Should we sin for grace to abound?
The sermon from June 25th, reflecting on the letter to the Romans, and how we are transformed by grace.
Proper 7 A, 25 June 2017 Transfiguration, San Mateo
Psalm 69.8-11, 16-17; Romans 6. 1b-11; Matthew 10.24-39
St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033 – 1109) once described himself as someone with faith seeking understanding. In words addressed to God he says ‘I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do no seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand.’
And this is what Christians have always inevitably said, either explicitly or implicitly. Christianity rests on faith, but it also has content. It teaches and proclaims a distinctive and challenging view of reality. It naturally encourages reflection. It is something to think out; something about which one might even have second thoughts.
But what have the greatest Christian thinkers said? And is it worth saying? Does it engage with modern problems? Does it provide us with a vision to live by? Does it make sense? Can it be preached? Is it believable? I think the answer to all these questions is YES.
As Matthew introduced last week, we are taking advantage of this summer’s lectionary to take a close/closer look at the Letter of Paul to the Romans. Paul was arguably the greatest thinker of the early Church. He was its first and its greatest theologian. All those who came after acknowledge their debt to Paul.
Last week’s text was from Chapter 5 in which Paul articulated his theology of salvation by grace. The beginning of Chapter 6, which we read today, is really a tag line to Chapter 5 in which Paul responds to the charge that his theory of salvation would result in moral relativism. Consequently, his discussion here begins with the rhetorical question “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” If God’s grace is extensive enough to encompass our sin, presumably (his imaginary opponent argues) more sin on our part would prompt more grace on God’s part.
“By no means!” Paul responds, insisting that moral renewal is a consequence of the believer’s union with Christ. This correspondence between these two transformative events – Christ’s death and resurrection and the believer’s baptism – prompts Paul to provide an extended discussion of his baptismal theology. Verses 3 through 11 of Chapter 6 form the basis for this theology. It is telling of the significance of this text that it is used as the Epistle reading for all three years in the Easter Vigil
What makes this an appropriate text for the Easter Vigil service is its central emphasis on the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. Dual themes run throughout the passage: death and life, old and new, sin and righteousness.
We should note the context in which Paul reviews these stages of the Christ-event. Unlike the Gospel readings used in each of the three years, this is not a narrative retelling of the Easter story. It is rather intertwined with the initiation rite of baptism. In fact, what we have in this passage is a fairly extensive account of Paul's theology of baptism. It makes sense only if we remember that the Christian practice was for initiates to be immersed in water. It was only natural to interpret this as a “burial,” an act of being submerged underneath the water. Obviously, one did not remain under water, but "arose" from the water to live again. To undergo baptism in this fashion was seen as a reenactment of the death and resurrection of Christ. Indeed, Paul speaks of being baptized into Christ (v. 3). Through this act one is actually said to enter Christ.
Although this way of understanding baptism may seem logical to us, it was not the only way of understanding this rite. The Fourth Gospel (that is the Gospel of John) uses an entirely different metaphor: a new birth (John 3). Thus, baptism is understood as being “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
But at least from the viewpoint of today's reading, baptism is inextricably linked with the death and resurrection of Christ. But how? Merely as a reenactment of a past event? No, if this were the case, the Christ-event and the believer’s baptism would be chronologically separated. In one sense, this is true, of course. But our text envisions the fusion of these two moments. We see this by Paul’s pervasive use of the language of participation. The believer dies with Christ, is buried with Christ, is raised with Christ, and lives with Christ. This level of full participation comes across especially well in Revised English Bible translation: "For if we have become identified with him in his death, we shall also be identified with him in his resurrection" (v. 5). Similarly, we are said to be "in union with Christ Jesus" (REB, v. 11).
Such language presupposes that the Christ-event is not bound by time. The Christ with whom we are united is the living Christ. To put it another way: each time a baptism occurs, the Christ-event, in a sense, recurs. We actually become coparticipants with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. It is not so much that we reenact the event that happened back then. It is rather that God's act back then becomes unbounded by time. It occurs now within us. In his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, the Lutheran theologian Ernst Kasermann (1906 – 1998) put it this way: “In baptism the new world initiated by Christ seizes the life of the individual Christian too, in such a way that the earthly path of the exalted Lord is to be traversed again in this life and Christ thus becomes the destiny of our life. Baptism is the projection of the change of aeons into our personal existence, which for its part becomes a constant return to baptism to the extent that here dying with Christ establishes life with him and the dialectic of the two constitutes the signature of being in Christ”.
Our entry into the corporate Christ results in moral transformation (vv. 6, 11). What occurred in the death and resurrection of Christ was more than the mere expiration or the resuscitation of life. In his death, he “died to sin, once for all” (v. 10) -- not just to any sin (with a small s), but to Sin (with a capital S) as a universal power. With sin also went death: Christ is no longer “under the dominion of death” (v. 9, REB). Instead, he “lives to God” (v. 10). What was achieved by God in the Christ-event is appropriated by the believer, who is incorporated into Christ. We then are urged to recognize this transformation in our own identity: we must consider ourselves as “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v. 11).
They Let Paul In
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