June 21, 2020 – The 3rd Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 7A
Romans 6:1b-11; Matthew 10:24-39
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
How much golf must you play before you can think of yourself as a golfer? How many miles do you need to log each week before you can call yourself a runner? How many hours a week must you spend reading before you can call yourself a reader? Does it matter what your handicap is or how fast you are or what kind of books you read? Is it frequency that matters or the amount of time you spend or the pleasure you derive from an activity that counts? For example, If I only ski once every ten years but really love it when I do, can I call myself a skier? I suppose it probably depends on whom you’re asking.
How long do you need to live in Arkansas before you think of yourself as an Arkansan? Can you call yourself an American even if you are a citizen of another country? And can you think of yourself as belonging to another place even if your home is here?
As soon you have a child, do you think of yourself as a parent right away, or does it take time before that truth sets in? And, once you are a parent, is there anything that could ever take that identity away from you?
How often do you need to think about Jesus in order to call yourself a Christian? How much time do you need to spend sitting in church or saying your prayers or reading the Bible in order to think of yourself as a follower of Jesus? How good of a person do you need to be in order to call yourself a saint? Is there a spiritual ledger of sorts on which all of your good deeds and bad deeds are recorded, and, if the good ones outweigh the bad, do you get to call yourself a saint? And, if not, will you always think of yourself as a sinner?
Sometimes it feels like our identity is relative—that the labels we give ourselves depend on how we stack up against other people. But, when it comes to who we are in God’s eyes, there is no “sort of” or “halfway” or “in between.” When God looks at us, God sees beloved children who belong to God’s family. Whatever we see when we look in the mirror cannot change that, but seeing in ourselves what God sees can make a world of difference.
It has been a long time since we celebrated a baptism at St. Paul’s—since January 12. That’s 23 weeks, almost half of a year. Normally, we would have celebrated baptisms at the Easter Vigil and again when the bishop visited and again at Pentecost, but the pandemic has forced us to wait. When Baptism is a regular part of a congregation’s life, the words we say in the liturgy and the mysteries that they represent begin to work their way into our collective conscience. Without repeated exposure to them, however, the truth that we proclaim at the font begins to fade from our memories and lose its place in our daily lives. So, when we encounter the strange words about baptism that Paul wrote in Romans 6, we risk not knowing what to make of them.
“Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Has it been so long since you took part in a baptism that you have forgotten about the death part of the liturgy? Actually, I’m not sure time has much to do with it. When we picture baptisms in our mind, we like to think of the pretty stuff—the little babies, the white gowns, the splash of water, the lit candles, and the celebration of new life. But that new life doesn’t come from nowhere. It comes when the baptismal candidate is united with Jesus Christ in his death in order that that candidate might be raised with him—might be reborn with him—into that new life. We don’t do much dunking here at St. Paul’s, but the water of Baptism is a symbol of our burial with Jesus. A part of us must die before we can live with Christ. And, once that part has been put to death, it has no claim on us any more.
To describe that death that takes place within us, Paul used language that was shocking in the first century and that remains shocking today: “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.” Paul wrote at a time when he and the early church were still trying to make sense of the Christian faith. Jesus’ death on the cross was a scandal of the highest order. If he really were God’s Son, the Christ, how was it possible that he was executed in such a shameful way? The answer Paul offered is that Jesus died on the cross so that, through Baptism, we might die, too. And the reason we have to die is so that we can be raised to a new life of belonging only to God.
For Paul, our death is our emancipation. We should not lose sight of the fact that the only chains Paul ever wore were the ones he earned through his own free choices, but the image Paul used to convey the radical change that happens within us when we die with Christ is that of a slave being set free. Before our baptism into Christ’s death, there are two forces that have a claim on our lives—the God who made us and the Sin that tries to pull us away from our Creator. Once we die with Christ, we are raised to a new life in which Sin has no more power over us. From that moment on, we have no master besides God.
But Paul knew that, even after we have been baptized into Christ’s death, we can have a hard time seeing that truth. We might belong wholly to God, but Sin remains all around us. Not only do we fail each day to live up to the identity that Christ has given us, but the consequences of Sin bear down on us in ways beyond our choosing—poverty, addiction, greed, racism. We may have been made whole, but the world is still broken. In the eternal sense, we may be immune to that brokenness, but, in this life, its sharp and jagged edges still cut us in real and painful ways.
The answer that Paul offers is as elusive as it is powerful. No matter what the world around us may want us to believe, Paul writes that we must consider ourselves dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. The word Paul uses—consider—is only the second imperative he has used in all of Romans. Everything else has been descriptive theology, but this piece is what Paul tells us to do about in response to what we believe. We must consider ourselves dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In this context, the word “consider” means more than just “think.” It means “reckon” or “count.” It’s the same word Paul uses when he describes how Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. This time, though, the act of crediting must be ours. We must credit ourselves, identify ourselves, consider ourselves not through the eyes of a sinful world but through the eyes with which God sees us. Even and especially when Sin would have us believe that God’s reign will never be complete, we must recognize that we are already completely within it.
That kind of consideration takes practice. It requires a faith that is more than intellectual or emotional. We must take what became true for us in the past and what will be true for us in the future and live out that truth here and now. We must see within ourselves what God sees—that we are already God’s full children and that any part of us that would stand in the way of God’s claim has been put to death with Christ. When we know that about ourselves, that truth begins to work its way into our hearts and minds and lives. It shapes us into the image of Christ. It works on us until the life we live in this world reflects the life we have been given by God.
So consider—think, reckon, credit, identify—yourself as dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. In a world in which hatred, suffering, illness, and death are prevalent, it takes real strength of faith to see that truth. Normally, we have the Eucharist to help us. At the altar, we get a glimpse of the fulfillment of our baptismal identity—the body of Christ becoming the body of Christ. But, during this pandemic, we have to find other ways to remember the truth that God sees within us. Read the 23rd psalm or Luke 15. Sing “Jesus Loves Me” or hum “This Little Light of Mine.” Spend time each day in silent prayer or call an old friend just to say, “I love you.” Open your prayer book and read through the service of Holy Baptism or splash some water on your face and say a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Those little gestures don’t make God love us, but they help us remember that we are loved. When we remember that—when we consider ourselves as truly beloved—we can live the new life that God has given us in Jesus Christ.