering those who have died in the previous twelve months, preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church North Shields, 26th November, 2023
‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (8:35)
That all sounds a bit dramatic: hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and the sword. And it’s true that in some places in today’s world these are realities that people have to face, including Christian people. And I’m sure that in earliest days of the Christian church, when Saint Paul was writing his letter to Christian congregations in Rome, the prospect of such things was a felt reality.
In general, though, these are not the things that confront us. We do not fear death by the sword, through famine, or lack clothing to keep us warm. Instead, if we fear death, it’s for the mundane reason that it’s an inescapable reality for each and every one of us; something already experienced by those whom we remember this evening. How do we deal with that?
The television presenter, journalist, and media personality, Stacey Dooley recently did a programme about the work of undertakers. She did so in order to confront her own fear, her phobia, concerning death. Life for Stacey is good, she says, and she really doesn’t want that to stop. She is terrified by the prospect of no longer existing. She also says that she is envious of “people of faith”, thinking that her fear of death would disappear if she had a faith which led her to believe that death wasn’t really the end of everything.
It might not be as straightforward as that, Stacey, though I admire your ability to state publicly what many feel, but fear to say aloud.
This evening, we remember those who have died, especially those associated with this church who have done so during the last twelve months. We do so with hope. It’s a hope both for ourselves, and for those who are in our hearts, minds and memories this evening.
And first, the basis of our hope is that there is a God and that that God loves us. The Apostle Paul reminds us of that: ‘What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?’ (31)
Paul poses that as a question – ‘if God is for us who can be against us?’ But he does so in order to supply the answer to the question that must follow on: How do we know that God is for us? And the answer to that question is that we know God is for us, we know God loves us, because God, ‘ did not withhold his own Son [Jesus], but gave him up for all of us.’ In which case, says Paul, will not God, who is known to us in and through Jesus Christ, ‘also give us everything else? (32)
What’s included in the ‘everything else’ we receive from God? – life! God has determined that death is not the last thing for us, and has done so through Jesus: ‘It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.’ (34) As Paul wrote on another occasion, to a different congregation (1 Corinthians 15:20), Jesus’s death and resurrection is the ’first fruits’ of death and resurrection for all of us.
And it’s at this point that Paul writes the words with which I began this reflection: ‘Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?’ (35) Once again Paul has posed this as a question. He does so because he wants to draw people’s attention to the answer: ‘No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ (37)
In writing that ‘all these things’ Paul proclaims that the God of creation, the God who is thus Lord over both life and death, has been at work in Jesus Christ, in his death and resurrection, for our sake, in all circumstances. Hence, ‘For 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.’ (38-39)
Tonight, in our worship, inevitably there is an element of sadness; we miss those who are no longer with us; we feel the reality of the separation. There’s no getting away from that, and we should not try to deny it. At the same time, however, we do not despair. We are hopeful, because we can believe that those we remember continue, safe in the love of God, made known in Jesus Christ our Lord.
‘‘For 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.’ Amen.