So, I’m not going to preach at you today.
I’m going to let you grapple with today’s passage from Matthew on your own time. There’s lot’s there to think about: Jesus said, “If my detractors hate me… how much more will they hate you and others who follow me? But don’t worry about them… they can’t really hurt you… they aren’t the ones who will determine where you spend eternity. God will look after you… if you are faithful to him and walk in his ways. But if you don’t, you’ve got no one to blame for your troubles other than yourself. And here’s the thing: if you’ve separated yourself from God, then not only are you in trouble, but you’ve got no one to walk beside you when you find yourself in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. So, don’t hold God at arm’s length. Oh, and… ‘the peace of God?’ It isn’t what you think it is. Humans have made a mess of God’s creation, and it’s going to take a lot of time and effort and sacrifice to make things right. It’s not going to be all ‘pony rides and balloons.’ Those who have been seduced by the dark side, and some of them are your friends… and even your family members… are gonna try and seduce you… to keep you under control… to keep you from upsetting Satan’s apple cart. But keep your eyes on the prize. Stay the course and all shall be well.” That’s what Jesus said.
So, I guess I did preach at you a little bit after all, but what I really want to do today is teach a little on today’s reading from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (6:1b-11). Now there’s a preacher… and a teacher… for you! A brilliant intellect… a logician. So smart! Sometimes I think Paul’s way too smart for me… sometimes I find his logic impenetrable. But it’s been said that, “we teach best what we most need to learn.” And that’s why I want to do a bit of a deep dive into today’s epistle… perhaps I’ll learn something.
The first thing we’ll do is reach back a bit to last week’s epistle from Romans, which was the first half of Chapter 5. Paul’s talking about salvation… a matter of the first importance to all of us, right? He wrote about our being “justified by faith,” which Martin Luther took as a repudiation of the Roman Catholic church’s emphasis on penance and good works in order to achieve salvation, which became a rallying cry for Protestants during the Reformation. Paul reminded readers that even though God knew humanity was sinful, he sent his son to die for us… to save us from the wrath of God, to reconcile us with our Heavenly Father with whom we had become estranged… with whom we had even become enemies. How did that happen? Well, we kind of skipped over the second half of Chapter 5 (vv. 9-21) between last week’s reading and this week’s, but here it is in a nutshell: God created the world, and everything in it… and it was good. And then Adam messed it up. Not Eve, mind you, Adam. Adam committed the first sin… and through that original sin (which was essentially the sin of selfishness, putting his own judgment above that of God), the human race was condemned to a life of travail and death. So, the sin of the “one man”—the original man—condemned all of humanity to lives of enslavement to sin and death in perpetuity. But God never stopped calling his children to return to the path of righteousness… to return home. God sent prophets and kings to lead his people… he sent Moses with the Law. But we kept on messing things up. The bond of our sin was too strong. We couldn’t break free. So, God sent his Son, fully human like us, yet without sin to show us how it was done… to show us how we could be fully human. So, just as the sin of one man had led us to lives of enslavement to sin and death, the life of one man would now reconcile us with the Father and set us free forever. No matter how we strayed… no matter how our sins were multiplied, the more God’s grace abounded.
And that brings us to today’s reading from Romans. The first thing Paul asks (rhetorically) is whether or not we should all just go on sinning in order to keep God’s grace flowing. And then he answers his own question: “By no means!” But then Paul starts talking about our having “died to sin…” and Jesus’ followers having been baptized not only into Jesus’ life… but also into his death. Here’s what he wrote:
“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” (Romans 6:1-7).
What might Paul be talking about, here? Perhaps we should start by asking, “What is Baptism?” According to the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts usas his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God” (BCP 858). John’s baptism was a Jewish purification ritual performed by a penitent in accordance with Hebrew Law. It was something initiated by the penitent. Christian Baptism, however, is a little different. The outward and visible sign of Baptism is water… the water of rebirth, in which the new Christian is baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. The Catechism continues: “The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit” (BCP 858). So, Christian Baptism is a sacrament that comes from God. It’s an adoption—a joining with—and a sealing. And it’s something only God can do.
So, “[w]hen Christians are baptized, they are united with Christ. They share in Christ’s death and in the newness of life (v. 4) which his resurrection has made possible for us. [It’s all very metaphorical, isn’t it?] But this death is a death . . . to sin, and the new life is life . . . to God (v. 10).” “And the body of sin (v. 6) is not the physical body as such, but the sinful self” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 215 NT note). Paul continues:
“[I]f 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” (Romans 6:8-11).
Just as Adam kind of messed things up for everyone, Jesus Messiah came to set things right for all of us. By dying, he destroyed death. By dying to sin… he put our sin away, too… which is something we could never do on our own. And then, when God raised Jesus from the dead through his great glory, the gates of salvation opened to us. We are literally riding on Jesus’ coattails. We are redeemed. This is a gift… this is grace… and it’s free. But here’s the catch: we won’t receive the benefit of the gift unless we apprehend (or accept) it through faith… and demonstrate that faith by doing our best to walk in newness of life. We don’t have to be perfect… the only perfect human there ever was (and ever will be) was Jesus, himself. We don’t have to be perfect, but we do have to do the best we can to walk the path Jesus has set before us. And as we heard in today’s reading from Matthew, it won’t be “all pony rides and balloons,” but we must first be buried with Christ before we’ll ever be able to experience the joy of his resurrection.
 Richard Bach. 1989. Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah. New York: Dell.