Sermon delivered on Trinity 2A, Sunday, June 25, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 21.8-21; Psalm 86.1-10, 16-17; Romans 6.1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Shall we continue in sin?”
This is Paul’s opening question in Romans 6:1.
It’s not necessarily the case that someone in Paul’s audience actually believed that it would be a brilliant idea to “continue in sin,” as if it no longer mattered what they were doing. Rather, this was Paul’s way of rhetorically advancing his argument forward to answer the questions that might not have been asked, but that issues that yet need to be addressed pastorally. The question derives from Paul’s claim in 5:20 (“where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”).
It also arises from firsthand experience that the radical gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ led to accusations of a moral anarchy amongst the Christian communities. For he writes in Romans 3:8, “Why not say, as some slanderously claim that we say, ‘Let us do evil that good may result?’” These folks’ condemnation is well deserved for completely missing the point and continuing on as if grace were a holy mulligan.
God’s grace extends to the ungodly and utterly and completely obliterates any attempts to claim justification on any other ground. God’s grace mocks silly distinctions on the basis of human ideals, ideologies, and other lines in the sand we draw to sort out the good folks from the riff-raff. This might lead to the conclusion “Well, if it’s the case that our boundaries and our laws are meaningless, dear Paul, then let’s just all be ungodly sinners all of the time.” Paul says no. Such an thought reflects an anemic understanding of what grace and justification actually are. This passage should lead to deeper reflection on both how we understand grace and justification in and through Jesus Christ.
This section of Romans is a piece of a much longer argument being made by the Apostile, the second part of which also begins with a similar rhetorical question in 6:15: “Should we sin since we are not under law, but under grace?” The present passage (which really should extend through 6:14) is difficult to isolate from 6:15-23. This will part of next week’s lectionary readings, but let me read it to you today, starting at verse 11:
”In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your motal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”
I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in[b] Christ Jesus our Lord.
In the first section, Paul draws attention to the bedrock of what it means to be a believer in Christ Jesus, what the new reality consists of. In the next section, Paul addresses what the working out of that foundational reality looks like. The entirety of Romans 6 is closely linked to Paul’s thoughts about Christ as the new Adam in Romans 5, and to the reality of freedom from the law in Romans 7. For Paul, death to sin is the necessary flipside of being united to Christ the new Adam. And it is linked to death and to the law. If we have not truly been transferred out of the land of Sin, then we have not been united to Christ, nor have we transferred from the hold of the law.
In this first section (verses 1-14), Paul makes two main moves, centered on what the community took for granted: baptism. First, Paul speaks of baptism as death. Second, Paul links baptismal death to death to sin.
Whatever we might draw from this passage about baptism, one thing is clear: baptism is more than another event that takes place in the life of a person, like graduation, where all the relatives come and celebrate. And it’s more than a religious ritual where church members commit to one another in word but not action, not taking up the ministries God is calling them to where the spiritual gifts God has given them are to be employed. Baptism is very serious business.
Death through baptism is not merely a spiritual metaphor. Throughout Paul’s letters, this “death” to old humanity is very real. The language Paul uses emphasizes that this death is a “knowable” reality. In verse 3 Paul speaks of “not knowing” to remind his audience that baptism is baptism into death with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us … were baptized into his death?” In verse 6 he writes about “knowing” that the old humanity was crucified, with the result that the body of sin is destroyed. And in verses 8-9, Paul writes, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will live with/in him, knowing that … death no longer lords over him.”
It is this knowable experience of “death” to the old humanity that enables Paul to eschew social convention (Galatians 3:28), to dare to risk folly and persecution rather than play according to the world’s “wisdom” and seek fame (1 Corinthians 1:18-25), and to actually say that obedience to the law avails nothing in terms of “marking” someone as being in or out of God’s favor (1 Corinthians 7:19).
Many Christians today struggle with the idea of being “dead to sin.” When Paul talks about “dead to sin,” is this the same thing as “sinless”? The problem might be that we operate with a moral perfectionism system of thought where “sin” refers to the individual acts we do that miss the perfection mark.
The contexts suggests that Paul is working with an understanding of sin as an operating force, something that exercises dominion over people, a mode of living in the world defined by corruption of God’s good creational intentions for humanity and the world. Given the overall context of what Paul says about Adam and Christ in Romans 5 and the law in Romans 7, it makes sense to consider that in baptism believers have died to their previous existence, of slavery in the land of Sin. They have been rescued by death, to be brought into a new land and a new existence.
The resonances with the Exodus of Israel are thick in Paul’s narrative imagination. Like Israel, those who are baptized in Christ have passed through waters, being separated from enslavement to all that was before, and they’ve been transferred like Israel by God’s delivering hand into a new existence. Does this mean that the Israelites changed? Yes and no. The important point is that they’ve been transferred from one reality to another. Paul’s concluding statement makes the point: “Consider yourselves on the one hand dead to sin, but on the other hand living to God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).
The rhetorical question in 6:1 reflects a shallow understanding of the transformation that God’s grace brings about. God’s grace moves the ungodly to a new land and changes their identity and the nature of the rules that govern their lives. God’s grace is no excuse to remain unchanged. Paul is not preaching moral anarchy. Nor is Paul advocating an understanding of the Christian life as untransformed. It does not give us pardon while we keep playing in Sin as we always have, only feeling better because we believe God overlooks it. In dying with Christ, we no longer dwell in the land of Sin, we become God’s new creation in Christ. This is our new reality! Justification and grace are not only forensic or the easing of guilt; they are regenerative. Baptism is not a security; it is a reality changer. Therefore, in the newness of this life let us rejoice together, recognizing the new life given to us at the font, and feast together at the table the Lord prepares for us for our living in this new land of the redeemed.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.