Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 25, 2017
Romans 6:1b-11 Commentary
Be who you are. That is Paul’s most basic message in Romans 6. Paul tells us who we are and so reminds us how we are to live from now on as a result of our true identity.
Romans 6 is a landmark passage. Scholars can write (and have written) whole books on any one of these 11 verses. Given the theological richness here, we cannot do justice to all of it in any given sermon but we can try to take a bird’s-eye-view to notice a striking juxtaposition. On the one hand, Paul talks in very emphatic, indicative terms. Paul says flat out that as baptized followers of Jesus, we have died, we have been buried, our former nature was crucified, we have been freed from sin. These are all past tense expressions.
Typically when we talk this way about our own lives, we are expressing things that are over and done with and whose effect, therefore, is ongoing. If I tell you that I was fired from a certain job, then the implication is that I am still fired today and I will be in a state of having been fired tomorrow, too. My knowing this will keep me from driving to the office again for work tomorrow morning. You wouldn’t have to remind me not to go back into work. I would know I have been fired and so would know not to report for work.
That’s the way Paul talks about our identification with Jesus’ death and all that this implies for our relationship to sin. It’s past tense. It is who we are by baptism. We are dead to sin. And yet before this same passage is finished, you find Paul saying things like, “Therefore, count yourselves dead to sin. Remember that this is true. Don’t keep on sinning. Don’t use your body for immoral purposes. Instead, choose to do better things that glorify God.” But in one sense, these imperative commands are rather surprising.
Again by way of analogy: If someone tells you that he has been cured of cancer, wouldn’t it seem odd to respond by ordering this person to live now as a cured man? Would you say to this person something like, “Be sure you don’t go to the hospital for chemotherapy tomorrow.” Would it make sense to say, “Therefore, stop planning your funeral and stop crying over your impending death from cancer.” If a person knows he has been cured, and if you know that he knows this, would it nevertheless make sense to say, “Therefore, Charley, consider yourself free from cancer and don’t let this disease rule your body.” Wouldn’t that seem to be a rather unnecessary, even an odd, thing to say?
Paul tells the Romans they are dead to sin. It’s all wrapped up for them. Sin is no more because of Jesus’ death and their baptismal identification with, and mysterious participation in, that death. It’s over. Past tense. History. Yet in this case Paul knows that even so it is not at all weird subsequently to order the Romans to live like they know this is true. And if we didn’t bat an eye at this when Romans 6 was read a few minutes ago, it is probably because every last one of us knows that although we profess ourselves to be Christians, we still struggle with sin.
As someone once said, all of us know that even when we are engaged in worship, the wolves of sin may at that same moment be howling in our souls. It reminds me of that scene near the end of the story Elmer Gantry. The evangelist is on his knees in front of the pulpit having just confessed his sexual sins. As he opens his eyes from this prayer of confession and begins to lift up his bowed head, his eyes fall appreciatively on the nicely turned ankle of a woman in the choir . . .
But if our baptism into Christ does not automatically turn us into sinless people who lead saintly lives, then what is the purpose behind all of Paul’s confident rhetoric in this passage? If the Christian life remains a struggle against temptation, does baptism have no true effect? Is this just all talk? If we still need to repent of our failures even as preachers still need to remind all of us to stay away from that bad stuff come tomorrow once again, then what makes us different from any other person in the world who likewise gets reminded not to do bad things? Is there a difference?
Yes, and the difference is this: we can be different because in Christ we are different. As commentator Douglas Moo put it, the only reason Paul can plausibly say “Thou shalt” at the end of this passage is because he was truthfully able to say “Thou hast” at the beginning. Paul knows that the only reason he is able to tell the Romans what they ought to do is because their immersion into Jesus’ death has made it possible for them to do it.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant was famous for saying that when it comes to morality, “Ought implies can.” So if I tell one of my kids to sit up straight at the dinner table and say only nice things to the rest of the family, I do so only because I believe he or she can do this. That’s why I dare make it an order. To order what is not possible is as cruel as it is senseless. And so it would be only a sadistic father who would order his child to address the family in eloquent French even though the father knows full well the child has never learned one word of that language. Ought implies can–if we truly are obligated to do something, then it follows we possess the requisite skills to do it in the first place.
So in Romans 6 the emphatic, indicative statements that remind us who we are in Christ are the perfect set-up for the imperative commands that come later. We may struggle morally, we may fail all-too-often. But because we have died to sin, because we have been caught up in Jesus’ death, we now have inside of us the power that it takes to resist sin’s allures, to turn down proper paths, to break bad habits and overcome addictions of all kinds. We ought to do this because we can do this and we can do this because the power of no less than Christ Jesus the Lord is inside every one of us who has been baptized.
Even at the lowpoints of our struggles with temptation, we can have hope. Even when we are ashamed of something we did, we can have hope. Even when we fear we will never make progress in being more like the person we know God would have us to be, we can have hope. And this hope is not pie-in-the-sky optimism, either. This is not little orphan Annie singing “The sun’ll come up tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar on tomorrow” in some saccharine wish for a brighter day. We as Christians sing about the Lord Jesus who died for us and with whom we also died. Because when it’s Jesus you die with, you know that resurrection is the next item on the agenda.
Above all, though, when you are in Christ, you also know where it is you live. You know that you live in a new cosmic situation, a new place that is filled with hope. In Christ, you know for sure that grace is where you live. Did any of you notice something interesting about Romans 6? It begins famously with Paul asking the rhetorical question, “Should we sin more so that grace may abound?” It sounds like some cheeky people in the early church tried to caricature Paul’s message of salvation by grace alone. They poked a little fun of the free ride to salvation that Paul proclaimed by saying silly things like, “Well, if grace is such a great thing, then the more we sin, the more of this good thing we’ll get, right?! Since God loves doling out this free grace, let’s give him lots of excuses to do it then!”
It was a line of thought so blatantly dumb and finally also so cynical as to be almost beneath contempt. But Paul mentions it anyway and says that by no means should we try to make grace abound by sinning more. In fact, in verse 14 (just beyond the technical bounds of this lection), Paul says something wonderfully poignant. In encouraging the Romans not to let sin be their master, Paul says, “You are, after all, not under law but under grace.” In other words, Paul says that grace already abounds as it is! So in a way we could sum up this passage by saying that we don’t sin to make grace abound because, as a matter of fact, we don’t sin because grace already abounds! You couldn’t make grace any more hyperabundant than it already is no matter what you did!
Be who you are, Paul says. Recall your identity as all new people who are dead to sin. We have hope inside us that we can lead new, better lives because we have the living Jesus inside us. We have to take into account every day that grace is where we live. We have already become all new people. Remember that. Remember, and be thankful!
If you have ever watched the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book, Roots, then you know that this story is about far more than some genealogical curiosity that seeks to fill in the blank branches on a family tree. Most of us have at least a modest interest in knowing the names of our forebears. Mostly, though, names are about all we learn. Barring the rare discovery that we are related to someone famous, the stories of our ancestors are unknown to us. Maybe that is why some people don’t find genealogies very interesting. When I had to make a family tree in high school, I interviewed my Grandpa Hoezee to get as many names as far back as possible. We didn’t get very far. “Sorry I can’t help more,” Grandpa said. “But my side of the family never much cared if we had a family tree or a stump!”
But Roots was about far more than old history and names. From the very beginning when Alex Haley’s ancestor Kunte Kinte was violently kidnaped from Africa, it was clear that what this genealogical tracing was about was nothing short of identity. Kunte Kinte’s story stayed alive, and needed to be passed down the generations, because that story would tell all his descendants who they really were. Kunte never accepted Toby, the name given to him by the white man. He never accepted that he was a slave. He was proud. He was a warrior descended from a strong and good and noble people. For Kunte’s offspring, knowing the family’s roots was not about information but formation. These roots did not simply trace back to what had been but drew lines forward to what still was.
Alex Haley’s people had to remember who they were. It reminds me of the line I have mentioned before from the great black preacher James Cone. When Cone was asked why sermons in black churches tend to be so long, he answered, “It’s because six days a week this whole society tells black people they are second class. So on Sunday morning it just takes a while to talk them back into seeing who they are as God’s children!”
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