What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We 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. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
My sermon from 3rd Sunday after Pentecost (June 25, 2017) on Romans 6:1-11. Listen to the recording at the bottom of the page or read my manuscript below.
On Wednesday, my cat Finn started to act strangely. Now, I haven’t had Finn for a while and he’s still, technically, a kitten. He’s still developing his normal rhythm of life and I’m still figuring out who he is. But on Wednesday, I knew something was slightly off. He wasn’t in pain or meowing or not eating. He still playfully lashed out at anyone’s feet when they walked by. But something was different and we were concerned. So I did what I always do when a healthcare issue shows up in my life. I googled it. As a child of the internet, looking up things online is….just what I do. When I get a slight cold, I google the symptoms. When my kids ask a question about the world, I flip open my phone. So when Finn started to act strangely, I did what I always do: I looked for a solution. I tried to get a sense of what was going on. And everything I read told me to take him to the vet. So that’s what I did. And now we’re trying to force feed liquid antibiotics to a cat, which is just as easy as it sounds. On Wednesday, I had a problem. My furry family and I sought a solution. The internet helped us use a wide variety of sources to find a way to deal with this situation in our lives. And this approach to problem solving is not too different from what the community in Rome was doing when Paul’s letter first arrived.
Now, we don’t know much about the early Christian community in Rome. We don’t know who brought them them gospel or how many different people taught them about Jesus. But we do know the community was mostly made up of Gentiles, of non-Jews, who probably felt like the normal Roman way of life wasn’t giving them all they needed. Instead, they sought a new way to deal with their problems and that led them to a Jewish way of life. During Jesus’ day, the Jewish faith was growing. There were Romans who believed in God. They found meaning and value in practicing the Jewish food laws, in worshiping God, and saw in the Bible tricks and tips to help them manage their lives. The Jewish way of life, an approach to living modeled by Jesus himself since he is Jewish, was that outside source of information that seemed to solve a problem these Romans had. And that problems was the passions.
So what are the passions? We usually identify them as emotions, appetites, and feelings. We might give them names like lust or sorrow, anxiety or fear. Passions are the feelings and experiences that make us feel as if we are getting in our own way when it comes to living our authentic lives. And in ancient-Greco Roman thought, personal suffering was rooted in these passions. One of the goals of life, then, is to, somehow, master these passions. Instead of being controlled by lust, we tame it. Instead of letting melancholy keep us in sorrows, we overcome it. In a very mind over matter kind of way, living well means developing habits that turn us into being an active participant in all areas of our life. Now we have to step back and realize that this kind of living was only available to a select few. If you were a slave, you couldn’t do this because you didn’t have the agency or the independence to stop anyone from acting on you. And if you were a woman, the patriarchy and wider culture already saw you as weak and it was assumed you would never master human nature. Yet, overall, this idea about mastering the passions was a cultural ideal that impacted all areas of life. Living well, then, was a kind of dying. Life was about doing the hard work necessary to kill off these passions that dominate us. And for some Romans, the Jewish way of life seemed to provide a way to tame these passions. By following the rules, ethics, and behaviors taught in the Books of Moses and modeled by the lives of David and the prophets, the good life – as Roman culture defined it – could be reached. Part of the appeal of Judaism, including this Jesus-based sect inside the city of Rome, were these rules for life that this faith offered. Jesus himself seemed to offer a way to master the passions. But this early Roman community also thought something else. They imagined that mastering their passions was the only way they could make themselves acceptable to God. It was almost as if following Jesus was some kind of self-help program that, once completed, would give them a gold star on their report card from God. And without that gold star, without proving their own worth and value, God would shut them out. This is a type of Christian faith that acts as if we have the power to somehow convince God to fall in love with us. We can, with the right program or habits or life hacks or by entering the right search words into google, we can learn the tricks we need to do to secure our relationship with God. This way of thinking believes that our hope for finding meaning and value in our lives depends only on us. And Paul calls this way of thinking, this way of living, sin. Because the story of Jesus doesn’t show us the tricks we need to do to somehow convince God to finally care about us. The story of Jesus is about a God who loves us so much, that even death itself can’t separate us from God. Life isn’t about dying to our passions. Life with Christ is realizing how, through our baptism, we’ve already died. The old self that tries to chase after God is missing the fact that God already has us. The sin that thinks we can somehow fix our relationship with God is stopping us from seeing how Jesus has already done that work. As followers of Jesus, we’re more than just human beings. We’re more than just a bucket full of appetites, emotions, and feelings. We are the body of Christ. We are part of Jesus. And that’s means you are a beloved child of God – and that changes everything.
I don’t think Paul would have disliked using Google to find out what’s wrong with a cat. Nor do I think he would have been against us trying to figure out how we can better ourselves. When it comes to being more fully who we are, God has given us so many ways to find health and wholeness. Counselors and therapists, life coaches and spiritual directors, are not to be shunned nor are we to consider people who use them as somehow worth less than us. The stigma against mental illness and seeking help is something every Christian is called to fight against. Everyone should have the health resources they need to seek help when they need it and not feel like the church or society or even God will think less of them. The journey of self-betterment can help us grow into being who God calls us to be. But there is nothing we can do to make God love us more. And our journey towards becoming better versions of ourselves starts with what Jesus has already done. Jesus has already died for you. Jesus has already called you as part of God’s holy family. You’re already worth more than you can possibly know.
So life isn’t about chasing after God. Life is about living and knowing that God already has us.