26Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. 29For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. 30And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
31What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? 33Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. 35Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor 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.
When I was growing up, once show my friends and I loved to watch was Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Some of you familiar with it? It was a wacky show with all sorts of random characters and themes, but there was always a word of the day. And if someone said the word of the day, everyone had to scream and shout. So when the word was uttered, your ears perked up a bit more than usual in anticipation of the reaction.
I think this text from Romans has a word of the day. I am not going to ask you to yell and scream, but did any of you find that your ears perked up a bit when I read the word “predestined”?
As a lifelong Presbyterian, I must admit that my predestination radar is pretty high.
So as i studied these texts this week, my first thought: Ugh. No. I don’t want to talk about Predestination.
But then my second thought: this is the first theological thing anyone outside of the Presbyterian Church says about my tradition. At least that has been my experience. “Aren’t you the ones who believe in predestination?” I bet some of you get that too. Far from being the center of our faith, it appears to be the most talked about by everyone outside of the church. So I began to think that maybe we don’t talk about it enough here. Many of you might feel that you lack the words to respond when people ask about predestination, because you might not really understand it yourself. And some of you might know more about it, but simply don’t like it and wish it was not part of our tradition. Either way, you are in good company.
First, let me clear up what predestination is not.
Predestination has nothing to do with God having a plan for what you will eat for lunch or where you will go to school or where you will meet your spouse or how you will land your next job. If someone says, “God had a plan for me. I stopped for coffee at a new place today, and I ended up running into a friend who really needed to talk”, that’s not predestination. Those fall more within the lines of what we might call God’s providence.
Predestination is a doctrine about salvation that has been around since the early church when good people sought to reconcile scripture with their understanding of God and their experience of the world. Which is basically what Christian theology still is today.
People like Augustine and Calvin read texts like this one in Paul’s letter to the Romans and saw this idea that God chose, or predestined, some to be conformed to the image of Christ, and thus justified or saved. And in his deep understanding that all things fall under the sovereignty of God, Calvin also concluded that some must be predestined for damnation, since his experience of the world and reading of scripture indicated that some people did not seem to follow Christ. Basically, to use the language of the parable Kevin preached on last week, some were predestined to be wheat. Some were predestined to be weeds. We have no choice in the matter. Ouch.
Even Calvin himself didn’t like this. He called it a “horrible decree.” And we don’t have to think too hard to imagine all sorts of problems that can arise from a theology like this. If I don’t think someone has been chosen by God, perhaps I don’t have to treat them fairly. Perhaps I don’t have to acknowledge their struggles. Perhaps I should make it my responsibility to remind them of their un-chosenness on a regular basis in an effort to celebrate my own self-righteous status.
Some people seem to relish in the idea of others being punished by God. Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist, preacher, and former slave had trouble with this idea. In response to a sermon she once heard that joyfully anticipated the return of Christ to separate the elect from the wicked, she said, “You seem to be expecting to go to some parlor away up somewhere, and when the wicked have been burnt, you are coming back to walk in triumph over their ashes-this is to be your New Jerusalem!! Now, I can’t see any thing so very nice in that, coming back to such a muss as that will be, a world covered with the ashes of the wicked! Besides, if the Lord comes and burns-as you say he will-I am not going away; I am going to stay here and stand the fire, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! And Jesus will walk with me through the fire, and keep me from harm. Nothing belonging to God can burn.”
For centuries, Reformed Christians have struggled with this doctrine of predestination. For me, the hard part is that it is wrapped up within some really good parts of our theology, so it is hard to abandon it altogether. After all, the doctrine affirms that God saves through Jesus Christ, and there is nothing we can do to earn or revoke that. God’s grace is vast and expansive and not accidental. That is good news indeed. But who says we have to limit that good news to only a small number of the elect?
Karl Barth was a 20th century German theologian who was the primary author of one of our confessions in the Presbyterian Church. Barth took great issue with Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Rather than an individual predestination, Barth proposed one for all of humanity. He argued that as divine and human in one, Christ was the one choosing and being chosen. In Christ, all of humanity was predestined for salvation. In Christ, the rejected and the elected are united, so that distinction no longer exists. Barth did not want to claim to know the will of God, so he was careful to avoid talk of universalism, but it is hard to not find within his understanding of predestination the idea that all are saved. And I must admit that I find that much more in line with my understanding of the gospel. Why would Jesus make this ultimate sacrifice and suffer and die only for a limited number of people? Don’t we proclaim that Jesus came because God so loved the WORLD? Not just a pre-selected portion of it.
So maybe I have redeemed the doctrine of predestination for some of you. Maybe not. But predestination is just one small part of this beautiful text from Romans. I think the more important part is what he writes next: “What then are we to say about these things?” If we are called and justified and glorified by God in Christ, what does that mean for us? Or, using Barth’s theology of predestination, if all of humanity (with its brokenness and sinfulness) was transformed through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, what does that mean for all of us? It means that no one is separated from the love of God. And it means that nothing can sever that relationship.
Here at the church Friday night, we watched a great documentary called “For the Bible Tells Me So.” It is a painful reminder of how people in pulpits and at schools and on the street use the Bible to condemn, ostracize, shame, and often physically harm people who are gay, lesbian or transgender. We had some very good discussion afterwards in which we lamented the ways in which the church often becomes the vehicle of our prejudice (whether it be homophobia, racism, agism, classism). Instead, shouldn’t we be the voice loudly rejecting such practices and declaring the good news we know in Jesus Christ? Christianity is not a religion of judgment and hate. Why are so many of Christ’s followers content to abuse scripture to fuel hatred? And why are so many of us silent about it?
These are not questions with simple answers, and I know that. But I do know that Jesus came to offer us something new, something better. Jesus came to show us how much God loves us and what that love looks like. It looks like good news to the poor and release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind. It looks like lavish meals shared with the rejected of society. It looks like tiny mustard seeds and leaven – small, unimpressive items that surprise us with their abundance. It looks like a man who rejected the way of violence and chose to change the world through radical acts of hospitality and grace. That is what the love of God looks like.
And, as Paul reminds us, the good news – the amazing news – is that nothing can separate us from this love.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God.
Not our problematic theological concepts,
not our personal shortcomings,
not bullying at school,
not bullying by the church,
not dangerous storms,
not the prejudices of others,
not a gunman opening fire on a youth camp in Norway,
not a single thing.
Nothing. Nothing. Can separate us from the love of God we know in Christ Jesus.
May we be able to live and serve as people who know that to be true. Amen.