What would you do if you woke up one morning to find your nose missing? Just missing from your face?
That’s the plot of a great satirical short story called “The Nose” by the Russian author Nicolai Gogol. In the story, the main character awakes to find his nose gone. Vanished. Where there once was a nose, there is now only a flat patch of skin. And in an absurd twist, he soon realizes that his nose has left his face by choice and has started a life of its own.
But you can’t go through life without a nose. I mean, its really embarrassing. So the story follows the main character’s journey through the dark streets of St. Petersburg as he desperately tries to be reunited with his own nose.
What do you do when you find yourself separated from something as close to your heart as your nose is to your face?
Perhaps some of you have had a long distance relationship. I had one for two years when
Jessica and I were living in separate countries, and to say it wasn’t fun, well, that would be an understatement. Even in this day in age when you’ve got phones and email and video chat, living apart from the person you love, even for a short time can be a struggle.
You miss having the person there, across from you. You miss the ability to call out their name and have them answer immediately. You miss the feeling of that person’s presence, even in the next room.
Separation can feel unnatural, strange…like a part of you is wandering around parts unknown. And when you are separated from something life-giving, it can feel like torture until you are reunited.
What if that something is God’s love?
Paul writes about this in our second reading today. Chances are that if you’ve ever been to a funeral, you’ve heard this on before. This is one of the most famous passages in all of Paul’s works. And for good reason.
In the letter to the Romans, he is reassuring the Jesus followers of Rome that their struggle is not in vain and they are not cut off from God’s love. Now think about it for a minute: these were people proclaiming that a crucified criminal was the chosen one of God, has risen from the dead, and was the Lord—the title reserved for the emperor and the emperor of Rome.
Now for the authorities this belief was as absurd as a nose walking off of your face. But the belief was also dangerous, it was undermining their power, and it had to be stopped. So Paul is writing to a people whose very beliefs were putting them in danger, whose gathering at worship was putting their lives in danger, whose very core convictions were a threat.
So the people of Rome needed a pep-talk. And Paul was there to provide one: “What then are we to say about these things?” he asks. “If God is for us, who is against us?”
If you read Paul’s letters in their entirety, from beginning to end, you’ll find that Paul is a master of rhetoric, of crafting words for maximum impact, of building his argument very carefully to reach an emotional and intellectual climax.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” he writes. “Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” The faithful of Rome would certainly be aware of all of these. And many experienced these first hand.
“No,” Paul answers, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
It’s an effective pep-talk, but the question still burns inside our heads: Is physical separation going to keep us from God’s love? Is spiritual separation?
Love is so essential to our lives. We need to be loved just like we need air to breath or food to eat. We need to be connected to people, to the world around us, to the force that created us.
Yet, Paul reminds us that in spite of this need, from time to time we all feel the pain of separation, we all experience alienation, we all fall away from love. Being a Christian, following the path of Jesus is not a free ticket out of the sufferings of this world. Everyday, we face illness, strained relationships, low bank accounts, goodbyes to loved ones.
So what do we do when we feel like we’re in a long distance relationship with God? How do we feel when it seems as though Jesus is wandering around town and we can’t find him. What if the kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field and you’ve lost the treasure map?
Perhaps Paul’s words hold some inspiration in the face of frustration.
He encourages us to be defiant, to have strength, to have hope. “I am convinced,” he says. This is the high point of his letter. He’s pulling out all the stops here, it’s the rhetorical grand finale:
“I am convinced,” he 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, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Yes, we face our own hardships. Yes, we will be distressed. Some of us will face unthinkable peril. But even in our darkest moments, the God of the cross is there standing in the middle of it all, interceding for us, stepping in for us, suffering for us with sighs too deep for words.
So today, we can thumb our noses at the forces that defy God. We mock death itself. It cannot win. The one who created us and loves us and redeems us has already conquered.
Be convinced. Be convinced that there is no such thing as separation from God’s love. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that you or I or anyone else can do that can pull us and God apart.
And no matter what happens to us, now or in the future, because of that victory, there is always hope. Even if it feels like a little tiny mustard seed of hope. Even if it feels a little absurd.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?