Saint Paul on God and love is simple for to the saint these are one and the same. That is his statement to the Christians at Rome and he declares this squarely in the middle of his Epistle to the Romans, his 5,000-word tour de force on love, God, sin, death, resurrection, and the salvation purchased for humanity by belief in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. Writing urgently, Paul uses the thrust of the entire letter to build a symphonic affirmation that nothing, absolutely nothing in this world can separate us from the love of God in Christ. Nada.
Certainly much prayer and study are necessary to understand and accept the words Paul wrote using the eyes of his heart, reporting his observations on sin and death, on life and love, for all generations blessed to be in communion with the Lord.
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 these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For 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 (Romans 8:35, 37-39).
I suppose I could end my story there but I won’t. I mean, his words speak for themselves. Paul’s writing demands further consideration, his ideas need to be integrated into the lives of believers that want to know about and love God more. Reading Romans is the way to learn. These four verses are among the most affecting spiritual writing that the apostle ever crafted onto the surface of parchment. They are much like the passage written in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, that definitive segment known as the “love chapter” (13:1-13): “Love is patient, love is kind …” In Romans Paul claims that there is no power in the universe strong enough to separate us from God, who is all in all. His love is more powerful than the litany of tragedies that Paul lays out — death, poverty, depression, spiritual nakedness, and fear. And he isn’t just speculating — he is convinced. He has confidence in God, believing that salvation is assured by Christ’s suffering on the cross. The prose of the letter is confident, muscular, and girded with the iron-clad truth wrought through personal experience. Search your own heart and you will know this to be true. God exists in our lives, simple as that. Remove all distractions — the debt ceiling debate, a summer tax holiday, Captain America, Amy Winehouse, William and Kate, the Ping-Pong bickering of climate change — and God remains. He tells us: I AM. By listing such supernatural forces, real or imagined, malignant or benign, Paul argues that nothing in this world is stronger than God, who is love. There need be no debate. Either God is everything or else he is nothing. He either is or he isn’t. What is our choice to be?
Look to Paul’s experience. How does he know this? What makes him so sure? A voice intoned and a hand from heaven pulsating with light pushed him to the ground and, to put it figuratively, knocked some sense into him. Was he really on a horse? Acts of the Apostles doesn’t say so but regardless the horse couldn’t deflect God’s right hand. Paul got pancaked. Afterward he never doubted the veracity of his calling; he might have struggled to accept it because of his humanity, but he probably didn’t doubt its authenticity. Here he was, a biblical Jew that knew what it meant to have a vision because he had studied Elijah and Moses but when he got up from the ground he was never the same. Jesus reached down from heaven and changed Paul’s life. They say that the eyes are the windows of the soul and Paul, by virtue of his calling, looked with his own eyes into the soul of the world. He possessed the ability to pare away the physical details of the body and to look into that “into which angels longed to look” (1 Peter 1:12). The commission that the Apostle received directly from the Lord equipped him with the ability to see souls—starting with his own.
At first he didn’t like what he saw but he stared it down. He didn’t blink. In his other letters he recalls how he wept and beat his breast as he prayed for those whom he persecuted in the Church, namely Stephen the deacon whose death the fire-breathing Pharisee helped to facilitate. Paul acknowledges the mercy he received through baptism and by the laying on of hands from Ananias, how he was configured to Christ the High Priest. In 2 Timothy 1:12-17, Paul remembers how God forgave his sins thereby freeing him to accept his commission as a fresh start. “God judged me faithful by appointing me to his service, though I formerly blasphemed and persecuted and insulted him; but I receive mercy because I acted ignorantly and in unbelief and the grace of our God overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. I am the foremost of sinners. …” That was not exaggeration, not an easy admission. Humility is necessary, a personal inventory to examine our lives. Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of oneself; it means thinking of oneself less. That makes more room for God.
These conclusions Paul came to in the darkness. For three days following his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul remained huddled and blind with his eyes turned inward toward his soul. Naked and exposed, Paul saw what God permitted him to see, that the soul, immortal, immaterial, remains connected to the Creator even after being separated from the body at death. Nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus because nothing ever does separate us. Despite human sinfulness, our souls and God are one. We can’t be separated. He sticks to us like a stamp to a letter, like bread and butter, a pillow with its feathers, white on rice, right on red. His love endures forever.
This isn’t like stepping onto the scale before the bathroom mirror in the morning. Our spiritual nakedness goes back a long way, to Eden, as described in Genesis ( 2:4b-25). Adam and Eve lived in friendship with God until they disobeyed him and their eyes were opened; their nakedness caused them shame. Before they stood before God transparent; they had no need for clothes. Only when they sinned did they recognize their vulnerability; they hid themselves in disgrace. A good reading of chapter three in Genesis is precisely the mirror needed to check out what we are wearing, what article of clothing we have on that either conceals or reveals or flatters.
Sure, somebody could say that, even though God never stops loving us, he could withdraw our salvation if we don’t obey his commandments. Such logic fails to reflect the truth of God’s love and presumes that he does not fulfill his commitment to bring the good work he has begun in us to fulfillment, another important Pauline idea (Philippians 1:6). Were that to be the case, we would merely be automatons, functionaries of God’s creation with no true sense of his love. God reveals these truths through Paul’s writing to confirm that his love is stronger than death, what we most fear. That’s why he gave us his Son Jesus in the Eucharist and the resurrection. Death can’t take over, we have nothing to fear. Small sacrifices help. Time is a commodity that we horde from God jealously. We have become slaves to the clock and to the calendar but with God there is no time. A single day, a thousand years, it is all the same (2 Peter 3:8).
It is easy to believe Paul’s words when life is going smoothly. Tragedy and hardship (dominations and principalities) really test our mettle. But present trials are not an indication that God has withdrawn his love. Even though he allowed Jesus to suffer he did not stop loving him. The cross of Christ offers us proof. It is the stake that anchors us in the reality of God’s embracing love and ensures we will not be separated.