June 22, 2014
Last week, as we heard the challenge of the Great Commission to make disciples by going to them, baptizing them, and teaching them, I urged you to think about the idea of baptism as a means for enfolding others into the family of God. In today’s reading, we will take another look at baptism, this time through the eyes of the Apostle Paul, as we begin a journey through his letter to the church at Rome. That journey will take us through the summer, so it might be a good idea to start with some background information as we begin.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is an interesting book on many counts. For one thing, Paul didn’t know these people yet. Paul’s other letters were addressed to churches he had started, nurtured, and left in the hands of able leaders. But at the time Paul wrote this letter, he had not yet traveled to Rome, so instead of writing to follow up on a church he had planted, Paul was writing to introduce himself to Christians who did not yet know him, or his teachings.
But Paul had a pretty good idea of what was going on in Rome. He knew that a group of Jewish Christians had been pushing the Gentiles to observe Jewish laws, and he knew that convincing the church in Rome to depend on grace alone would require a carefully worded message. So Paul took care to clarify his own theology for the Christians at Rome, in preparation for the teaching he would provide when he finally arrived.
The resulting letter to the Roman church is a dense theological treatise. In fact, it’s a good example of what Peter meant when he wrote about his “dear brother, Paul,” saying, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:14-16). Two thousand years later, we are still chewing on some of Paul’s ideas. Imagine, then, what it must have been like to receive these teachings for the first time, and how radically strange Paul’s ideas of sin and grace might have seemed to the early Christians who read his letters to each other.
Paul states his main idea early on, and then presents his response to those who might disagree with him in the rest of the letter. Paul writes, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17).From this bold statement, Paul explains and defends his view of grace for all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile.
In chapter five, Paul describes how Adam’s original sin has enslaved us all to death, but that in Christ, we have been made right with God by grace alone. In Adam, all of us became bound to sin, and the Law only made things worse. Then Paul throws in a twist as he moves into the heart of his argument: “but where sin increased, grace multiplied even more,” he writes.
Paul must have anticipated that this radical idea would have raised some questions among his readers, so he kicks off a diatribe to end all diatribes, answering those questions as thoroughly as he can before they can even be asked. Chapter six opens with Paul’s central argument about grace as God’s free gift. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, chapter six, verse 1-11:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But ifwe have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
What then are we to say? …
Paul must love this rhetorical question, because he asks it a lot. In his letter to the Romans, it appears half a dozen times, at key turning points in Paul’s argument. “So what do you think?” Paul asks, “Should we sin more so we can experience more grace?” In his diatribe, Paul answers his opponents’ arguments by carrying them to the extreme, in order to prove them wrong.
The group that was causing the most trouble in Rome consisted of Jews who still viewed righteousness as something to be obtained by being born Jewish, and doing good works by following the law. Paul argues that God’s grace is available to all who believe, and that it is through faith alone that we become righteous.
Paul imagines his opponents answering this argument with one of their own: doesn’t free grace just promote free sin? If God’s grace is so free, so all-encompassing, and there is nothing I can do to earn it, why bother being good? If God is going to forgive me anyway, why not just go on sinning to my heart’s content? In fact, doesn’t it make sense to sin more, so that God can forgive me more?
Certainly not, Paul tells us. It is precisely because we have chosen to align ourselves with God, and not with sin, that we have been changed.
And this is where baptism comes into the picture.
“We have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul writes, “so we might walk in newness of life.” Baptism is more than a simple rite of passage. It marks a radical change in identity. The old, sinful self is buried in the waters of baptism, and what comes up out of the water is a new creation. Just as the children of Israel walked into the Red Sea as runaway Egyptian slaves, and walked up out of that sea as God’s own nation, so we are called to walk in newness of life, set free from our slavery to sin.
So, what then should we say? What does that mean for us?
It means that Christ’s death was a one-time event, and he will not die again. If we are baptized into that death, we are also baptized into Christ’s resurrection to new life. I cannot say “new life” enough! We have been united with Christ in something completely new. Remember that Christ’s resurrected body was not his old body; even his closest friends did not recognize him at first. In the same way, our baptized selves are not anything at all like our old, sinful selves.
And yet, we often do not live like we have this “new life.” We stay stuck in patterns of behavior that ignore the fact we have been made into completely new people, children of the living God. Paul thought the Roman Christians were acting as if sin was a good thing, reasoning that the more we sin, the more God forgives us. Theologian David Bartlett summarizes Paul’s answer in two parts: “You’ve got to be kidding!” and “Be who you are.”
Be who you are. You are not just washed clean in the waters of baptism. Baptism has drowned your old sinful self and given you a new identity. Live into that new identity as Christ’s own. You have died to sin, so stop acting like it rules you. Bartlett continues,
“When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the time and the place or who were the sponsors or who performed the sacrament. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you have died to sin and now you live a new life in Jesus Christ. It is a way of saying: Be who you are.
“Remember your baptism” also means, “Remember who you belong to.” (David Bartlett )
“What then are we to say?” Are we to chime in with the “I’m Ok You’re OK” culture and claim that, since God accepts us just the way we are, there is no need to change? Do we subscribe to the notion that sinning is actually good, because it creates more opportunities for grace? Or do we recognize that in becoming a follower of Jesus, we move from one kind of humanity, steeped in sin, into the very life of Christ? Because this is what Paul is saying, friends: since Christ is our model, whatever is true of him is now true of us, too. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We have died to sin, we are risen to new life with and in him, and when he comes again, we will be ready to join him in eternal glory. What part of that would you not want to claim as your very own?
New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells us, “Living in accordance with a change of status requires that you recognize it and take steps to bring your actual life into line with the person you have become. … Once you are baptized, of course, you can try to shirk or shrug off your new responsibilities. You can pretend you don’t after all have a new status. … But what you can’t do is get unbaptized again.” (N.T. Wright, Paul For Everyone: Romans Part 1, 102.)
The passage ends with a bit of a hymn that was apparently known to Paul, and perhaps known already to the Christian communities in Rome who first received this letter. When he writes, “We know that…” (verse 9), in a way he’s really inviting his hearers to join the song:
Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again;
Death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all;
But the life he lives he lives to God.
Then Paul adds his own verse to the song, and this must have been a powerful addition for those Christians in Rome, to hear these new words being sung to them, as they are to us:
So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ.
When Paul says, “consider” he isn’t asking you to think of yourself as dead to sin and alive to God in Jesus Christ. He isn’t asking you to ponder this reality as an abstract idea. No, the verb translated here as “consider” is really a bookkeeping term. Other translations use the term “reckon” and we could just as easily use the word “calculate” to understand what Paul means here. When you calculate a sum of numbers, you come up with a new number, but it isn’t really “new” – it was there all along; you just didn’t know what the total sum was until you calculated it. Add it up, Paul says. You have already been reckoned dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus. It may be hard to believe the answer you get when you do the math, but this is the reality. we need to be who we are, redeemed children of God, and we need to start acting like it.
Sin has no hold on us any longer; it’s time to let go of it. New life means living into new habits and behaviors, new ways of thinking and relating to people. It means living into our identity as followers of Jesus Christ. Let it be so.