June 16, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
John Donne was a seventeenth century author, poet, and preacher. In his poems and sermons Donne penned a bevy of striking lines. “Death, be not proud . . . Death, thou shalt die!” “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” “No man is an island, entire of itself.” Strikingly familiar lines like that pop up all over the works of John Donne. I remember my college English professor saying that he once recommended the works of John Donne to a friend. When he later asked this friend what he thought of Donne, this person replied, “He’s a good writer, but he uses too many clichés.”
Matthew 10 may make a similar impression. In these 42 verses Jesus is on a kind of linguistic jag as he piles up one memorable line after the next.
The lost sheep of Israel.
Shake the dust off your feet.
Sheep among wolves . . . shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves.
Two sparrows are sold for a penny . . . even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.
Whoever confesses me before people, I will confess before the Father.
I did not come to bring peace but a sword.
Take up your cross and follow me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
If anyone gives a cup of cold water . . . he will not lose his reward.
Were it not for the fact that Jesus appears to have been the first person ever to say these things, you’d have to conclude that he was having his own cliché festival that day! These are among the best-known verses in the New Testament. At first glance this may look like just a jumbled mish-mash of diverse sayings. But when you step back and look at the whole of Matthew 10—including the key portion in this Year A lection of verses 24-39—you see that these words are all related to what life is going to be like for the disciples once they begin proclaiming the gospel on Jesus’ behalf. The picture Jesus draws, however, is alarmingly distressing.
The chapter begins happily enough: Jesus confers great authority on the twelve disciples. He gives them power to do miracles and he provides them a hopeful message to proclaim. Jesus sends them out in gentleness, telling the disciples that it is not their job to fight when the going gets rough. They are not to brow-beat people with the gospel. If people don’t like what the disciples have to say, then they are to move on, simple as that.
If they are roughed up in a certain town, they are told simply to move on to the next village. If they get arrested, they are not to call some high-octane lawyer but are to let the Spirit speak through them, providing them with an on-the-spot defense counsel. The disciples are to be gentle souls and loving proclaimers of the gospel. They are not to be warriors, they are not to be shrill, they are not to hang around where they are clearly not welcome. Their lives need to be consistent with the gospel of grace they proclaim. Their very demeanor must mirror God’s love.
The chapter begins by sounding these notes of non-violent, loving gospel proclamation. But what startles in the balance of the chapter is how the rhetoric of Jesus steadily spirals down, down, down. The outlook here gets pretty grim pretty quickly. Despite all their loving rhetoric and gentle demeanor, the disciples are going to get slammed, beat up, arrested, falsely accused. Despite a message of love, they themselves will be hated. Despite their transparent witness to God, they will be called devils.
Worse, their words will bring about the dissolution of families on account of the disagreements that will swirl around Jesus and his gospel. And if all of that is not surprising enough, Jesus himself then declares that he did not come to this earth to bring peace but strife! So if you don’t love him more than mom and dad, if you don’t love Jesus more than your own sons and daughters, then you’re a gospel fake, a holy wannabe.
Apparently Matthew has not read the Gospel of Luke where the angels herald Jesus’ birth as the advent of “peace on earth!” And it looks like Jesus’ version of “family values” is a wee bit different than what sometimes gets touted today. All of which should give us considerable pause. Why is the gospel going to be so hated? What’s the rub? What is the essence, the core, of what lies behind the negative, sometimes even violent, reaction which some have to the Christian faith? (And if Jesus himself predicted this, why do so many Christians in North America today react with mere shock whenever they find society opposing the gospel?)
Why is the gospel sometimes hated? Well, let’s admit that sometimes it is because the bearers of the gospel are themselves glaringly un-Christ-like. In history the Church at times tried to convert people at the point of a sword on threat of execution. Certain Medieval popes were little better than mafia types who literally had their enemies assassinated. Eventually in history the followers of Jesus were not the ones being thrown into jail because of their beliefs but instead it was the followers of Jesus who were throwing other people into jail because of their unbelief! In all of these ways and a thousand more beside, it is not difficult to know why the gospel was despised or rejected. The gospel gets polluted when we who bear the message are ourselves living at cross-purposes with the gospel’s content.
True enough. But in Matthew 10 Jesus seems to assume that the disciples will not be hypocrites. Jesus appears to operate from the premise that the disciples will be innocent doves and vulnerable sheep who will faithfully proclaim the good news. But even still Jesus predicts all manner of persecution, rejection, hatred. Apparently it is not just the church at its worst that will be rejected but the church at its very best, too. There is something very near the heart of even the purest proclamation of the gospel that is just flat out not going to sit right with a good many people. What is that something?
In a word: surrender. The heartbeat of the gospel is grace and love, forgiveness and renewal, hope and joy. These are commodities so precious that on the surface you can’t imagine anyone’s not wanting them. Rejecting the gospel would be similar to someone’s just hating the site of adorable kittens and puppies. How can you not like puppies!? They’re so cute! So also how can you not like the gospel: it drips with love, grace, and hope!
But it’s what lies behind the love, grace, and hope that nettles people. God’s forgiveness is great until you realize that accepting it means acknowledging that you’re a rather greasy, guilty sinner. Has anyone ever offered to forgive you for something you don’t think you did? Forgiveness is lovely, of course–it’s one of the more beautiful words in the English language. But it can sound ugly if your acceptance of it would implicate you in something you refuse to acknowledge ever doing. Suppose I come up to someone and say, “Floyd, I would like to forgive you for that completely rude and inappropriate thing you said to me a few months ago after that committee meeting.” Well, if Floyd happens to believe he said nothing that was even remotely out of line after that meeting, then his response may well be, “You can keep your lousy forgiveness! I don’t want it because I don’t need it.”
Surrender. Surrendering to God’s offer of forgiveness implicates one in a sin which many people don’t think they have a problem with in the first place. Another lovely word is grace. Few words shine more brightly or are more redolent of a generous spirit. Even the cognate words of grace are all positive: gracious, graceful, gratis, gratitude, Graciás, graced. Who could not like grace? Maybe anyone who refuses to believe that he needs outside help. Maybe anyone who is convinced that human cunning, personal skill and achievement, or just the sum total of a good life well-lived ought to be enough to make the grade with God.
Accepting grace implies helplessness, paralysis, inadequacy. Many people have a hard time admitting they need Prozac to hold depression at bay or that they need food stamps and some welfare to help make ends meet. Shame often attends those who are on the dole, who are dependent instead of independent. That’s true even when the assistance being granted through medication or some government program is restricted to just one area of life. Embracing grace, however, says something about the whole sweep of your existence. And for some that’s just too big a load of shame, disgrace, and dependence to accept.
The most striking verse in Matthew 10 may well be verse 36 where Jesus predicts great strife within families. The verse there seems to be a quote from Micah 7:6 and is usually flagged as such in footnotes. But if this is an allusion by Jesus to Micah, then it is doubly surprising. Because in Micah these words occur in the midst of a lament over Israel’s sorry state of affairs. Micah warns the people that things have slipped so far in Israelite society that you can’t trust even the lover in your own arms, you can’t trust judges because they are all on the take, you can’t trust the rulers because they’re all out to line their own pockets with ill-gotten gain. This is a lament over a society gone wrong.
But then in Micah 7:7, the prophet ends this litany of doom with these words, “But as for me, I watch in hope for the LORD, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.” In other words, in the face of sons dishonoring fathers and daughters rising up against mothers and of a man’s enemies coming chiefly from within his own household, the one hope you can cling to is the coming of God (presumably to make all things right). So how can it be that Jesus—the ultimate arrival of God in our midst—quotes Micah 7:6 and its sad portrait of family squabbles as a state of affairs that will RESULT FROM his ministry and presence? Isn’t that exactly the opposite of what you would expect?
If ever there were a verse that reveals to us one more time that the true coming of God is always surprising and mysterious, this inversion of Micah 7:6 is surely it!
Years ago a man named Millard Fuller was pretty near the apex of an American success story. He was a high-octane corporate executive working eight days a week and pulling down close to a million bucks a year. But then one day he heard God calling to him, telling him his life was overfull and his priorities out of whack. So in prayer with his wife one day, Fuller re-committed his life to Christ. He quit his job, moved to a more modest house, and wondered what to do next. What he ended up doing next was building affordable houses for low-income families who could purchase these homes interest-free. Today we are most of us well aware of the great good Habitat for Humanity has done.
A preacher once re-counted Fuller’s story but was later approached by someone who asked, “How old were Fuller’s children when he quit his job like that?” It took this preacher a minute to appreciate what lay behind this query: how dare Fuller uproot his kids and subject them to a less lavish lifestyle just so that he could serve God?!
That is just the way lots of people think these days. Taking up a cross to follow Jesus is, even economically for some, as unpopular now as ever.
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Say what you want about the Bible but in its unabridged version, it pulls few punches. Sunday school versions of any number of stories have been whitewashed and cleaned up and buttoned down to make everything look nice. But in the actual Bible, you get the unvarnished truth.
And often it ain’t pretty.
This part of Genesis 21 is not pretty. It is not pleasant. It is not fair or kind and if there are any latter day so-called “Fruit of the Spirit” around, they lie rotted and shriveled along the margins of the narrative. Goodness? Gentleness? Kindness? Love? Peace? Sarah took the lot of such virtuous spiritual fruit and chucked them out onto the compost pile.
It’s not the first time, of course. It had started five chapters earlier after both Abraham and Hagar had done exactly what Sarah begged them to do; namely, conceive a child together seeing as Sarah’s chances of having a kid seemed just less than zero to none. As Sarah could have figured, Hagar conceived a child easily and quickly (even though it seemed she’d seen her husband still coming and going from Hagar’s bedroom on a semi-regular basis) and no sooner did Hagar’s baby bump become apparent as she lounged around the house and Sarah could not stand the sight of her. Since Abraham seemed more interested in a bit of domestic tranquility than justice, he told Sarah “Do what you have to do, then, my dear.”
Sarah threw the pregnant woman out on her ear, but Hagar did not get far when God caught up to her and told her to go back, eat crow, say she was sorry, and work for Sarah after all with all due humility and respect.
It’s hard to see why God did this at that point in Genesis 16 seeing as God (of all people) should have known what would come next down the road a piece. Of course, the whole Plan B with Hagar was contrary to God’s will in the first place—if you are keeping a tally sheet of Abraham’s early failures to trust God and God’s promises, be sure to put a nice thick tick mark down for this one. And so once God comes through and gives also Sarah the long-promised child, there is laughter all over the place in Abraham and Sarah’s household right up until Isaac is a toddler.
Kids will be kids and so the day finally came when Sarah saw Abraham’s two sons playing together out on the swing-set only to hear the older child, Ishmael, poking fun of his younger half-brother Isaac. Maybe Ishmael made fun of Isaac’s name: “Who wants to be called ‘Giggles’ all his life! That’s a stupid name, kid!” Maybe he made invidious future predictions. “My Mom says God is going to make a great nation out of both of us but y’know what? Some day my people are gonna beat the snot out of your people!”
Who knows what it was but Sarah overheard it and blew a gasket. Abraham was once again all hand-wringing and sorrow about the whole thing until God himself—the same God, mind you, who years earlier had told Hagar to go back to Abraham and Sarah—now tells Abraham to send her away for good but to not fret about it because God had the situation well in hand. (If Hagar ever had occasion to sing the hymn “If You But Trust in God to Guide You,” she’d be able to tell us all a thing or two as to the ups and downs of just such divine guidance!)
So that is what Abraham does: he boots Hagar and his own son Ishmael out once and for all, giving them just enough supplies to make it a little ways but not far. Eventually all is lost for Hagar and her boy—dehydration, heat stroke, and starvation are imminent–but God swoops in, provides sustenance and water and re-assures Hagar that since there is something special about Abraham’s DNA, Ishmael too would be a success in the long run and would have a people to call his own.
You won’t ever hear of Ishmael again in the Bible (though Hagar will make a famous, albeit textually quirky, appearance in Galatians 4). The Ishmaelites get a shout-out here and there but Ishmael’s part in the Bible’s larger drama ends in Genesis 21:21 when we are told his mother found a nice wife for him from Egypt (of all places).
It is not difficult to figure out that the whole Abraham story would be a lot nicer without this Hagar-Ishmael side drama. And it’s not difficult to discern that some writers and editors of what became Genesis must have felt sorely tempted to leave it out. I mean, nobody comes out smelling like roses in these narratives: Hagar got cocky, Sarah was petulant, Abraham was milquetoast, Ishmael was an unpleasant child. Shucks, even God comes off as a bit inconstant. Nobody here gets the rebuke they deserve for not trusting God in the first place. Nobody gets called to account for petty pride and rivalry, and in the end God has Abraham cave in to Sarah’s invidious and jealous sinfulness.
What in the whole wide world are these stories doing in the Bible? We’re barely 20 chapters into the whole of Scripture and already we’ve got stories that are potentially off-putting for a whole lot of reasons.
Of course, I don’t know exactly what wisdom of the Holy Spirit is at work here in inspiring these stories to get preserved as part of God’s Holy Word. But give the Spirit and the Book the Spirit orchestrated credit for thoroughgoing realism. The fact is that the story of God’s redemption of this cosmos is not a pretty story all the time. It involves real people with real foibles, sins, and pettiness. And in Genesis 16 and 21 in the stories involving Hagar and then also Ishmael, if God comes across at times as rolling with the punches and doing his holy best to make good come out of a fair amount of lousiness, that may itself be a sign of hope for the rest of us, including all of us in the church yet today.
Flash forward to the Book of Acts, after all, and you will discover that also there the narrative provides no whitewashes of the truth. The apostles sometimes argued, sometimes disagreed, sometimes refused to go on mission trips together. People lied to their leaders even as those same leaders sometimes played both ends off against the middle to keep the peace (Peter, it is said, was known to eat kosher with kosher folks but was happy to indulge in a slice of pepperoni-and-ham pizza when keeping company with certain other folks).
The story of God’s people and now of God’s Church is an eminently realistic one and if that does not necessarily make it any easier for pastors, elders, deacons, or anyone else to deal with the “Sarah vs. Hagar” struggles and squabbles in congregations also today, we at least can be re-assured that the presence of those situations and of those kinds of people need not mean the absence of God or of God’s working in and through his people. Again and again in the Bible we find God to be endlessly nimble in bringing about his larger purposes despite all that we human beings do to thwart him, trip him up, and sometimes very nearly ruin the whole holy enterprise.
None of this is an excuse for petulance, pettiness, envy, and the other things that tear at the fabric of any given congregation—of course not! But insofar as we have yet to perfect this whole ecclesiastical enterprise, the idea that God abides over and above (and pretty often right in the middle) of all our fights and failures is one of the better signs of Grace you can glean from the whole wide witness of Scripture.
And Grace will preach every time.
From Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who. Harper & Row, San Francisco, 1979, p. 46:
“The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair, the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises, and loving everybody, and creating great nations, like the last of the big-time spenders handing out ten dollar bills.”
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Psalm 86 presents a challenge to 21st century North American and other western preachers and teachers: many worshipers don’t know what to do with such psalms of lament. Their tone sometimes makes us uncomfortable. Affluent, comfortable worshipers also find psalms of lament’s sentiments hard to relate to. If you wonder about the truth of that, ask yourself, “When’s the last time our worship planners deliberately chose a psalm of lament as a song or used it in a prayer?”
Of course, we might argue Psalm 86 is relatively “preachable” or teachable in part because its tone is gentler than some other psalms of lament. It alternates between expressions of urgent pleas for and confidence in God’s salvation. The poor and needy poet begs God to hear and answer his prayers, even as he reaffirms their long-term relationship through several doxologies (vv. 5, 10, 15).
Yet even if some worshipers aren’t particularly comfortable with psalms of lament, God’s people have much to learn from such psalms. Among other things, they serve as an excellent model for our own prayers. Psalm 86 expresses, after all, both the poet’s complete dependence on God and God’s great dependability.
Those who want to preach and teach this psalm might prepare to do so by asking questions like, “What’s the tone of this psalm? What does it say about people? About God? How might God’s 21st century adopted sons and daughters appropriate such a psalm for our individual and corporate use?”
Like many of our prayers, Psalm 86 begins with a cry for help. Old Testament scholar James Mays calls it the cry of a servant to his or her lord or master. Israelite servants belonged and lived in service to their human lords. They, in turn, expect their lords to support and protect them.
The psalmist expresses her complete dependence on a different “master,” the Lord her God. The intensity of the psalmist’s pleas for God’s help emphasize that dependence. Yet those pleas for God to “hear,” “answer,” “guard,” “save,” “have mercy,” “bring joy,” “hear” and “listen” have a kind of demanding tone we may not ordinarily expect from servants. We might even think of those demands as brash.
Perhaps, however, that brashness arises from the desperation of the psalmist’s plight. He implies, after all, that while God is capable of doing everything he needs God to do and more, God is currently unresponsive. The “day of trouble” (7) seems to have shaken the psalmist’s confidence not only in God and God’s ability to save, but also in the health of their relationship.
This offers opportunity for reflection on the relationship between worshipers’ sense of well-being and their relationship with God. It’s tempting, after all, to infer from personal or shared misery that God has turned God’s back on God’s children and, as a result, question God’s relationship with the sufferer. However, it’s also tempting to infer from a sense of well-being that God is smiling on those who flourish. Those who lead worshipers through this psalm might consider pointing to the dangers of such assumptions.
Yet even in the dark valley through which she walks, the psalmist professes her trust in the Lord her God. She explicitly confesses that trust in verses 5 and 7. Yet we also see her trust reflected in her willingness to beg God for help. She’s neither too proud nor too rattled to plead for God to help her. The poet clearly hasn’t yet lost faith in either God or their relationship.
So the psalmist is able to express a deep confidence in God’s gracious intervention in his life. He knows God as a Lord who answers when God’s servants call on the Lord. That confidence is based, in part, on what God has done for God’s people in the past. In fact, verses 5 and 15 reflect Exodus 34:6’s old liturgical profession of faith.
So does Psalm 86 present a kind of template for those who doubt God’s goodness? After all, the psalmist’s antidote for uncertainty about God’s active involvement in his life is to remember what God has done in the past. Might that serve as a kind of guide for those who beg for God’s help even as they wonder if God is still interested in them?
Yet the beating heart of Psalm 86 is the poet’s description of God’s uniqueness. Even though the psalmist knows her obedience is less than complete, she professes there is no god like the living God (8). Although the poet’s heart may be “divided,” God alone is great and does marvelous things. God alone is God (10).
Perhaps because he has remembered that God is so great and unique, the psalmist feels he can take up his pleas for help again near the end of the psalm. His enemies are relentless in their assaults on the poet. So the poet is almost relentless in commanding God to intervene. “Turn,” the poet begs God. “Have mercy.” “Grant strength.” “Save.” “Give a sign.”
God’s “yes!” to the poet’s prayers would, after all, bless both the psalmist’s enemies and him. It would strengthen the psalmist and confront his enemies with their wrongdoing. It even hints at a fulfillment of the poet’s profession in verse 9 that all the nations God has made will come and worship before the Lord.
Yet Psalm 86 doesn’t end with an offering of praise, as even so many other psalms of lament do. Its ending is, instead, in a sense, “open-ended.” The psalmist doesn’t close with an explicit profession that God will say “yes!” to his prayers. The psalm doesn’t even end with a report of a positive outcome. It ends, instead, more like worshipers’ own prayers that don’t always express deep confidence in God’s yes’s. Psalm 86’s prayer ends with yet another plea: “Give me a sign of your goodness” (17).
That makes Psalm 86 a very honest one. It also helps it to resonate with worshipers, even if they don’t recognize it or can’t admit it. Life on this side of the new creation is, after all, a bit like that. God’s “yes’s” aren’t yet always as complete as we’d prefer. We suffer and may even die pleading with God, “Give me a sign of your goodness.” Thankfully, then, God’s goodness to God’s children doesn’t depend on our worthiness or even complete confidence in God. It’s based on the goodness of the God who helps and comforts.
The God whom we worship and to whom Psalm 86 is addressed is a God who hears. That ties its theme and tone to the Old Testament lesson appointed for this Sunday: the story of the exiled Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness. Out of water, parched Hagar leaves her son under a bush because she’s unable to watch him die. Yet God responds to their voices, just as God responds to all of God’s children’s voices and pleas.
Those who preach this psalm might relate to and relate their similar story to worshipers: during a recent Sunday evening worship service we gave worshipers opportunities to select songs they wanted us to sing together. Most of the songs were familiar old classics.
One worshiper, however, chose “Come Quickly, Lord, to Rescue Me,” a psalm based on Psalm 70’s prayer of lament. Our gifted accompanist was unfamiliar with the tune that featured four flats, but valiantly led us through it. But worshipers and even my own discomfort not just with tune but also with its message were almost palpable.
It’s perhaps telling that the person who chose this song is a recent refugee from a country where Christians are being intensely persecuted. It reminds us that even if we think we have little personal reason to lament, we have every reason to sing with beleaguered Christians their laments.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
In this passage Paul deals with a kind of abuse we don’t read much about in the popular press. In his book, What’s So Amazing about Grace, Philip Yancey calls it “grace abuse.” Paul has ended chapter 5 with these soaring words, “where sin increased, grace increased all the more….” Now he imagines someone saying, “Well, let’s just sin all the more, so that grace may increase all the more.” That kind of thinking is “grace abuse.”
It’s easy to follow the argument behind grace abuse, isn’t it? If our salvation is based completely on what Christ has done for us, not on what we do for God, then we can do anything we want, can’t we? If, as Yancey says, “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less,” then why should we try to do good? If, indeed, grace actually abounds where sin increases, why shouldn’t we sin?
Any veteran pastor and every self aware Christian knows that this is not a theoretical question. The world is full of people who take the Gospel of grace as a license to sin. In one of his poems, W.H. Auden writes that every criminal who hears the gospel will say, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged.” I recently read a true story about a convict on a maximum security island off the coast of Australia who murdered a fellow prisoner. When hauled into court and asked why he did it, he said he was sick of life on the island and saw no reason to keep on living. “I can understand that,” said the judge, “but why didn’t you just drown yourself in the ocean? Why murder?” “Well, I figure it this way,” replied the prisoner. “I’m a Catholic. If I committed suicide, I’d go straight to hell. But if I murder, I can come back here, confess to a priest, and that way God will forgive me before I’m executed.”
We may shake our heads at such blatant grace abuse, but how many sincere Christians have deliberately committed a sin, knowing that it would be forgiven afterward? In fact, I wonder if grace abuse doesn’t help explain why evangelical Christians are so much like the world. Recent polls have discovered that people who take the Bible literally and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord have virtually the same lifestyles as non-Christians—the same levels of alcoholism, divorce, addiction to pornography, pre-marital sex, etc. Maybe grace abuse explains that.
This very real problem has led some Christians to lay down the law again, to become latter-day Pharisees. “Yes, you have to believe, but you have to keep the law, too.” It’s an attractive option to serious Christians who are disgusted by the lawlessness of our day, but it’s not where Paul takes us in Romans. A more Reformed approach to grace abuse emphasizes that we ought to be good out of gratitude for the free gift of salvation and out of love for the Giver of that gift. But that’s not where our text takes us either.
Romans 6 goes deeper than reasons to be good, deeper than psychological motivations, to the very depths of our being, to who we are. Or more accurately, Paul takes us to the depths of what we have become because of what happened to us in Christ. Verse 2 answers the grace abuse question with this bombshell. “We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
Over and over Paul hammers that point home. If you are a Christian, you have died to sin and you can’t live in it any longer. He is thinking here of sin as a realm or sphere in which we once lived. Think of those biospheres in which scientists live for years at a time. Our whole existence was dominated by the power of sin. It was the absolute master of mind, soul, and body. But no more. Now we live in a different sphere—the sphere of grace. Now grace is the controlling power in our lives, the thing that dominates our existence. We live under the control of God in Christ through his Holy Spirit. We have died to sin and we live to God in Christ.
Now, a common sense response to this teaching is, “I know the Bible says it. But I don’t remember it. When did that happen? How did it happen?” Paul says it happened when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the grave. Verse 5 says, “we have been united with Jesus in his death and resurrection…. For we know (verse 6) that our old self was crucified with him….” Here’s a part of the Gospel with which many Christians aren’t familiar. We know very well that Jesus died and rose for us, but we’re mystified by the idea that we also died and rose with him. When he died and rose, all of us believers also died and rose spiritually. We died to sin and rose to life in God. Paul says that is a fact of life, as much a part of the story of our lives as our birth, our family, our entrance into puberty, our first kiss, our marriage, menopause, and death. It’s just that we haven’t experienced that death and resurrection with Christ in the same way as we’ve experienced those other parts of life.
But you have experienced it, asserts Paul, in your baptism. “Or don’t you know,” says verse 3, “that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God the Father, we too may live a new life.”
Of course, in those days of the early church, most of the people to whom Paul was writing were converts, and thus were baptized as adults. So for them baptism was an experience that lived in their memory. It’s not that way for many of us who were baptized as babies. (I can hear my Baptist friends crowing at this point, “That’s why we shouldn’t baptize infants!”) Paul’s argument loses a little of its emotional force for paedo-baptists, but not its truth. Baptism is a symbol, a sign and seal of dying and rising with Christ, a real life experience of that long ago, real life event of dying and rising with Christ.
Here’s the Bible’s deepest answer to our question. Why shouldn’t we sin? Because we have died to sin and have risen to new life in Christ! As Paul puts it in verses 6 and 7, the domination of sin over our body is done, our slavery to sin has been broken, and we are now freed from sin’s life-destroying power. It is still in us, but we are not in it as the sphere that dominates our lives. That is a fact of your life if you are a believer in Christ.
The problem is that it just doesn’t seem that way to us. It doesn’t feel that way. Sin is all too active in us. And God, even Christ, seems far away in moments of temptation. That’s why Paul says in verse 11, we have to “count ourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ.” That’s the thing many of us are missing—“count yourselves dead to sin….” The word “count” is the word from which our word “logic” is taken. We have to be logical about this business; we have to think clearly about the facts of our lives; we have to keep reminding ourselves of this fact of life—I am dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.
This is not make believe, anymore than the rest of the story of Jesus and his love is make believe. We’re not talking about inventing reality with our faith. We’re talking about acknowledging by faith what is already reality. Faith doesn’t make it true. But faith does make the truth operative in our lives, powerful and effective in our battle with sin.
Or to put it differently, we have to make sure that these facts of life are a conscious part of the story of our lives, the story we tell ourselves about who we are. We all have a story by which we identify ourselves. The story you tell yourself about who you are and what life is about will virtually determine how you live. The story has many chapters and multiple details. “I am a 67 year old Dutch American who was raised in Denver. I have a lovely wife and two great sons and 5 precious grandchildren. I was a good athlete and I am an avid but decidedly average golfer. I am a retired pastor who happily served 4 fine churches.” Those are some of the details of my life story.
To be a sane and happy human being, we have to fit all the details of our little story into a larger story that gives coherence to the whole thing. One very popular such story is what atheistic scientist, Edmund Wilson, calls the “evolutionary epic,” which he predicts will one day replace the biblical mythology as our religious narrative. Another scientist, Carl Becker, tells that story with devastating force. “You are little more than a chance deposit on the surface of the world, carelessly thrown up between two ice ages by the same forces that rust iron and ripen corn….” What a difference that story has made in the lives of millions. As another scientist puts it: “You are a cosmic accident. You are no different than the animals. All morality is arbitrary. You must look down, not up, in order to understand yourself.”
Contrast the Christian story. “You must look up in order to understand yourself. You are a special creation of God, made in his image. You are on this earth to exercise dominion in God’s name. You are a sinner for whom the very Son of God shed his blood to redeem you from the forces that would otherwise ruin your life.” Now here in Romans 6 Paul reminds us of a part of that story that is crucial in our battle with sin. It’s a part of the story that Reformed folks like me need to hear over and over, because historically we have told ourselves only part of the story. We have said to ourselves over and over again, “I am totally depraved. I am nothing but a dirty, rotten sinner.” If that’s all you tell yourself about yourself, even minor progress in the battle with sin is nearly impossible.
We need to tell ourselves this part of the story even more. “By faith I am united with Christ, so that when Jesus died and rose, so did I. Now I am dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.” That is a fact of our lives as believers. But that fact doesn’t become powerful in our day to day living, until we make it part of the story we tell ourselves as we face life’s choices. Why not sin? Paul gives us not a reason, but a reality; not fear, not guilt, not even gratitude and love, first of all. Not reasons, but reality. “I have died to sin and I am alive to God in Christ.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
A classic story that provides a literary entre into this text is Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll, a mild mannered man of science, increasingly feels that he is a strange mixture of good and evil. He tries to do good things, but he cannot follow through on them. So he comes up with a magic potion that can separate his two natures, hoping that his good self that comes out during the day will be able to achieve his good goals in life. At night he becomes Mr. Hyde, a mysterious, secretive, violent man, who thinks only of his own desires. He will kill anyone who gets in the way of what he wants. He is called Hyde not only because he is hideous, but more because he is hidden. Stevenson was saying that even the best people hide from themselves what is within—an ugly monster called “me,” an enormous capacity for egotism, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement.
Once Jekyll realizes his own evil, he decides to clamp down on his Mr. Hyde. He resolves not to take the potion anymore and devotes himself to a life of good works. He succeeds to a large degree. However, one day Jekyll is sitting on a bench, thinking about all the good he has been doing and how much better a man he now is than the great majority of people. “But as I smiled, comparing myself with other men…, at that very moment of vain-glorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and a most dreadful shuddering…. I looked down. I was once more Edward Hyde.” He became Hyde involuntarily without the potion, and that was the beginning of the end. In despair of ever changing himself permanently and deeply, Dr. Jekyll kills himself because Mr. Hyde had become too strong.
Stevenson was wrestling with a problem we all have, because all of us are Jekyll and Hyde. Or as Paul puts it in reverse, we all have an old self, a Mr. or Ms. Hyde, and a new self, a Dr. Jekyll. And one of the great issues of life is how we can change permanently and deeply, so that we’re Jekyll, or rather Jesus all the time. Will it take medication, some pharmaceutically developed potion, or moral effort, some earnest attempt at being good, or today’s self improvement tool of choice, meditation? What will it take for us to change into the likeness of Jesus Christ?
Paul’s answer? Jesus and our union with him.