Grace Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017, Pentecost 3A
Called to Rise
One of the great challenges in reading (or preaching) through Romans is that there are very few places in this letter where you aren’t automatically dropping into the text in the middle of something. It’s not quite a theological stream-of-consciousness, but it feels like it sometimes, and unless you are reading the entire epistle straight through (a feat of stamina, that) you are coming in either in the middle of an idea or in the middle of a transition from one idea to another. The latter is the case with today’s reading, not unlike last week’s passage from the beginning of the previous chapter of this book. (Of course, Paul isn’t writing in chapters; this really is one long letter undivided by chapters or verses or any such thing – those are much later emendations made to help more modern readers find their way around Romans as a book of the New Testament.)
The question that begins our reading makes the transitional nature of this passage quite clear. “What then are we to say?” only makes sense as a follow-up to some previous discussion, in this case an exuberant expounding upon sin and grace, with Adam as the one through whom sin entered the world and Christ as the one through whom grace is introduced to overcome the power of sin, finally concluding with (in 5:21) “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.” It may not be the most poetic verse in all of scripture – Paul was no Shakespeare – but it is in its own way beautiful and powerful.
Thus we come to Paul’s transition: “What then are we to say?” How do we respond, fellow followers of Christ?
Now it’s not exactly clear whether the question that follows this one is an actual question Paul faced in his work, or if Paul is employing a rhetorical flourish that allows him to get to the point he wants to make. The question has certainly come up in the literature of theology since Paul introduced it here, but mostly in the writings of long-ago figures such as Augustine. To us today, it sounds ridiculous (I hope!), maybe something like the smart-aleck retort of an overly cocky high-school sophomore:
“Should we continue in sin so that grace may abound?”
Before getting to Paul’s answer, one thing needs to be clarified. Note that Paul doesn’t say “should we continue to sin”, but “should we continue in sin?” For this passage, and really for all of this epistle, we need to lay aside the idea of individual particular transgressions and understand that Paul is talking about a condition of sin – a separation from God, an inability (apart from the grace of God) to live in any way apart from the power of sin as mentioned briefly last week.
So, continuing, Paul’s answer is another rhetorical flourish – translated here “By no means!” – but you might get more of an understanding of Paul’s incredulousness by substituting a more modern equivalent. My mind keeps coming up with “No way!”; a younger generation than mine might come up with “As if!” Whatever conveys for you that the suggestion is utterly ridiculous and almost impossible to take seriously, go with that.
What Paul would have his readers (and us) understand is that being in Christ means not just not liking sin or not wanting to sin; it is to be dead to sin. It is to be no longer under its domination, no longer willing to choose to submit to its power. Our reality is no longer the rule of sin, but the rule of grace given by God; to suggest that we might sin more in order to get more grace is to misunderstand most profoundly what grace is and how it works in us.
But that idea of being dead to sin is what Paul works out here, and in order to do so he turns to something that his Roman readers are most familiar with, an act that the community engaged in on a fairly regular basis; the act of baptism.
To be sure, baptism in this early period of the church looked not at all like it does in churches today, and I’m not just talking about churches that sprinkle from the font like us Presbyterians. For one thing, archaeological evidence strongly suggests that, in those locations that came to be built or dedicated or used specifically for worship, the baptismal pool was in fact in the center of the room – not a pulpit nor even a table for communion. Such structures were round and descended by steps down to the pool at the lowest point in the room. Even if the group or groups in Romans did not regularly meet in such a place it is most likely that they sought out such a location for the ritual of baptism.
You can see what that does to the baptismal rite. The convert being baptized actually had to descend to the pool, and ascend up from it after being baptized. As a result the image of baptism actually is pretty easy to tie to Paul’s description here and elsewhere; in being baptized we go down (with Christ) to death, and are raised up (with Christ) to new life.
These early church groups often added another element reinforcing this visual image of descent and ascent with another signifier of change; the one being baptized cast away the garment they were wearing before entering the water, and put on a new garment upon coming out of the water. Being changed visually became a sign of being changed completely.
It’s no surprise, then, that Paul would turn to an image his readers could readily identify in order to explain what it means to be dead to sin; it was a visceral way of communicating the importance of the idea, one which affected the entire community, many if not most of whom had experienced the rite of baptism in becoming part of that community (and those who hadn’t yet were possibly in the process of getting to that point).
But Paul is not merely concerned with being dead to sin, no longer under the power of sin, but he also wants the Romans to understand the consequence of being dead to sin. Being dead to sin is being alive to Christ.
Some commentators on this passage draw a parallel between Paul’s language here and the foundational story of the Hebrew people, the Exodus. As long as the Hebrew people remained in Egypt they remained enslaved to the power of the Pharaoh; only after being delivered from Egypt (including passing through the waters of the Red Sea, a nice parallel to baptism) were they truly free to be a people, and particularly a people of God.
Similarly, Paul wants his readers to understand that being dead to sin (marked by passing through the waters of baptism) was deliverance from slavery to sin, and deliverance to freedom and life in Christ – not just immediately, but also for eternity.
This is the call of the follower of Christ; to know oneself, in Christ’s crucifixion, to be dead to sin – not bound to that power any longer – but to be raised up, in Christ’s resurrection, into new life in the grace and love and freedom of Christ.
You will remember that, even after passing through the Red Sea, the Hebrew people did commit sins – including a whopper of a sin involving that golden calf. Likewise, we are not immune from individual acts that would be called sins, but we are not bound to them. We are not under the power of sin over us as an ongoing condition. One “sin” does not equal the power of sin. We repent, because we have sinned, but we are not enslaved to it. We don’t drop the Prayer of Confession from our order of service, but we don’t say it without an answering Assurance of Pardon, reflecting the grace into which we have been delivered. In between the two the font is filled, the water splashing into this glass bowl reminding us of the waters of baptism through which we have passed, marking our deliverance from the power of sin and into the everlasting freedom of resurrected life in Christ.
So, sin more to get more grace? No way. Live in the resurrection.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #664, Morning Has Broken; #822, When We Are Living; #485; We Know That Christ Is Raised; #718, Take Up Your Cross, the Savior Said