Milagro de los panes y los peces, Juan de Espinal, c. 1750, Despacho del Alcalde de la Casa consistorial de Sevilla (Wikipedia)
18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Rom. 8:35, 37-39
August 2, 2020
Today’s reading is one of the most beautiful standalone passages in St. Paul. Whenever possible, I use it for funerals because it expresses the bedrock of Christian hope. Yet having examined the rest of Romans, we can see why it is such a fitting conclusion to it. It is also a pertinent exhortation to us at St. Charles.
The selection that will be used at Mass needs to be read with the passage immediately before it. Together, they form a powerful and haunting victory hymn:
What then shall we say to this?
If God is for us, who can be against us?
He who did not spare his own Son
but handed him over for us all,
how will he not also give us everything else along with him?
Who will bring a charge against God’s chosen ones?
It is God who acquits us.
Who will condemn?
It is Christ (Jesus) who died,
rather, was raised,
who also is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
“God is for us” are in and of themselves very powerful words. He who created us has also redeemed us. This puts very clearly what Paul has been proclaiming throughout the letter: the universe was created by God in such a way that it can only be fulfilled when humans flourish. Yet we must remember that the key audience for this letter was the Jewish Christians of Rome. They would have remembered the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.
By myself I have sworn, says the Lord:
Because you have done this,
and have not withheld your son, your only son,
I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring
as numerous as the stars of heaven
and as the sand that is on the seashore.
Even clearer they would have seen in the next line a trial scene beloved by Jewish authors. A telling example is in Isaiah:
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
And, as to be expected, we see in the Psalms:
With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
What can mortals do to me?
The Lord is on my side to help me;
I shall look in triumph on those who hate me
The Jewish expectation of vindication from God is now found not in obedience to the Law or even a morally upright existence but in being “in the Spirit,” centering our lives and our actions on our relationship with Jesus.
The great hymn that now concludes Romans 8 although powerful for all people at all times would also be targeted to its original audience not only by its message and references to scripture but by its format:
No separation from God’s (Christ’s) love (vv. 35–39)
A: Nothing can separate believers from Christ’s love (8:35a)
B: List of sufferings (8:35b)
C: Believers thoroughly overcome (8:37)
B´: List of sufferings (8:38–39a)
A´: Nothing can separate believers from God’s love in Christ (8:39)
Paul is using here the classical literary device of “chiasm.” In it a series of ideas is presented and then repeated in reverse order. We have above a simple chiasm ABBA. As is often the case, the middle term (C) gives the explanation or in some way holds the key to the structure.
Because we are “in the Spirit,” the connection with Jesus was not created by anything worldly and so cannot be broken by anything created.
The first list B state natural or at least non-supernatural evils:
anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword
It is no accident that this list reflects the trials that St. Paul himself experienced and which he shares in 1st and 2nd Corinthians. (see especially 2 Cor. 6:4-10) He is neither whining nor asking for congratulations with this. These are called “tribulation lists” and both Roman and Jewish people would have expected them. Paul needs to prove that he has experienced these woes and has overcome them because he was “in the Spirit.”
Thus, he has the right to say:
No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us.
We heard above that Jesus is at the right hand of God. As the Psalm reminds us, he has been given power and authority:
The Lord says to my lord,
“Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool
Being in the Spirit means that we partake of that power and thus overcome all-natural forces.
But not only natural ones. We read next 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
Here again we see a partially closed structure. There are four pairs: death/life; angels/rulers; things present/things to come; height/depth powers singled out by itself and an all-purpose “any other creature” added on. Death as we have seen be a personified power in Paul (Romans 5:12-21) angels and principalities are the controlling powers of the world that is “in the flesh.” “Powers” is set aside so that we recognize that there are many more then can be named and is especially deadly. Present and future most likely refers to life, height and depth refer to ancient astrology.
Paul may then come to his powerful conclusion:
[nothing] “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39b)
This not only summarizes Romans 8 but the entire argument from chapters 5–8. The world is a dangerous place. Powers both natural and supernatural surround us and may lead us to think and act in the flesh. But Jesus has overcome them and when we are “in the Spirit” with him, we join in his victory.
Next week Paul will begin to show us the consequences of this in the first century world of his readers. It will be instructive. Yet I think we can see immediate consequences for us at St. Charles. When we do more fully reopen, we will confront great difficulties and obstacles. They may seem insurmountable and we will have our own tribulations. They will be real but not as real as the power of God. Jesus is still victorious, and we are still in his Spirit.