A meditation shared by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, November 5, 2023, All Saints Sunday.
Texts: Song of Solomon 8:6-7; Romans 8:31-39
I can remember as clear as day the moment at the family retreat at Camp Egan when Cliff Brown, a member of my mother’s Sunday School class and a gentle leader in my church, turned to 12 year old me, looked me in the eyes and proclaimed the verses we received today from Romans 8. “For 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, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Even as Cliff spoke these words, I didn’t know what prompted the proclamation. But it is seared in my memory, so that every time the words are spoken, I feel my heart strangely warmed.
These words hold the heart of the gospel. Nothing—nothing in life, and no kind of death—will separate us from God’s love. There are some who are able to hold on to this promise in such a way that while they experience grief at the death of loved ones or at the prospect of leaving loved ones at the point of their own death, they don’t fear for their loved ones who have died or for themselves. They don’t fear death. The story is told of John Preston, Puritan minister and master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge in the late 16th, early 17th century. As Preston lay dying, friends asked him if he was afraid of death. “No,” whispered Preston; “I shall change my place, but I shall not change my company.” As if to say: I shall leave my friends, but not my Friend, for he will never leave me. // I remember my Nana saying to me as she contemplated her death that drew close: “It’s kind of exciting!” // I think of John Harden who, when I asked him days before his death if he was afraid, said, “You know when you take communion and you get that warm feeling of love? I think it’s going to be like that.”
These are powerful witnesses of deep faith in the love and mercy of God. But God’s love doesn’t depend upon that deep faith. There are those who die in despair, whose lives are lost in acts of violence and war, those who die angry at the world and at God for their suffering, those who end their earthly days unrepentantly consumed by the ways and means of death, those who die never knowing that there is a God who is loving them every moment of their lives. And nothing will be able to separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Because God’s love doesn’t depend upon our being prepared for death, our profession of faith, or our confession of sin, but is simply poured out. Just as Jesus did not withhold himself, but gave himself freely in love to a world that wouldn’t understand him, that wouldn’t receive him, that would kill him, so too, God’s love is freely given in this world and into the next.
Death doesn’t separate us from God and God’s love. No matter what you believe about the resurrection of Jesus, the revelation, the promise, the good news of the story is that there is life on the other side of death. There is God on the other side of death. There is the love of God on the other side of death. And so there is compassion and mercy and grace on the other side of death.
Fr. Richard Rohr says, “I believe the meaning of the Resurrection of Jesus is summed up in the climactic line from the Song of Songs, ‘love is stronger than death’ (8:6).” And I agree! I love that line of scripture. Technically it is “love is strong as death,” not “stronger” than death. But in the resurrection, I think we might extrapolate that “stronger” is the truth.
Rohr says, “If the blank white banner that the Risen Christ usually holds in Christian art should say anything, it should say: “Love will win!” As powerful as that proclamation is, it can sound hollow amid grief and war. As Paul says in our text today, “What then shall we say about these things?” There are tragic and violent deaths that occur—caused by evil and injustice and by natural and unnatural forces in the world. It is deeply human to recoil and rage and lament in the face of such loss and suffering. The grief and pain that follows the death of those closest to us in our lives can feel overwhelming. But the thing is that the depth of our grief is a measure of our love. If we didn’t love, we wouldn’t care, we wouldn’t grieve. //
What if to proclaim that love wins, that love is stronger than death, is to affirm that the relationship between love and death is not one of struggle or violence, but of embrace? [I remember once when I was on a mission trip, working with young children in a place marked by deep poverty and hopelessness. There was a child I’d gotten close to over the course of the week. One day, something set him off and he went into a manic rage. I drew near to him and put my arms around him. He fought my embrace for a good while. But eventually, his spirit calmed and he was able to be held. I could feel his body release and allow me to love and care for him.] Imagine strong love embracing death and holding it until it softens and surrenders to the gift offered. Imagine love embracing those in death and having the strength to lift and carry them into life. Imagine Christ wandering through the rubble of war and down the back alleys and into the schools and through all the places of evil and violence, gathering up all those whose lives have been stolen and, with the strength of divine love, carrying them into a new life. None will be lost. Imagine Christ embracing all those we love who have died and, with the strength of divine love, lifting them and journeying with them into a new life. All our beloved ones are safe in Christ’s love. Imagine Christ embracing us in our grief and fear and holding us until we soften and trust that the love of God is stronger than death and that there’s new life on the other side.
By God’s grace we will be able to proclaim with the joy and gentleness of Cliff Brown and with the assurance of all the saints who have gone before: I am convinced that nothing will be able to separate us from the love—and the life!—of God through Christ Jesus our Lord.