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I Am Persuaded

July 11, 1982 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 8:28-39

An old man lay dying in the ward of a large city hospital. His life had been one long struggle against grinding poverty and ill-health. He had virtually nothing to live for. Death would have been a blessed release. A hospital Chaplain, wanting to know if the patient belonged to any church, stopped by his bed and asked: “Tell me, friend, what persuasion are you?” There came a whispered reply: “Paul’s persuasion.” Well, that was a new one on the Chaplain. He knew about Baptists and Catholics and Presbyterians and the like, but “Paul’s persuasion” had him mystified. So he asked, “What do you mean by that?” The old man turned his head toward the chaplain and said in soft, yet vibrant tones: “I am persuaded that neither death,nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“I am persuaded…” writes Paul. Well, all of us ought to be persuaded about something. All of us ought to come to the point where we have at least one thing of which we can be absolutely sure—one great, eternal, unchanging reality to which we can cling even if our whole world falls to pieces. For Paul and for that old man in the hospital ward that reality was the love of God. They believed not only that God loves us, but that God never stops loving us—nothing can make him stop loving us—nothing can ever damage or diminish the love He has for us. “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life…nor anything else…shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul was persuaded of that. He had seen God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ—a love so high that it reaches to heaven, a love so deep that it reaches right down into hell, a love so wide that it encircles the stars, a love so long that it spans all eternity. Fram that love of God, the limitless love so clearly revealed in Jesus, Paul was persuaded that nothing can ever separate us.

But the real question is: Has Paul persuaded us? He certainly tries to do that. He knows that we may not be certain of God’s love in Christ. He knows that we may not be sure that God loves us that much. He knows that we encounter those things in life which seek to separate us from the Lord. So, in order to prove his point, Paul conjures up all the tensions that assault the human soul, all the enemies of faith and assurance, all the forces that destroy confidence, and he challenges them to do their worst.

The first enemy, Paul notes, is death.

“I am persuaded that neither death…” Paul begins with death, I think, because in our lives death is the great separator. Death separates us from those we love and nothing can soften the sorrow of that separation. No peaceful parting, no precious memories, no words of comfort could begin to ease the pain of that woman who left the cemetery with a broken heart, having committed to the earth all that was mortal of the man she loved. For ten days thereafter, she stayed at her daughter’s home—but the day came when she had to return to her own home. That night she was suddenly shaken by the fact that from now on she would sleep alone. Her husband would not be there anymore. So she put in a call to Trisha and me asking us to pray for her, especially that night. We did. Several days later, this note came in the mail. In it, she shared with us a marvelously profound thought about her husband and the love that bound them together. “Our love was so deep and it still is. And even though I can’t see or feel him, I know he is watching over me as he always has.”

Now, if we have that kind of hope—the hope that our love for each other does not end with death—then how much more should we be convinced that God’s love for us does not end with death. Now some who have not known Jesus have come to that belief. Take, for example, the Hebrew shepherd who wrote Psalm 23. When he remembered how God had brought him into the world and watched over him and cared for him and provided for his needs and met him at every turn of the way and never failed him—when he remembered all that, he simply could not imagine that this same God would desert him in death. And so he wrote those timeless words: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

My friends, the God of the 23rd Psalm is the same God who gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. And he is also the same God who raised His Son from the dead. That means that God’s love is stronger than death. It means that the person who loves God still has to die, yes, but death will not be the end of the person’s life with God. Instead, death will mark the beginning of a new kind of life—a life which shall never end. Believe that! When death threatens to destroy all that you love, then take hold of that belief and stand firmly within it. For nothing can ever separate us from God’s love—not even death can do it.

Sheldon Vanauken has written a beautiful story of love and faith. It is called, A Severe Mercy. It’s the story of the girl he married and continued to love for 15 years until that winter dawn when she had touched his face a last time, and died with her hand in his. Since then grief and loss have filled his life. But, amidst the tears and the pain he found consolation in one thought: the thought that death could not end their love for each other, or for the Christ they both claimed. He writes: “When I myself come to cross that boundary of death which she has crossed I shall find her hand and hear her voice first of all.” Like Paul, you see, he was persuaded. God help us to be as well!

The next enemy, Paul writes, is an even greater peril than death.

“I am persuaded that neither death, nor life…” Paul knew what he was talking about, for life in this world is just as capable of making us feel separated from God’s love. Imagine someone who has known nothing but suffering and pain saying: “I am persuaded that this life of agony and anxiety cannot separate me from the love of God.” Imagine the father who can’t get a job because of the handicap of age or skin color or physical disability—imagine him saying: “I am persuaded that this life of poverty and worry can’t separate me from the love of God.” Imagine a woman whose husband is a drunkard and a brute saying: “I am persuaded that this life of fear and misery cannot separate us from the love of God.” Oh, I tell you, the man who wrote Romans must have led a rather secure and sheltered life for his faith to have been so triumphant. Life could not have dealt him any harsh blows.

Paul’s life—safe? Secure? Easy? Sheltered? Just the opposite in fact—He knew what it was to have friends forsake him, to be beaten and stoned and shipwrecked and imprisoned and maligned and slandered. He knew what it was to fight until beaten, to battle against ill-health, and to lose all of his money. Paul might easily have said:

“I am persuaded that life is full of ugly and distressing things—it is nothing more than a seemingly endless nightmare.” Paul knew only too well that the ugly things are there in life. But he also knew that the love of God is more powerful than any of them. And so he spent his life clinging to the faith that nothing in this life could ever separate him from the loving embrace of Almighty God.

I was reading not long ago of a Scottish minister who in his early forties was crippled with polio. By sheer willpower and God’s help, he continued his ministry though permanently handicapped. Then his eldest son was killed in World War II. Then the final crushing blow—his wife suffered a stroke and lingered for months before she quietly slipped away. Not long afterward, this man who had drunk the cup of sorrow to its bitterest degree went to join his wife and his son. Yet the fire of his faith burned brightly to the end. When asked his secret, he said, “For years I have preached to my congregation that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Now I know it to be true.” He, like Paul, was persuaded. Are you?

But there is yet another enemy we need to acknowledge at this point.

Paul lists all the enemies of the faith and then declares that God’s love is stronger than all of them. But now, let’s put his words to the acid test. Suppose we refuse to be loved by God. Suppose we set up a barrier of pride or indifference or unbelief, saying, in essence, “We don’t much care about God.” What then? Doesn’t that separate us from His love? No, for heaven’s sake, no! I mean, after all, when a rebellious son declares, “I do not love my father,” does that in any way negate the love the father feels for his son? No.

You see, the truth of the matter is that we underestimate the toughness, the persistence, the stubbornness of God’s love in Christ. God so loved the world that in Christ He took our place upon the cross. He never said: “I’ll climb up on the cross, if you promise to love me in return.” He never said that. Instead, this is what He said: “You can do to me whatever you like. You can break my bones and bruise my flesh and draw my blood, but you can’t stop me from being what I am—the Father who loves you and will not let you go.” That kind of love is hard for us to understand, but let’s put it in human terms, and see if that helps.

Father Maximilian Kolbe was a Fransiscan friar arrested by the Nazis in 1941 on charges of aiding Jewish refugees. He was sent to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Then, one day, the prisoners were lined up for the purpose of choosing those who were going to die. A Polish army sergeant named Francis Gajowniczek was condemned to death. However, upon hearing Sergeant Gajowniczeh cry out that he would never again see his wife and children, the 47-year-old Father Kolbe stepped forward from the line and volunteered to replace Sargeant Gajowniczek. The offer was accepted. Gajowniczek returned to the line. Father Kolbe was stripped and left without food or water to die by starvation and dehydration. Still alive more than two weeks later, the friar was injected with carbolic acid because his cell was needed for another prisoner. But the story did not end there. In October, just a few years ago, a great throng of people gathered in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to hear Pope Paul VI declare Father Kolbe to be a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. It was a deeply moving moment when suddenly that huge crowd of thousands was struck absolutely silent and turned to watch a single, white-haired, 70-year-old man, with tears streaming down his face, walk the long center aisle of St. Peter’s to kneel at the altar. In that immense crowd there was no dry eye, no untouched heart. And I think that the people there must have realized more profoundly than ever before what Jesus Christ has done in giving Himself for us. For you see, the man kneeling at the altar, sobbing in gratitude for the sacrifice of Father Kolbe was none other than Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek!

Here is the Gospel. God does for us what Father Kolbe did for that Polish army Sergeant. And no barrier of indifference or pride of unbelief—nothing in our intellect, our emotions, or our conduct—nothing we can say or think or do—nothing can separate us from the love of God made visible in the cross of Jesus Christ. Nothing—not death or life or sin or anything else—nothing can separate us from the God who loves us. That means that we can walk through life and through death secure and unafraid. It means that we can experience the onslaught of pain and suffering and tragedy and loneliness without fear. It means that in our living and in our dying, if we are in Christ—if we belong to Him and believe in Him—then we shall be more than conquerors.

So…

If there is a tear in your eye, let it be a tear of triumph. If your heart is touched, then know that it is the hand of God at work in your life. Let Paul’s words be your words:

“I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature shall ever be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

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