The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Trusting the Grip
I just stared at the picture. Looking at the faces. They were my brothers and my sisters in Christ, they were even fellow members of the Anglican Communion, but they did not really like me; they were browner than I am – which, of course, is not difficult. The men mostly had beards. The women, they wore coverings on their heads. They sat there in the church, looking at the one standing in the pulpit, holding a camera. And they smiled, with their lips and their eyes, they smiled. The church, it was full. And I just stared.
Mostly it was just a picture of people in a church – an Anglican Church. There was nothing extraordinary about the quality of the picture. In almost every way it was common, normal. But for one thing: the picture was taken in the heart of Baghdad, at St. George's Church. There they sat, people of all ages, smiling at the camera, ready to worship Jesus in a building that has been damaged by five bombs in the past three years. Most of those pictured were picked up by the parish van that morning to avoid kidnappers. Once a would-be suicide bomber evaded security and entered their church; thankfully he was removed before he could detonate the explosives. The people come to worship not knowing if they will leave alive. They bring their children. They risk their lives to worship Jesus. They are, of course, imperfect and flawed like the rest of us, but I am in awe of them. And that is why I just stared.
I wanted those faces to help me understand the packed pews and the peaceful smiles and the vibrant ministries. I wanted my Iraqi brothers and sisters to teach me to trust God with my life. I think they know something about today's Romans reading that I just can't understand.
Paul understood. He knew life lived in the shadow of death. In his second letter to the church in Corinth he chronicles his troubles: lashings and beatings, shipwrecks and stonings, hunger and thirst, prison and, eventually, death at the hands of the Roman authorities. All for the cause of Christ. When the cost of following Jesus is so great, ya gotta be all in.
For Paul, the first century churches for which he cared, and still for Christians today in places like Baghdad, the questions were not rhetorical. They mattered. They were life and death questions. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Will they? Paul asks the question because the answer was important. Because those things were a constant threat. And so, he asks the question: Will they? Will those things separate us from the love Christ?
The question was not whether or not they would face challenges. Paul, and many of those to whom he wrote this letter, had already faced some or all of those threats he listed. First century Christians did not have the luxury of bad “health and wealth” theology like privileged Christians in the US do. The question was not whether or not they would face challenges. The answer to that question was yes. The question was: is Christ's love really strong enough to carry them through – through the pain, through the struggle, through life and through death?
CS Lewis once wrote, “You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it?” Trusting God is not easy. It is a risk. That's probably why we're not great at it. It is easy to proclaim trust in God; but it is hard to trust God with our stuff, our money, our time. And that stuff is the small stuff, at some point it becomes a matter of life and death and we are faced with the ultimate question: do we trust God with our loved ones – with our children, with our spouses? And then, finally, do we trust God with our lives?
We don't risk our lives to come here and worship God. We do not put at risk the lives of our children or our friends when we bring them to this building. We might never know what it feels like to be those Christians in Baghdad, facing the constant threat of persecution. But no one makes it out of this life alive. And at some point our trust in God will become a matter of life and death. At some point each of us will need the answer to the question: Is Christ's love really strong enough to carry me through?
It was never cheap for Paul. His life was not easy. His decision to follow Jesus, in the end, cost him everything. He emerged from the pain and the beatings and threats and prison time with nothing but this: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, not depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It's that strong. And we are held in its grip. The love of Christ does not let go. No bomb can loosen that grip. No authority or power can loosen that grip. Pain and suffering cannot loosen that grip. Death cannot loosen that grip. Not even you, with your imperfect love and lack of trust, can loosen that grip. Because God loves you. And there is nothing in all creation that can ever change that.