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Sunday, June 29, 2014 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 13
Romans 6:1b–11

God, renew us; guide our footsteps
free from sin and all its snares,
one with Christ in living, dying,
by your Spirit, children, heirs.

. . . We your people stand before you,
Water-washed and Spirit-born.
By your grace, our lives we offer.
Recreate us; God, transform!

“Wash, O God, Your Sons and Daughters”
By Ruth Duck. © 1989 United Methodist Publishing House/Abingdon Press
From Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal

Whenever I dive into Paul’s letters, I often wonder if he ever got “tuckered out,” as my great-grandmother used to say. He lived in and breathed the concentrated air of ministry. His proclamation led to frequent imprisonments. And when he was not locked up, he was on the road, going from one church to another church, preaching and teaching, trying to build them up, starting new ones, and doing his best to secure solid pastoral leadership for them. He was a church midwife extraordinaire, always on call, ready to respond to the Spirit’s labor pains.

And Paul was also constantly in fundraising mode, collecting money for all the ministries God was calling him to start. It must have felt like a never-ending capital campaign. That exhausts me just talking about it. And yet, my guess is that none of those ministry activities drained Paul’s energy like the church fights did. Paul was continually stuck smack-dab in the middle of church fights. And nothing can suck a preacher’s soul dry like church infighting can. Not that I know anything about that, mind you. It’s what I have heard . . .

But Paul intimately knew about church fights because he was forever trying to put out the flames. And from his letters, we know about a few of them. We know about the church fights in Galatia. They were arguing round and round about the ritual of circumcision. Did one have to be circumcised in order to be a follower of Jesus since that was the mark of being included in God’s covenant people Israel? In other words, did the requirements of God’s law take on a different hue when seen through the lens of Christ or not?

But the Galatians were not the only ones grumbling and simmering in conflict. Paul also had to counsel the church in Corinth. They had all kinds of fights going on. One topic Paul spent many words addressing was the problem of inequity at the Lord’s Table. The meal surrounding communion had begun to resemble a contemporary airline flight. The wealthy and influential members of the church enjoyed a first-class kind of experience complete with white linens, better food, and never-ending drink, while the poorer members and the slaves were kept in the economy section, lucky to get a small bag of peanuts and half a glass of Diet Coke. Yet the Lord’s Table is supposed to be the place where all are welcome and all are equal, family. Any walled-up divisions from outside the church community needed to be dismantled, brick by brick. And Paul was determined to remind them of that.

Then to top it all off, as I mentioned earlier, Paul was in a stewardship campaign for the budget of the Jerusalem church. He hoped that a joint offering received from many different congregations would be a strong enough symbol to reconcile the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians in the church. That disunity was a problem. “If only everyone could see themselves as one body in Christ,” Paul might have hoped out loud.

So even with Galatia and Corinth simmering in the background alongside this financial pressure regarding the church in Jerusalem, Paul still decided to tackle the church in Rome. Like I said, I wonder if he was ever exhausted by it all. But tired or not, Paul wanted to write a letter to the church in Rome before he went to visit them, kind of as an introduction. He had not been to that particular congregation yet, but he had heard how they were doing. For the most part, things were going pretty well. And yet they, like every church community, especially those in times of transition and new beginnings, faced some challenges.

Like the church in Galatia, the church in Rome was ethnically and culturally mixed. It had lots of people from different places coming with different experiences and probably different understandings of what it meant to claim Jesus as Messiah. Furthermore, the church in Rome, also like the church in Galatia, was a congregation made up both of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

Given all of that diversity, it was just a matter of time before a power struggle erupted or before the people began to split up into camps due to theological disagreements. But this time Paul wanted to be proactive and not just reactive. So Paul chose to write the Romans a letter in which he would confront head-on some potential areas of theological tension. He felt called to help them focus on their unity in Christ, a gift bestowed upon them by God’s lavish grace, as well as the necessity of their response to that gift in the choice of living a radically new life.

Today’s scripture from chapter 6 stands near the middle of that letter. But since Paul wrote rather systematically, building his argument point by point, let me fill you in on chapter 5. In chapter 5, Paul spends a great deal of time on sin and grace. The free gift of God’s grace, Paul argues, is stronger than any bondage to sin. There is more mercy in God than can ever be sin in us. As a friend once preached, “There is nothing that we can do, no sin that we commit, no commandment that we break, that is not overcome by the love and grace of God given to us in Jesus Christ” (Ryan Baer, “Drowning in the Waters of Baptism,” a sermon preached on 22 June 2008 at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in West Palm Beach, Florida). That is chapter 5 in a nutshell.

But then, just as that part of his letter closes, it is as if Paul intuits a possible reaction from the church people. For in chapter 6 he immediately tries to put to rest any notion that this enormous gift of grace was somehow “cheap” and did not ask anything from us in response. In other words, Paul grew concerned that the folks in Rome might decide that if sinning brings about God’s grace, then more sinning would mean even more grace, and who doesn’t want that? It could be the best of both worlds. “What then are we to say?” Paul writes. “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Absolutely not! That is ridiculous! By no means!” Why?

“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. . . . 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.”

Now, in order to really dive into what Paul is saying, we must acknowledge Paul and the Romans held a very different worldview than we do. In Paul’s era, there was absolutely no concept of self-autonomy, self-rule. There was no such thing as self-determination. You were always ruled by something or someone else. So either you resided in the reign of Caesar or you resided in the reign of God. Either you resided in the reign of sin subject to its power or you resided in the reign of grace subject to God’s power.

There was no gray area for Paul or for the Romans. There was no “spiritual but not religious”; no “I play by my own rules.” Our post-modern worldview would make absolutely no sense to Paul. For him, for the people in his congregations, the choice was clear: Either you lived in the reign of sin (“the flesh,” as Paul would say) or you lived in the reign of God (“the Spirit”).

And as the baptized, they lived in the reign of the Spirit whether they realized it or not. So Paul decided to make it clear. He wanted to make clear how their baptismal identities directly impacted the way they were now called to live together as church and out into the world.

“In your baptism,” Paul preaches through his words, “you have already died. And in your baptism, you have already been reborn. That means death no longer has dominion over you. Fear no longer has hold on you. Jesus died once and for all so you all must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” It is powerful preaching, isn’t it. We need not fear death, for in our baptism we have already died. Even through a letter, you sense Paul was a deeply powerful preacher.

However, while this strong and vibrant imagery of baptism as death was familiar to the Romans, it might not be that familiar to us. I don’t know how baptism has been preached here in the past, but I know it is not the baptismal imagery I often use or preach. I focus on new life or on the reality of baptism as God’s announcement of God’s claiming and sealing. And those meanings are biblical and true, too. But as Paul reminds us today, so is this image of baptism as death and rebirth.

Yet in my fifteen years of ministry, I have never held a baby by the font and spoke of her baptism as her death to sin, as her death to all that would attempt to separate her from God and others, as her death to all the powers and principalities that would try to take hold of her life. I don’t think I have spoken of baptism as death even once. And maybe that is because I find it jarring.

The Episcopal priest and author John Westerhoff, in his book Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith,writes about a jarring baptism he witnessed in a small church in a Latin American village. The congregation had gathered; they had recalled God’s gracious acts, just as Paul did in chapter 5. And now it was time for them to respond to God’s Living Word with a baptism. But where we might play “Jesus Loves Me” or “Baptized in Water,” at this small church the congregation began the baptism with the mournful sounds of a funeral hymn.

Westerhoff watched a solemn procession move down the center aisle. A father carried a child’s coffin he had made from wood; a mother carried a bucket of water from the family well; and a priest carried their sleeping infant wrapped only in a native blanket. As they all reached the chancel, the father placed the coffin on the altar, the mother poured the water in the coffin, and the priest covered the wakening baby’s skin with the embalming oil. The congregational singing softened to a whisper. The priest slowly lowered the infant into the coffin and immersed the child’s head in the water. And as he did so, he exclaimed, “I kill you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” “Amen,” everyone shouted. Then, quickly lifting the child into the air for all to see, the priest then declared, “And I resurrect you that you might love and serve the Lord.” And with those words of rebirth and resurrection, the congregation immediately broke into a joyous Easter hymn (quoted in an article by William Fogleman in “Romans 6:3–14: Between Text and Sermon,” Interpretation, 1993, p. 295).

Can you imagine that happening here at Fourth Presbyterian Church? It would be a baptism we would not forget, would we? It is a powerful image. And it makes me wonder if that small Latin American congregation has as many theological identity struggles as the Corinthians or the Galatians or as we Presbyterians can sometimes have, or not.

I would love to know how their liturgy of regularly remembering their death to sin and their rebirth in grace has affected their life together and the way they live their faith in the world. Maybe the reality that every baptism becomes an Easter moment keeps them grounded in what it means to be fully alive to God in Christ Jesus. Maybe their constant rehearsing of letting go into God, of trusting that in their baptism they have already died—maybe that constant reminder renders the occasional church fight mundane and any grumblings pale in comparison. Perhaps it helps them keep their focus on living as one body in Christ Jesus and not on thinking they had to agree or even like each other all the time. Perhaps.

But more than likely, that little church, just like the church in Galatia, just like the church in Corinth, just like the church in Rome, just like our own denomination at General Assembly or our own Presbytery of Chicago (maybe even here at Fourth Church?), that little church still argues with each other about what it means to be faithful and who gets to decide what. I bet they have their own share of discontent. It is part of being church together.

And yet as Paul tried to do with his words to the Romans, at least on baptismal Sundays their eyes are lifted and they see the bigger picture—God’s bigger picture, the picture that reminds them that in their baptism they have already died to all that separates them from God and from one another, and because of that, they are completely free to live as one beloved body in Christ Jesus their Lord. Not because of how good they are, but because of how good God is in Jesus Christ.

I just can’t help but think it was this kind of big-picture vision that Paul hoped the Romans, the Galatians, and the Corinthians would grasp too. I imagine that is why, even as he lived and breathed the concentrated air of ministry, Paul still spent so much time preaching and writing about bold grace, baptismal life, and what it means to be one in Christ—so that they, and we, would never forget under Whose reign we live, now and forevermore. So that they, and we, would never forget the delicious freedom we have been given to be fully alive and family together. So that they, and we, would know and trust and believe that in Jesus Christ, death has lost its sting. And in Jesus Christ, God’s grace and mercy have been unleashed to create holy havoc in our world. So on this day, following in the tradition of that Latin American priest, let it be known that I kill you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And I resurrect you that you might love and serve the Lord. Amen! Thanks be to God!

Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church


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