Complementary Text: Matthew 6:24
Preaching Text: Romans 6:1-14
As chapter six of Paul’s letter to the Romans begins, the apostle has made some sweeping claims about the problems that face humanity and the solution to those problems that was revealed in Jesus. In chapter three, lays out the stark truth for the community at Rome: All people – without exception – have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Since we are unable to make our relationship with God by our own strength or power, Jesus Christ fulfills God’s divine plan of salvation by his obedient suffering and death for our sake and for the sake of the whole creation. Paul states clearly that it is because of what God has done in Christ – and not because of anything we have done, are doing, or might do in the future – that the relationship between God and humanity can be restored.
Paul is a smart man, and he knows that this radical gospel, this good news about Jesus Christ, can be easily misinterpreted, so here in chapter six he anticipates one of the possible responses to the startling claim that it is God’s grace, not our action, that renews our relationship with God. That response is incredibly simple and, frankly, incredibly human: Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? (Romans 6:1, NRSV) Or, put another way: if God’s extravagant love is poured out on us to save us from sin, shouldn’t we keep on sinning so that God can keep showering us with forgiveness and grace?
On one level, this kind of question makes sense, right? Grace is undoubtedly good, and if God is determined to be gracious to us, why not give God every opportunity? While this scenario makes sense from a logical perspective, for Paul, this whole question is ridiculous, because it stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to live as God’s people and to be joined to Christ.
You see, in Paul’s view, all people live in one of two different spheres of existence that are mutually exclusive. The first sphere of existence is what Paul laid out in chapters 1-3, the kind of existence that he sees as common to all humanity by virtue of our being human. This is the realm of Sin – what we might call Sin with a capital S. Far from referring to certain acts of disobedience, Paul sees Sin as a reality, a state of being in which creation itself is trapped and dying. Sin distorts the truth and alienates us from one another, from God, and from our true selves. When we are trapped in the realm of Sin, even our best intentions are fatally flawed, and we are incapable of living the kind of lives that God desires. This is the problem that confronts all of humanity, and it is the problem that God seeks to address through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. On the cross, Christ took on the power of sin and broke it forever, making it possible for us to be freed from the realm of Sin and to live in another kind of existence under the gracious reign of God in Christ.
For Paul, then, to think that Sin serves the cause of Christ – to ask, “Shall we continue in Sin so that grace may abound?” – is to underestimate the significance of Christ’s death and to invite the power of Sin to take hold of us once again. This is why Paul asks incredulously, “How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (Romans 6:2, NRSV)
Of course, we know all too well that Sin is powerful, and that it doesn’t give up without a fight. The pull to give in to our selfish impulses, to seek our own advantage at the expense of others, to give ourselves back into the power of Sin, is very strong. We continue to struggle daily with the forces of Sin that oppose God’s will for us and for our world. That’s why Paul’s powerful reminder of what God has done for us in Christ, particularly through the sacrament of Holy Baptism, is so important. For Paul, Holy Baptism is a sign and seal of this change of existence, the act by which we are drawn with Christ from death into life, the act by which Sin’s grip on us is loosed forever. As you’ve undoubtedly heard many times, Baptism is not simply a nice ceremony that we observe as a nod to history or tradition. It is a mark of our new identity, a tangible sign of our having been buried with Christ and freed to live a new kind of life. Because of Christ, we now stand securely under God’s reign, and Sin has no power to hold us back again. As long as we remember who we are and in whom we find our life, our strength, our peace, and our joy, we will be less likely to offer ourselves or any part of ourselves to be used in ways that defy God’s will for our lives.
Having looked at the past and the present, Paul also calls us to look to the future, reminding us that Christ is also our hope in the face of suffering, decay, and death. Because we have been joined to Christ, God’s Holy Spirit is moving in us, in our community, and in our world, so that we might be, to live in the hopeful expectation that we – along with the whole creation – might one day be freed from death and enjoy the fullness of life shared by the Triune God. For Paul, that hope is as sure and certain as God’s promise to be gracious, a promise that will never fail, regardless of our own faults and fears and failing.
This is the good news that Paul shares with the Romans and with us. In Holy Baptism, we are joined to Christ, and through his death and resurrection we are freed from the tyranny of Sin, and offered the hope of life that will last into the age to come. This week, brothers and sisters, may you live with the knowledge of God’s great love for you in Christ; may you remember your identity as a beloved child of God, claimed in Holy Baptism to walk in newness of life; finally, may you draw strength from the hope of resurrection that is ours in Christ today and always. Thanks be to God! Amen.