28 July 2014

Sermon – “Dead and Alive” (Romans 6:1-11)

Eighty years ago these words by were being sung for the first time on Broadway:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking.
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose.
Anything goes.
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like…
Anything goes.
The world has gone mad today
And good’s bad today,
And black’s white today,
And day’s night today…
Anything goes.

Cole Porter’s lyrics, once regarded as racy, seem tame by comparison with what is everyday experience nowadays. In many ways they express the spirit of our age: “Anything goes.”

Perhaps it should not surprise us that there is nothing new in that perspective. I suspect that, if you looked, you would find its promoters right back to the dawn of time. The author of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament experimented with this lifestyle. “Come now,” he said to himself, “I will make a test of pleasure. Enjoy yourself… Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure…” (Ecclesiastes 2:1,10).

Back in the first century there were those who suspected Paul of espousing just such a philosophy. It all arose out of his radical adherence to the great Christian doctrine of grace. This is the teaching that Paul has been at pains to expound through the first five chapters of his letter to the Romans: that eternal fellowship with God is not something that we earn (whether through obedience to the Law or by any other means). Rather it is a gift that we receive as we put our trust in Christ. As Paul wrote elsewhere, “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” I rather like Eugene Petersen’s rather expansive treatment of these verses in The Message:

Saving is all [God’s] idea, and all [God’s] work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving.

And so in response to Paul there were those who were asking, “If being reconciled with God is entirely a matter of his grace, of what he has done for us in Christ, then does that mean it doesn’t matter what we do?” “Indeed,” they were saying, “if we take your argument to its logical conclusion, then perhaps we should sin all the more, for then we will receive all the more of God’s grace.”

Although there is no evidence that anyone in the Roman church was seriously proposing that lifestyle, it has cropped up in the church from time to time. Some of Martin Luther’s radical disciples taught something like it and he condemned their teaching as “antinomianism” (from anti, “against”, and nomos, “law”). A century after Luther, during the Commonwealth period in England, there arose a movement called “Ranters”. The Ranters believed that as Christians they were not constrained by any provisions of the law, that whatever was done in the Spirit was justifiable. Rejecting organized religion and all forms of religious and moral restraint, they saw nudism, free love, drinking and swearing all as valid expressions of spiritual liberation.

The Past

Needless to say, Paul is eager to defend his teaching against such arguments. And he does so through an experience that was common to all of those to whom he was writing: baptism. Most of those in the Roman church would have been first-generation Christians. And so their baptism would have been something that they remembered, I should think, vividly. Remember that in the church’s earliest days baptism almost always followed directly from conversion. On the day of Pentecost the three thousand new believers were baptized almost immediately upon their response to Peter’s message of repentance and faith. The same was true later of the Ethiopian official, Simon the magician, Cornelius and his relatives and friends, Lydia the cloth merchant, the jailer and his family at Philippi, and Crispus the synagogue official and his household. So when Paul calls upon the Romans to remember their baptism, they are looking back at a close-knit series of events that formed the key turning point in their lives.

To be baptized was a radical act of identifying totally and wholly with Christ. We see that in Paul’s use of the preposition “into”. It is a word that indicates action, movement, direction. Almost without exception, when people are baptized in the New Testament they are baptized into: into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, into the name of the Lord Jesus, into Christ. Being plunged underneath the water was a dramatic participation in Jesus’ death on Golgotha and his burial in Joseph’s tomb. The old Prayer Book of 1662 put it this way, in the exhortation that followed baptism:

[Remember] always, that Baptism doth represent unto us our profession; which is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that, as he died, and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin, and rise again unto righteousness…

So it is that, going back to the earliest liturgies, baptism has always included a form of renunciation of sin. The questions that are put to candidates before their baptism in our Episcopal Book of Common Prayer are clear and forthright:

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

Paul puts all of this in blunt terms: To have been baptized, to have repented and put our faith in Christ, he says, is to have died to sin. But what does this mean? Does it really imply that sin lies entirely in our past? I think most of us would confess that such is not the case. As we shall see in the next chapter, even Paul admits his ongoing weakness in the face of sin. “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” So how do we come to terms with what Paul is saying here?

The Process

John Stott explains it well in his commentary on this passage when he uses the image of marriage. He asks,

Can a married woman live as though she were still single? … It is not impossible. But let her remember who she is. Let her feel her wedding ring, the symbol of her new life in union with her husband, and she will want to live accordingly.

Then by analogy he asks,

Can born-again Christians live as though they were still in their sins? … It is not impossible. But let them remember who they are. Let them recall their baptism, the symbol of their new life in union with Christ, and they will want to live accordingly.[1]

So it is that when we put our faith in Christ, when we are baptized into Christ, there are four things that are happening. First of all, we are receiving the full benefit of what he has done for us through his own death and resurrection—the forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and a new life as subjects of his kingdom and members of his family.

At the same time we are entering into a whole new commitment. In the gospels Jesus challenges us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow him. And Peter echoes, “To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). What Jesus and Peter (and Paul in this morning’s passage) are talking about is a daily dying to sin and rising with him.

Just as it would be wrong for a married person to behave as though they were single, so it is unthinkable, once we have committed ourselves to Christ, to suppose that sin does not matter. Paul makes that emphatic after he asks the hypothetical question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” His answer: “By no means!” The words in Greek are far more emphatic: Me genoito! Various translations have rendered it in different ways: “Of course not!” “I should hope not!” “Certainly not!” “Never!” “No, no!” the New English Bible puts it. Or as J.B. Phillips translates it, “What a ghastly thought!” In every case the words are followed by an exclamation mark. The short story is that Paul could not be more unequivocal. Even to entertain the thought that sin could be consistent with life in Christ is anathema.

A third thing to remember and related to this is that what Paul is writing about is a life-long process. This is implicit in his use of the word “walk” in verse 4. Think too of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom that we have been hearing in our Gospel readings in recent weeks. They all have to do with process, with growth: seeds coming to life in the soil and eventually producing grain in abundance, a tiny measure of yeast in a lump of dough causing it to rise into a loaf of bread, a mustard seed growing into a bush big enough that birds can nest in its branches. That process is not always uniform. In fact it is rarely so. We all have our ups and downs in the life of discipleship. There may even be occasions when we mess up royally. But do we not revel in them? Do we celebrate them? No, we repent and return to the Lord.

And that brings me to the fourth aspect of baptism. While we are baptized as individuals, baptism ushers us into a community. Think back to what we say together in this church when a candidate is baptized. “We receive you into the household of God…” Paul’s words in this passage are not in the singular but in the plural. “We have been buried with him by baptism into death…” “We have been united with him in a death like his…” “We know that our old self was crucified with him…” We’re not playing singles tennis here. We’re part of a team. And when we stumble and fall there are others who are there to tend our wounds, to help us to our feet and to get us back onto the field again. Think again of what the congregation promises at every baptism:

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?
We will.

The Promise

“Dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus”: a benefit, a commitment, a process. And it is also a promise. For while we will never make it in this life, never even get anywhere near, we walk towards the day when we will indeed be dead to sin, when we will be fully alive in Christ. Our walk, the process that was set into motion at our baptism, has a destination. “Beloved,” wrote the aged apostle John, “we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). May God keep each one of us faithful along the journey.

[1]     Romans: God’s Good News for the World, 179,180

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