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Romans Chapter Eight - Conclusion
The people that teach and coach actors and actresses tell us that something like 65-70% of what we understand comes from facial expressions and gestures, 20-25% from the tone of voice and only 5 to 10% from the actual words used. (You remember by the way that I have a maths teacher in my house so I don’t do maths and those numbers may not add up, but you get the picture.) Now there is a well authenticated portrait of Paul, found in a cave in Ephesus where he spent a significant amount of time and where the image, even although surely painted after his death, may nevertheless be expected to be rooted in the memory of what he was really like or really looked like. In the picture, he has a rather narrow face, arched eyebrows, short hair and a grizzled black beard. One hand is raised, perhaps in blessing, while he gazes at us with piercing eyes commanding our attention. An intelligent and lively customer you would say. More than a thousand years later, Albrecht Durer, in his painting of the Apostles, captures something of the same inner vitality, most especially with the eyes. Of course, we cannot make these images move; the gestures and expressions that may have accompanied an imaginary Paul reading aloud his own letter are completely lost to us.
We could though, spend some time wondering about the tone of voice. You will remember from a couple of weeks ago that this chapter to the letter to the Romans began with the word “Therefore” alerting us to the fact that, after seven previous quite lengthy chapters of explanation and background, Paul is reaching the climax of his arguments. So I can imagine him, papers strewn across the desk, pen in hand, pacing about working himself to a passion and coming back to the table to occasionally pen some lines. There is a discussion going on here and, as I said before, Paul had never been to Rome, he did know the people there so the discussion is not with them, but with himself. He is asking questions of his own belief, working out the answers as he goes and, as we follow this internal dialogue, we can come to a deeper and closer understanding of what Paul believes.
Firstly, he recognises that eternal problem, “what do we pray for?” You may well imagine, for example, that at the bedside of someone extremely ill in hospital this is a real dilemma. Do we pray for a “miracle cure”, do we pray for comfort, for a merciful release, for the discernment and brilliance of the surgeons or maybe all of the above? “For we do not know how to pray as we ought” says Paul in frustration but he resolves it in his answer to himself, and you see I want a long pause there so that, in his pacing about, he comes to the conclusion that in a way it doesn’t matter because the “Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” What a lovely thought, too deep for words, so grounded is Paul’s faith in God and in his promise in his goodness to always hear us.
Secondly, he worries about that goodness. “We know that all things work together for good” he says. But please do not read this as a simple statement of fact. Paul, I think, is exploring that question that continually taunts all of us: “We know that God must be good and that all things work for good BUT - (and in the silence while we decide what to write next we surely see all the things around us that are not good: sickness, famine, war, man’s inhumanity to man, personal loss) and Paul’s answer is that God has made us and he knows us perfectly, he foreknew us, and that he will conform us to the image of Jesus himself. However we get there, whatever our troubles, this is God’s promise. And if God is so much for us - then who is against us?
Once again, as the letter continues, listen to Paul arguing with himself as he lists all the things that might shake his own faith: “hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril or sword” it’s a sort of “O God not that ..” moment and then we come to his conclusion, those words that are so often used at the opening of a funeral but which, in the context of this passionate discussion about what he believes, Paul gives us as a beacon for the living and to explain to us his deep exploration of life as he understands it. Even with all these possible doubts and trials Paul says:
“I am convinced, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, (long pause) nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.