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Alive to God

Sermon 6/19/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 6:1-11

We are continuing in our little series of Paul's letter to the Romans.  We pick up this morning in the 6th chapter of Romans, Paul has just told the Romans that grace is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ who by his death has freed us from the clutches of sin, and that means where sin abounds, grace abounds.  And this leads Paul, then, to state this:

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

 

Here's the problem folks.  The opponents of Paul, those who believed that living by the law rather than living by grace as central to Christian life, have charged that the way of Paul, with its emphasis on faith and the free grace of God, encourages sin.  And if you think about it, it's really not an unfamiliar charge -- we hear a lot of similar kinds of charges today.  If you don't advocate tough sentences and long jail times, you're soft on crime.  If you teach anything other than abstinence as a means to prevent pregnancy and sexually-transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS, then you are encouraging premarital sex.  If you allow women and their doctors the freedom to make their own choice about the termination of a pregnancy, you're allowing murder.  If you allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as an acceptable means to manage pain, then you are encouraging irresponsible drug use.  If you don't crack down on terrorism with all means possible and even curtailing civil liberties, then you are giving in to terrorists.  And so on, and so on.

Now, I can't tell you how Paul would respond to any of these issues because our concerns were not his.  And so we need to be careful anytime that we read modern issues into ancient texts.  But I can tell you this, with absolute certainty:  that Paul is adamant that teaching people that their sins have been forgiven, and that the free grace of God in Christ is completely unearned, that this by no means can ever be taken as a 'get out of jail free' card, as a license to sin with no concern for consequences.

Yes, it's true, God does accept us as we are.  You do not have to prove anything to God.  The death of Jesus means no other sacrifice is needed or even possible to make us right before God.  God's grace has been given freely to us.

But that is only one half of the story.  And if that is the only half we ever tell, we commit what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace".  God does accept us as we are but God does not leave us where we are.  Grace that is genuine and taken to heart is transformative.  It changes who we are.  And the two primary symbols of this transformation, Paul tells us, are in essence two forms of the same reality.  The death and resurrection of Jesus, and our baptism. 

I think that's a pretty radical claim, so let me repeat that and say it somewhat differently:  that our baptism is the re-enactment, the re-incarnation, the making of flesh, physical, real, the death and the resurrection of Jesus.  Paul says we are 'baptized into Christ', which is an odd phrase.  We would probably say you are baptized into membership into the church.  You are baptized into the community, the communion of saints.  You are baptized into the family of God.  But Paul says simply we are baptized into Christ.  Into a person.  In other words, we take on the death and resurrection of Christ.  That just as Jesus is God incarnate, we are Christ incarnate -- we are the means by which Christ becomes tangible, real, visible in our world.  

That's a pretty heavy-duty claim.  But it is central to Paul's theology -- he uses the phrase "in Christ" or "in Christ Jesus" 164 times.  That phrase summarizes the character of the Christian life -- that we are in Christ.

Ronald D. Osborne, in a book that used to be must reading for any would-be ministers in the 60s, 70s, 80s, titled "In Christ's Place" (I'm curious how many of the ministers present here have read In Christ's Place?, I'm sure there are a few), says "God bids us to minister where Christ is, in Christ's place".  And that has a double meaning -- on the one hand, yeah, we're told to minister where Christ would be, in those places where the downtrodden are, the poor, the sinners, the outcasts.  But also, that we are called to minister in the place of Christ.  And if that seems like an awfully high, unattainable ideal, it's because it is and awfully high unattainable ideal!

One of the things we know about Paul is that he was a Christ mystic.  Mystics don't say prayers, mystics live prayers.  Mystics don't know about God, mystics know God.  Mystics don't think about divine things, mystics experience divine things.  Mystics live in a spirit world just as much as we live in the physical world.

Dominic Crossan has a great line in the book we are using in our study on Paul, he says:  "Mystics don't climb mountains, they descend upon them".  And you see, the rest of us who are mountain climbers, we don't understand.  How'd you get up here?!  And they have difficulty relating to others -- what's taken you so long?!

And that explains some of the problems that Paul has with his communities to which he writes.  He expects everyone to be like him, to be a mystic like he is, to have this experience in Christ.  He's talking about the eternal, about the power of the spirit, about the peace of Christ, about the glory of God.  And the people in Corinth say "well, yeah, that's great Paul, but we want to know what to fix for dinner.  Do we serve ham or not?".  And the people in Galatia want to know "Well, sure, that's wonderful Paul, but what about the uncircumcised -- should they become circumcised or not?"  And the people in Corinth say "Well, that's good for you Paul, but what about the unmarried -- should they get married or not?".  

And Paul's response is to remind people of their baptism.  To take these little issues that we struggle with and always to use them to illustrate a higher principle, to lift us to a higher plane.  "In your baptism", he says, "you were united with Jesus in his death and therefore you are dead with him.  And you were united with Jesus in his resurrection therefore you are alive to God".  

It's up to us, then, to figure out what that means, how to apply that in our lives.  Sure, Paul does provide a few examples but the bulk of it is something we have to figure out.

Robert Johnson is a Jungian psychologist who has a very peculiar treatment strategy for suicidal patients.  When they call him up and say that they're contemplating suicide or they come into his office, he says to them:  "It sounds like you need to die".  And he encourages them to go ahead an commit suicide -- there's only one provision, go ahead and do it, so long as you do not harm your body.  Go ahead and kill yourself, just don't hurt yourself.  Any questions? J  And the point he makes is that the psyche of the suicidal person needs to die, so that a new psyche can be born in the body of that person, and can experience new life.

And you see, that's the way baptism is for us.  That our soul dies and is born again to new life in Christ.  And it's not the same life, lived over again, like Bill Murray's movie "Groundhog Day", it is a new transformed life.  The meaning of the resurrection is not that the body of Jesus was resuscitated, but that the life of Jesus was transformed into a new reality and that reality is now made present in us.

There is in Ephesus a church that I got to visit when I was there 2 years ago.  Just outside of Ephesus, it's called the Church of St. John the Divine.  It was built in the 6th century on top of a smaller chapel built in the 4th century, that in turn was built on top of a place that tradition says was the burial place for St. John the apostle.  A magnificent building, today just the floors and a few walls and columns still standing to give you a sense of this amazing structure built 1,400 years ago:

And off to one side of the knave is a baptistery in the floor that you can still see.  And you can see that it has two staircases -- in and out.  And this was the form of baptisteries from this time on.  And if you look in our baptistery, behind those doors (for those of you not baptized here that haven't seen it), you will see there are two staircases.  Why?  You don't need two, you can go up and down one staircase, it doesn't matter.  Maybe it was just a practical thing, you know, you line them up, put someone there in the middle, you dunk them, and just move on through.  I don't know, all the people that were converting back then, I suppose that could have been the case.

No, I think it was built that way for a very theological meaning.  That you go in one way and you come out another was another way of saying that you go in and we come out as a new person, and a new life.  Very intentional -- we are a different person that comes out.  

Last Sunday, I concluded my message with the image of the altar of Augustan Peace, and today I want to conclude with the Gate of Hadrian, which is found in Ephesus not too far from the Church of St. John the Divine.  This gate was built during the reign of Augustus Caesar by a freed slave, who did very well for himself, and built it as a tribute to Caesar Augustus in thanksgiving for his freedom:

Now, if any of you are still looking for that perfect gift for Father's Day, well just do something nice, you know, build something to show your gratitude for your Father, and he'll get the message J.

And this is the entry way from the port of Ephesus into the city.  Now today if you go see it you'll have to walk a long ways to get here from the port because the sea has receded (or the land has risen, whichever the case may be), but at any rate, Paul who we know spent about 2 years in Ephesus would have known this well.  He would have walked through this many, many times.  When you walk through this you are literally walking in the same place Paul walked, you are seeing what Paul saw.

Monty Python, to digress here (just wait, it's all relevant!), has a movie my family and I just saw this week, wonderful, called The Life of Brian -- sacrilegious, silly movie.  Brian is born at the same time of Jesus and the wise men mistake him for Jesus and then they find out he's the wrong one and they move down to another.  But at any rate, Brian is growing up at the same time as Jesus is, and he gets involved with a group of zealots and the zealots are plotting their rebellion to overthrow Rome.  And they decide the way they're going to start this revolution is to kidnap the wife of Pilate.  And John Cleese, the leader of the zealots, getting his troops all fired up, says to them -- "what did the Romans ever do for us?!".  And one of the not-too-smart followers says:  "Well, they gave us the aqueducts".  And everyone says "yeah, yeah".  "And the public baths".  "Well, yeah, yeah, yeah".  "And education".  "Well, yeah".  "And medicine".  "And roads".  "Well, yeah, of course the roads".  "And the ports".  "And world order".  And on and on the list goes and finally Cleese says:  "Well, alright, so the Romans gave us the aqueducts, the public baths, our education, our medicine, ports, roads, world order, but other than that, what did the Romans ever do for us?!" J.

And you see that's precisely right.  And that's why this was built -- as a tribute to all of the wonderful things that the Romans did for us, for society, for our world, to provide our safety.  Keep in mind this is not in Italy -- this is Turkey, this is a long ways away from Rome.  As a tribute to Caesar, in thanksgiving for all of the wonderful things that Rome did for us.  

And at the top of this structure, in the left hand side, the very beginning of the inscription that dedicates this edifice to Caesar, to his wife, and to his daughter, we read:  Imperatur Caesar Divi Filius Augustus:

 

When you see Divi-F, it's abbreviated -- when you're chiseling in granite you've got to find shortcuts.  So you'll have to take my word for it -- Caesar Divi Filius Augustus.  If you don't know your Latin too well, what does that say?  

Caesar Son of God Augustus

It's as if it's his middle name -- Caesar Son of God Augustus.  You see, everyone in that first century world, certainly in the city of Ephesus and all Roman cities, understood Augustus was divine, the divine son of God, because they could see what he did for them.  They knew what it meant to live for Caesar, to live according to the law as established by Rome.  And so the question then to Paul would be this:  what will your Jesus, your Son of God, do for us?  Will he build roads?  Aqueducts?  Public baths?  Will he strengthen our trade?  Will he expand our empire?  

And here is Paul's answer, something the Roman government, with all of its system of laws and education and building projects could not provide:  a new transformed life in Christ.  And if they then asked "Well, Paul, will that change our world?  Will it feed our children?  Will it stop the Roman aggression and oppression of occupied territories?  Will it bring peace through justice instead of peace through war?"  

Paul surely would have responded:  well, I don't know about all of that.  Maybe, maybe, if enough people lived in Christ, become dead to sin and alive to God, well then maybe it would.  But in the meantime, all I can tell you is that there is a community of people who are living this transformed life now.  Come and join us.  See for yourself.  Instead of living in Caesar's Rome, come and see what it means to live in Christ's place.  Be alive to God.

 


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