“Coming Alive with Christ” Romans 6.1-14
-Dr. Jeff EbertOctober 11, 2015
We are going into our third week of the Community Bible Experience where we have challenged the whole congregation to read through the entire New Testament over the course of 8 weeks. Between the special CBE Bibles we gave away, and the folks who are downloading the daily audio files of the scripture readings, we estimate that over a thousand people are participating. That’s tremendous. I’m thrilled about that. But it’s made my life more complicated. Everywhere I go people are stopping me to either make a comment about what they’re discovering as they read, or to ask me a question. And some of them are really tough questions. I’m getting stopped in the grocery store, while I walk my dog. I walked into Starbucks the other day and there were four people at separate tables all reading their CBE Bibles. Plus, I’ve heard about conversations taking place between moms on the elementary school playground; small groups that are wrestling with unexpected questions that came out of their reading; and children who are listening to the kids’ version of the audio files. What could be better than that? God’s people getting engaged with God’s Word. That’s all good, and I think God is really going to bless us as a congregation for it.
This week the readings lead us into Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. Romans is a tightly packed powerhouse of deep theology and practical application. In some ways it’s the theological cornerstone for the New Testament. Paul goes into great depth helping early Christians - and now us - understand the most basic teaching of the Christian faith – what is grace? I think it was Corrie ten Boom who defined grace as: God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. Because of what Jesus did for us when he died on the cross we can have a new relationship with God. Through his death and resurrection he paid the penalty for our sins and conquered the power of sin, so now we are free to live life in a new way. And as today’s passage is going to point out – this new relationship with God through Christ brings with it new resources for living each and every day. Because of grace we can come alive to God – through Christ we come alive to life in a new and dynamic way. So shake the cobwebs out of your ears and sit up straight as I read Romans 6.1-14. The Apostle Paul is taking us deeper into how to experience grace – how to come alive in God’s grace. After explaining in chapter five about how grace means salvation is a free gift from God, he says this: Romans 6.1-14
What should we say then? Should we continue to sin so that God’s kindness will increase? That’s unthinkable! As far as sin is concerned, we have died. So how can we still live under sin’s influence?
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? When we were baptized into his death, we were placed into the tomb with him. As Christ was brought back from death to life by the glorious power of the Father, so we, too, should live a new kind of life.If we’ve become united with him in a death like his, certainly we will also be united with him when we come back to life as he did. We know that the person we used to be was crucified with him to put an end to sin in our bodies. Because of this we are no longer slaves to sin. The person who has died has been freed from sin.
If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, who was brought back to life, will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once and for all to sin’s power. But now he lives, and he lives for God. So consider yourselves dead to sin’s power but living for God in the power Christ Jesus gives you.
Therefore, never let sin rule your physical body so that you obey its desires. Never offer any part of your body to sin’s power. No part of your body should ever be used to do any ungodly thing. Instead, offer yourselves to God as people who have come back from death and are now alive. Offer all the parts of your body to God. Use them to do everything that God approves of. Certainly, sin shouldn’t have power over you because you’re not controlled by God’s laws, but by God’s favor. AMEN
In the church I served in the Philadelphia area we had man who worked as an undercover agent for the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS): the real thing, not the TV show. He’s retired now, but during his career he mainly he worked around the Navy shipyards and warehouses in some very tough neighborhoods in south Philly. He ran sting operations on people stealing from the Navy, caught smugglers and tracked down people trafficking in drugs. I could always tell when he was getting ready for an assignment because he’d let his hair grow long, with a scraggly beard, and he’d add an earring. He looked the part. But he once told me that his best disguise for doing surveillance in these neighborhoods was to dress as a Roman Catholic priest. South Philly is a very heavily Roman Catholic area and a priest walking the streets or getting a cup of coffee would never be seen as out of place. He’d grown up Catholic so he knew how to act, but something unexpected happened. He was so good at pretending to be a priest that children would run up to him on the street and want his blessing. People would come up to him and want to unburden themselves. They’d start to confess their sins to him. They’d tell him stories of what they’d done wrong and how they’d messed up their lives. They’d want to confess and then they’d want him to give them absolution. This happened so much he ended up going to Cardinal of Philadelphia to get a special kind of dispensation so that when people confessed their sins to him, and he offered absolution, it really counted in the Catholic scheme of things. He said he felt like a magnet because people were starving for grace. Starving for a sense of God’s mercy, starving for the chance to begin again. But often the same people would come to him again and again and again.
The Apostle would say that if you’re really a disciple of Jesus, a real follower of Jesus, what good does it do to begin again if you do it all over the same old way? What good is forgiveness and grace if you just keep repeating the sinful, broken patterns that got you there in the first place? He talks about water baptism as a symbol of how our sins are washed away by Jesus. But what good is it to get all washed off if you’re just going to jump back into the mud puddle? What good is grace for the past if you don’t find a new grace for the future, a new way to live? What good is grace if you don’t really come alive to God?
That’s the on-going challenge for people who are serious about really living as disciples of Jesus. We all have such a hard time actually coming alive to God, really living in the power of the grace Jesus brings. We’re not used to living in grace. We live in a world of such un-grace. It’s dog-eat-dog, not dog forgives dog. We live in a world of fight or flight. Of ‘get yours before its gone.’ Winner takes all. It’s a world where we’re measured by our performance – in school, on the athletic field, in business, even in our relationships. Are you good enough? That’s the question. Do you measure up? We don’t live in a world of grace but a world of un-grace.
This is why the Gospel of Jesus has such a unique message. It’s why Christianity is different from all other religions or philosophies. In all other religions basically you get what you deserve; you get what you deserve. So try hard to do better so that your good deeds outweigh your bad ones before you die. Make sure on the balance sheet of your life there are more pluses than minuses. That’s how you earn your way to heaven. Do enough good deeds; enough pious religious rituals; say the right prayers; or give the right amount of money – and you’re in. But that means there’s always a sword of judgment hanging over your head. You can’t be sure you’re good enough. Or what if you blow it right near the end and you don’t have time to add more good deeds to your pile? Then you’re screwed.
But because of Jesus, grace tells you get what you don’t deserve. Grace says your relationship with God is not based on your merit or your good works. It is based on the good work of Jesus on your behalf. Here’s the key for healthy disciples to understand grace: salvation in Jesus is received – not achieved. Salvation in Jesus is received – not achieved. And that’s radical. There isn’t any other religion or philosophy in the world that understands the love of God in this way. That’s what is totally unique about being a disciple of Jesus. We are given a message of grace to share with the world. That’s why churches need biblically literate people who know the Word and who know the power of grace. Otherwise the church loses the message of grace and just becomes another community organization doing good deeds. In our day a lot of people have reduced the Christian faith to just doing nice things for poor people. Helping the poor may be important but that’s not the essence of being a disciple. Gordon MacDonald said it like this: “You need not be a Christian to build houses or feed the hungry or heal the sick. The world can do that. There is only one thing the world cannot do. It cannot offer grace.”
Grace is the unique message of the followers of Christ. Grace is unfair. You don’t get what you deserve. Because of Jesus, God doesn’t give you what you deserve. He gives you mercy, love and salvation when none of those things are rightly yours. And that’s what makes it so hard for people to really grasp what the grace of God can do in their daily lives. It is so different from what we see in the world around us. Inevitably, as people begin to think about God from a grace point of view, the question comes up something like this: Well, if God is going to forgive me anyway and my salvation isn’t based on what I do or don’t do, then why change? Why try to be different? Why resist temptation? Why bother to try to live like Jesus? That is the question Paul poses in a rhetorical way at the beginning of chapter 6 of Romans. “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” And his answer is “Of course not.” If you think God’s grace is just a get out of jail free card, you really haven’t understood it at all. And it is so unfortunate that many people treat God’s grace that way. Even in Paul’s day it was happening. “I’m saved so now I can just do what I want because that’s just going to show how powerful God’s grace is. God will just forgive me again the next time.” Confession after confession but no real change.
Paul was incredulous that people would even think that way. He couldn’t believe it. Basically he’s saying, “How can you encounter the gracious love of God in Christ and not WANT to live a different kind of life? How can you be forgiven and not forgive? How can you be blessed and not bless others? How could you be so loved and not love? How can you be right with God and not live righteously? How can you claim to know the grace of God and not see your life changed? Paul was stunned that people would think any other alternative would even exist.
In a sense he’s asking, “What does your old life have that you really still want? Are you homesick for dishonesty? Do you have fond memories of being lied to or lying to others? Was your life was better when you were drinking, when your thought life was out of control, when all you wanted to do was manipulate people? Did you like the guilt you carried around, the dark cloud over your life, the anxiety of covering your tracks, the compromises that defeated you, the worries that plagued you at night?” That’s all part of your old life. You BC days – Before Christ. Why would you go back to that?
You see, Paul is a realist. He knows that people who give their lives to Christ don’t automatically become perfect people. There is not some cosmic switch that gets thrown that removes all our struggles with our old patterns of living. The old operating system is still operating, even though Christ has given us a new one. We have cut some pretty deep grooves in our habits, and thoughts, and emotions, and the ways we handle things. That’s what our old sin nature does. It creates patterns of response, and those reflexes don’t disappear over night. What is different, what grace brings, is a new resource into your life so that now at least you have a choice. A choice to live a different way.To find new patterns for your life. To make different and better choices, and not just react like you normally do.
The Bible says that before Christ, you were a slave to sin. That’s a hard concept for us to understand because we don’t have any personal experience with slavery. But in Paul’s day it was common for people who were under the load of a life-long debt to sell themselves or their children into indentured servant-hood for a period of years in order to pay off their debts. It took care of the one problem, the debt. But now they had a bigger problem – they literally belonged to someone else – a new owner – and that owner might be a good person or a total despot. And they were stuck until the debt was paid. Paul says that because of Jesus you’re not stuck anymore.Your debt has been paid. You have a new owner…one who loves you extravagantly. For Paul it is incomprehensible why a Christians would live life exactly as they did before they put their faith in Christ. It’s not impossible, it’s just stupid. What does that old life have that you still want? What form of amnesia do people have about the old life?
To come alive to God we have to begin to think about ourselves differently. Once you become a follower of Jesus, a disciple, you have the opportunity, and the responsibility to live life differently. You have a new choice because you have a new master. There was a price paid, a vow made, so now there should be a new life displayed. Can we wrap our brains around those three things? A price paid, a vow made, and new life displayed? If so, we would take some giant steps forward in living a different kind of life.
Now, up until this point in Romans Paul has talked a lot about the price that was paid. Jesus on the cross who broke the power – the grip that sin had over our lives. We understand that when he was on the cross our sins were his. It’s as though our sins were nailed to the cross with Jesus. Paul said in Galatians 2:20 “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” I have been united to Jesus in his death – and that’s what sets me free from bondage to sin. That’s the price paid.
But keep going. There’s a vow made. Starting in verse two he uses baptism as a way of expressing our union with Christ. Going into the water means being united with Christ in the death he died. But coming out of the water means we are also untied with Jesus in his resurrection from the dead. The cross was not the end. The cross was not the whole story. The grave couldn’t hold Jesus and he proved he was more powerful than the worst thing the world has to throw at us. He is even more powerful than death – and you are united to him in that resurrection power. By your baptism, whether you were baptized as a child and your parents made vows on your behalf, or if you were baptized as a teenager or an adult – you publicly made a vow to Jesus. You gave yourself to him. And what’s great is that vow actually goes both ways. In baptism Jesus has vowed himself to you. He said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” He vowed, “I am with you always.” And you vowed to be his. That’s what baptism means. That’s why if you claim to be a Christian you should be baptized. Jesus commanded it. It’s serious. That’s why our Reformed theology says you shouldn’t take communion if you’re not baptized. If you haven’t vowed yourself to Christ then how can you honestly take part in his table?