3rd Week after Pentecost
June 21, 2020 | Sonja Gerstenberger
Passage: Romans 6:1-11
Romans can be a tricky thing for us to read in our 21st century culture where things are a little different, and, quite honestly, Paul’s use of language and circular sentences and all of the sorts of things that go along with that challenge us in our understanding. The lectionary itself can make it sometimes a little tricky, because what we see today in Romans 6 is a direct response to what Paul said in the previous chapter in Romans 5. So, let me remind you what Paul had introduced in Chapter 5 that he then is Responding to in chapter 6.
Paul states, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” That makes the beginning of Romans 6 make a little more sense. As we consider the beginning of Romans 6 where Paul says, “Well, then, what are we to say? Are we to continue in sin in order that grace and holiness may abound? By no means! How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?” Paul is taking his letter and unraveling the idea of what it means to be saved by God’s amazing grace and then living into that life of being saved by God’s grace.
We do know that, despite the sentence, “How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?”, there is a tension there. We know that sin is still active in the world. We know we’re not perfect. We know we hurt others. We even state in the confession that we say during our traditional worship services, and we ask God to have mercy on us; we confess that we have turned from God and given over to the power of sin and we ask God for compassion to forgive us of these sins we know that we’ve done and for the things we don’t even realize we’ve done. We ask God to turn us back to God’s self, to uphold us with God’s spirit so that we can live and serve God again in newness of life.
Where does that leave us? Well, thankfully, Martin Luther had something to say about this as he did many things. While Christ’s death, as Paul stated, was a once and done event that freed humanity from the death-dealing power of sin, we are both freed by being buried with Him in baptism into death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we might too walk in newness of life. And, we live in a world that is not yet the fullness of God’s kingdom; we live in a world where sin is still active. Luther understood our baptism to be both a once-and-done event (one does not have to be re-baptized just because you sin again) and, in that baptism, we daily die to sin and rise again to new life and sometimes that’s even a moment-to-moment experience.
Living in a world where sin is still active: yes, our old self has been crucified, we’re no longer enslaved to sin. A slave has no choice; a slave is bound; a slave does what the master says, and, if sin is our master, then all we could do was sin. A slave has no way out. Because of Christ, we’re no longer this kind of slave. God’s grace in Christ has made it so that sin does not have ultimate dominion over us, so that we are able to live our life for God. And, because we do not yet live in the fullness of God’s kingdom, we still screw up. And when we realize that we’ve screwed up, we have two choices: we can own it, turn back to whomever we have hurt and recognize how we’ve given ourselves over to the power of sin; or, we can try to deflect the real pain of those we have hurt and sink deeper into sin.
This reality has powerful implications as we come to terms with the hurt and pain that is being named in our communities and in our country. Social media has opened up possibilities for those harmed by sin and evil to bring it into the light and to name the ways that our actions have contributed to hurt. It may be easier and seem more peaceful to live in a culture where we’re never close enough to those we’ve harmed to see what the minor slights have done and the pain they’ve caused, never have them reflected back to us so that we can understand how we continue to contribute to and benefit from a system that continues to cause pain and death to our siblings in Christ.
But that’s no longer the world we live in. Like it or not, for good or for ill, call-out culture isn’t going away. Those previously silenced by a system where they never had the microphone, have access to a way to share their experiences. And when we’re confronted by them, it can be easy to dismiss the pain being shared. We can hide; we can remain captive to sin, not acknowledging how our action have caused hurt and separation, or we can turn. Repentance: the Greek word that is translated as “repentance” means “to turn.” We can choose the freedom given to us in Christ to recognize our sin, the sin we are all trapped into and acknowledge another’s pain. Because, here’s the thing, being called out doesn’t mean you’re a bad person any more than saying “your actions hurt me” to a dear friend, asking those who are hurting to not tell us, to spare our feelings, doesn’t do us any good. That’s how things fester like an infection.
See, there’s a difference between guilt and shame. Shame is to see something we’ve done and say, “I am bad.” Guilt is to see something we’ve done and say, “I’ve done something bad,” and there is a very, very big difference. How we use or see these two possibilities is entirely up to us. Guilt invites learning: “What can I do better?” Shame invites defensiveness: “I didn’t mean it. I wasn’t trying to. I’m not bad.” And we remember we are captive to sin; we will screw up. We are all in this together. Again, acknowledging the pain you’ve caused does not make you a bad person; it means you’re learning.
We tell children they learn when they make mistakes, and we do too. This is part of the freedom in Christ. New life in Christ means being open to that feedback because our desire isn’t to be seen as perfect people who don’t make mistakes and don’t need salvation. Our desire is to love our neighbor, and we can only do that by listening. And it’s not surprising because we often love people the way we want to be to be loved; newlyweds often discover this as they try to learn to love one another in early married life. They give gifts and do the things that they want instead of listening to loved ones and giving gifts and extending love in the way our loved one needs to be loved.
Truly loving our neighbor means hearing how they need to be loved and responding, and when they say, “that’s not loving,” it’s not a character assassination. It’s an act of loving relationship to let your loved one know how they can best love you. And in all of this, remember who you belong to: your ultimate identity is Child of God. Our ultimate identity is not individual; ultimate identity is not based on community or country, but we are one in a royal priesthood, the Body of Christ, bound together. The health of any one part dependent on the health of all parts.
Freedom in Christ does not mean being free from the responsibility of anyone other than yourself, but, as Luther stated, “free to be a servant verses a slave in bondage.” As we die and rise in baptism, we too are called to bring our resurrection life to bear on the world around us, to bear on the world around us as we seek to love God and love neighbor. May we remember this baptism each day, each hour, each minute, and rest in the assurance of this identity: Child of God, member of the Body of Christ, freed for the sake of our neighbor.