a sermon on life and death

Third Sunday after Pentecost
Texts: Genesis 21:8-21 | Romans 6:1b-11 | Matthew 10:24-39

This sermon is part of a summer preaching series on the book of Romans.
Click here to read a testimony offered in worship today by Day Hefner.

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Today we’re dealing with matters of life and death.

Jesus warns the disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

These days, matters of life and death are so present, so common, that hardly a day goes by without remembering.

Another black man shot by police. Another trans teenager died by suicide.

Will I be able to afford the healthcare I need to survive?

The death toll climbs after bombings in Pakistan. The death toll climbs in Chicago.

I continue to build up a tolerance for horrific news, getting better each day at treating these deaths like facts of life. And I want to feel the reality of these things, instead of going numb. But then again, numbness is familiar and safe.

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Today we’re dealing with matters of life and death. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into Christ’s death?” (6:3) And just to be sure we know he’s not joking – he’s really talking about death – Paul goes on, “We have been crucified with Christ” (6:6) … “We have been buried with Christ” (6:4).

I grew up for most of my childhood and adolescence in a Methodist church, and I saw lots of babies and non-babies get baptized there. The person being baptized would come all dressed up and gather around a small bowl of water. My Methodist pastor would tell everyone that baptism is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” She would smile, sprinkling the top of their head with water three times, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” and dry their head off with a towel. If the person being baptized was a baby, they would often squirm or cry because presumably this experience was unpleasant. Many of you have probably seen a baptism like that.

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Pastor Deus Medard, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania, performs a baptism.

I had some friends in high school who were not baptized as babies. As teenagers, they made the decision to be baptized. I attended the baptism of a close friend of mine. She wore sports shorts and a dark colored t-shirt and walked barefoot up to the front of the room to a giant horse tank that was waiting there, filled with water. The pastor lent a hand so she could step in without slipping and sit down. The pastor told everyone that M’s life was going to be different now. She was going to be a new person. The pastor placed one hand on M’s shoulder and the other behind her head, and pushed her whole body under the water, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” each time M came up taking in a breath of air before being submerged again. And when it was over, she wiped the water from her eyes so she could see as the pastor helped her step back out of the tank, and she dripped, sopping wet, over to where someone was waiting to wrap her in a giant towel. When she came back to sit down next to me, her hair splashed me with water and she left a wet mark on the seat when she got up. Have some of you seen a baptism like that?

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Baptism is a matter of life and death.

Some rituals make it clearer than others, but the reality is the same: something is drowned in those waters. Something important has changed. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”

This portion of Paul’s letter to the Romans that we’ve heard today picks up slightly after the passage we heard last week. Remember that this is the second week in a series we’ve just begun that will focus on the book of Romans throughout the summer. Romans is an important letter; in fact, the reformer Martin Luther wrote, “This letter is truly the most important piece in the New Testament. It is impossible to read or to meditate on this letter too much or too well.”

Romans is also a fairly complicated letter. Its author, Paul, was a great teacher, a scholar of Jewish law and an expert in Hellenistic rhetoric. His writing loses a lot if you just take an excerpt of a few verses from this chapter or that, because the letter is carefully structured as a whole, with each piece logically following, expanding, or clarifying what came before. That is part of the reason why we chose to do a whole sermon series on Romans, so that we could have the gift of hearing it unfold week after week.

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For example, you’ll notice that this week’s excerpt begins with Romans, chapter 6, verse 1b. The reason the excerpt starts with 1b, instead of at the beginning of verse 1 is because verse 1a says, “What then are we to say?” which is basically an ancient way of saying, “So what?”

“So what? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? No way!” (6:1)

The “So what?” only makes sense when you know what came before it. Last week, we heard from Romans, chapter 5: “Even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (5:8). The letter goes on, past what we heard last week, to compare Adam with Christ. Paul says that Adam and Christ basically had opposite effects for humanity. Through Adam, sin and death came into the world. Or put another way, the disobedience to God that seems an inescapable part of our nature means that we are all oppressed by sin. Through Christ, on the other hand, we are given the free gift of grace, which means that we are made right with God in spite of our sin, and we are made part of the reign of life (5:12-19).

The letter goes on to say that the more we know the law of God, the more we feel sin’s effects. In other words, the more we know about what God requires of us, the more deeply aware we become of our absolute inability to do and be everything that God has intended for us. And Paul says the more sin increases, the more grace abounds. In other words, the more aware we are of our failings, the more powerfully we feel the grace of God which covers those failings and makes us right before God (5:20-21). This makes sense to me as I think about my own life: the times I’ve most deeply felt grace is when someone has forgiven me when I’ve really badly messed up.

“So what?” This is where Paul picks up today. Sure that all makes sense, I feel God’s grace most deeply when I mess up the most. But what’s the point then? So what?

So this is a matter of life and death, Paul says. When someone dies, they are free from the things that oppressed them during life. And because you have been baptized into Christ’s death, you are free from the sin that oppressed you before.

And here it’s really important to understand what Paul means by sin. Sin for Paul is not a person’s individual bad choice or behavior. Sin is a reality that has power over a person. Sin is a world in which God’s good creation is oppressed, controlled, corrupted. Sin is what it’s like when that distorted reality starts to take root in you. Sin is like when you find yourself acting out a script that you didn’t choose. Or stuck in a brokenness that persists and persists.

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In baptism, that reality, that corrupted world, that distorted self, is dead. Pushed violently under water like my friend M. Drowned. And not just once, on the day of your baptism, but each day, each shower, each hand washing, each drop of sweat anew.

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To be baptized doesn’t mean the end of bad choices, or the beginning of moral perfection. To be baptized is to exist in a new reality. In this new reality, of course sin still exists (as violence and hatred and destruction obviously still exist for us), but it is no longer oppressing us like before. We don’t have to feel guilt or shame about the ways we fall short. God sees our failure and knows about all the times we messed up. God is with us in the depth of our pain and brokenness. God looks us in the eye in that place – in the depth of our darkness and says, “I love you and you are mine. Beloved child of God.”

We don’t live in a sin-free world, but we do live in a new baptismal reality. Like Moses and the Israelites, we have crossed over from slavery into freedom, even if we haven’t yet reached the Promised Land. We are free. The weight of the ours and world’s brokenness is no longer ours to bear; now it is ours and God’s to transform. A new reality, a new life.

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To be baptized is a matter of life and death.

This is our daily work. We practice trusting God’s grace, until a deep and abiding faith takes root in us. Each day, we let the oppression of sin die in and around us, and we let the urgent, persistent love of Christ live in us.

And as we practice our baptisms together in this place, we ask ourselves and each other, “So what?” What’s the point?

What will this baptismal reality change for me?

How will this deep trust give us courage to do more than we’ve ever done together?

How will the world be different because we are free?

The “So what?” matters. It is urgent. The world needs us  we need us – to complete our baptisms. It is a matter of life and death.

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