We’ve Passed Through the Waters
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We’re getting very serious now. I know I know we’ve always been serious and Paul throughout this letter has always been serious. We’re getting, though to some of what it means to take the Christ-following life seriously. What exactly is going on here for those of us who count ourselves followers of Christ? Slaves or servants of Christ, and we remember that Paul self-identified himself as such right at the start of his letter. How can we even use such language that is so offensive to our ears when we think of the evil and inhumanity that is chattel slavery – human beings being reduced to commodities?
Who are we, precisely, as slaves or servants of Christ? Who are we as people who live under the realm or under the dominion of Christ? What will this mean in terms of how we live? In order to look at this question, Paul starts with a question that seems rather absurd. Paul is using the rhetorical technique of anticipating and answering his listener’s questions. You heard me do this last week when I anticipated a question or objection that you might have been having about me being some sort of poetic wannabe who spends his time looking up at trees and leaves. Paul has been talking about the peace, joy and hope that we have in Jesus; the grace in which we stand and to which we have been given access through faith/trust in Christ Jesus. For the first time, Paul is going to touch on what this means in terms of how we live. He’s going to talk about where the follower of Christ stands in relation to sin/disordered relationships/HPTMTU. At the end of Chapter 5, Paul writes of how through the trespass of one man (Adam), sin came for all, through one man’s act of righteousness (Jesus and the cross) came righteousness for all. Then we hear this – “…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification, leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (5:20b-21)
This gives rise to the question that Paul poses through his imaginary conversational partner – “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”
Abundant sin led to super-abundant grace. A led to B and B is good, therefore more A should be good too right? On the surface, the question may seem absurd. Someone has likened it to picturing the prodigal son some years after his return home. The prodigal son had asked for his inheritance early, cut off relations with the father who provided it, went off and squandered it in riotous living. He was welcomed home, and a party was thrown. Everyone was happy (except for big brother but that’s a story for another day). Imagine if, a few years later, the prodigal son decided to steal a few things, sneak off in the middle of the light, go back out for some more riotous living so that he could come back and experience the welcome and the party and the grace all over again.
Absurd? Maybe not completely. I don’t think we do well when we make get presumptuous in most cases, and certainly not when we make presumptions about the goodness of God. When asked by a priest if he thought God would forgive him, German poet Heinrich Heine famously said on his deathbed “Dieu me pardonnera, c’est son metier.” God will forgive me, that’s his job. I remember having a conversation over dinner one night at Out of the Cold with a group of people from different faith backgrounds. Someone asked me what I thought about a gangster film they had seen recently. One of the characters was a hitman who would go to confession after every hit, feeling absolved and going out to commit more hits. What did I think about this? It led to a good conversation about empty religious ritual, what God thought about empty religious ritual and what God wills in our lives. The question is perhaps not as absurd as it may seem.
Paul had his detractors who claimed that he was leading people away from ethical lives by talking about all this grace, and he’s answering them. What we do matters. “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” Paul answers the question in the same way he answers other rhetorical questions in his letter. “By no means! Of course not! Certainly not! Heck naw! God forbid it! May it never be! Paul then stops. He uses the question to examine just what it means to be in Christ. For those of us in Christ, this is what it means. What does it mean to stand in the grace of grace, to be situated in the grace of Christ as we talked about last week? For those of us who wonder just what it means to be in Christ and are hearing the invitation to come in, this is what it means.
It’s a big deal. It’s serious. When it comes to our behaviour it means the end of “The devil made me do it” or “Well you know that’s just my Irish (or fill in the blank) temper” or “Well you know I’m just a little rough around the edges” or “That’s just Sally being Sally” or “You know what he’s like” or any one of the number of thing we say to excuse bad behaviour.
Paul will get to talking about behaviour, but he doesn’t start there. He starts with Christ and who the follower of Christ is in Christ. It’s about a transformation of the heart. It is about moving from one realm to another. Oftentimes we may think of Christians as a group of people who participate in the same traditions, believe the same things. We do these things but let us not reduce our identity to those things. Worse, we may conceive of Christians as a group of people who are defined by sharing the same values, or less positively as a group of people who are defined by what they don’t do.
To follow Christ is to live in a whole new realm of existence. “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (6:2) To follow Christ is to have been moved from the realm of sin and death to the realm of righteousness (rightness and justice) and new life. It’s more than simply moving into a new house, it’s more like living in a whole other country. In his The Message paraphrase, Eugene Petersen puts it like this – “If we've left the country where sin is sovereign, how can we still live in our old house there? Or did not you realize we packed up and left there for good?” We have gone through the waters. We remember the first saving event – the prototypical saving event when God brought his people out of slavery in Egypt. They passed through the waters. This is why we once sang “O Mary Don’t You Weep” at our Easter service a few years ago when we considered Mary Magdalene weeping at the empty tomb. O Mary don’t you weep no more/Pharaoh’s armed got drownded/O Mary don’t you weep. The first saving event which pointed ahead to Christ’s saving event.
All of this talk of going through the waters and Christ leads Paul and us to consider baptism. We like to talk about baptism as Baptists – it’s in our name and all. It’s good for us to know why we do it and what it signifies. Baptism is a symbol that signifies many different things. It doesn’t effect these things, like they don’t happen without baptism, but in some way, it activates our participation with these things in the community of faith. An act involving Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Forgiveness of sins. Receiving the Holy Spirit. Being cleansed. Taking off old clothes and putting on new ones.
And the significance to which Paul is pointing here. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Or as Paul put it in his letter to the Galatians – “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Gal 2:19b-20) It’s a vivid image (maybe a little too vivid for some in this age where death is spoken of in hushed tones if it’s spoken of at all) and it speaks to the shattering power of grace to deliver us from sin and death. Karl Barth wrote about it like this, and this imagery is actually pretty violent. It might best be reserved for those of us whom grace has pulled out of the muck of life as riot – “Your baptism is nothing less than grace clutching you by the throat: a grace-full throttling, by which your sin is submerged in order that ye may remain under grace.”
Who are we? We are people who have passed through the waters, sisters and brothers. When Christ calls a man or woman, he calls them to come and die, and in so dying to know and to walk in newness of life. So let us walk together in newness of life.
Dying and being raised to walk in newness of life. This is a truth that is made known quite clearly when someone is baptized. I don’t get dogmatic about it, but I like the way we practice baptism as Baptists. The person going under the water- actually needing to be pushed under a little bit due to our buoyancy. The person coming out of the water to newness of life. Dying and rising with Christ. Moving from one realm to another.
To walk in newness of life. How’s our walk? How’s our halakhah – our way of walking? New life in Christ is not static. We’re on the move. Ain’t no stopping us now. We’re on the move. Persevering. We are not presented as finished products at our baptism. Far from it. Someone has said that “…to walk in newness of life means to be on the move, to be ever attentive to what it means to live to God and to exercise our allegiance daily.”
“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.” This word translated “united” here has the sense of being grown together, attached organically like a grafted plant or knit together like a broken bone. Grown with Christ in this way is another way of describing that new realm in which we live, looking forward to the day when we will be united with him in a resurrection body like his and bringing the hope of that day into our present with assured expectation.
Sin is no longer a force that enslaves for the follower of Christ. We don’t live under its realm. This does not mean that sin has lost its ability to deceive, or that the Liar has lost his ability to lie, or that the Deceiver has lost his ability to deceive, or that the Accuser has lost his ability to accuse. It is said of Martin Luther that he kept a note on his desk (written on the actual desk in chalk) to help him in times of temptation and struggle which said in Latin (because he was like that) “baptizatus sum” - “I am baptized.” This is unsubstantiated, but I like the idea. He did write “I am a child of God. I am baptized. I believe in Jesus Christ crucified for me.” I have died and been raised to new life in Christ. This is who I am. This is who we are as followers of Christ. We find freedom in servanthood to Christ. Freedom was never supposed to be about being free to do what I want. To find freedom in servanthood to Christ is not something we can explain. It’s something we have to experience. Being set free from harmful patterns, practices, ways of thinking, ways of seeing the world and people. Being set free for having our hearts transformed and our wills conformed to God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. I would most simply describe God’s will for us as “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and your neighbour as yourself,” and “Do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.”
Let’s take living in this new realm seriously. Verses 12-14 are where Paul for the first time talks about what this looks like in our lives. Here’s how Eugene Petersen puts it in The Message:
“That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God.”
Be who you are becoming in Christ, with the Holy Spirit living in you pouring the love of God in your heart. “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” This is who we are. Christ is the power of God living in you through the person of the Holy Spirit. Thanks to brother Paul for telling it. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.