June 19, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
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 Micah7:7, 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: Doug Bratt
If only the narrator of the Old Testament text that the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday had just quit at verse 8. After Isaac is weaned, Abraham throws a big soiree. Period. It would have made for a happy ending that would send everyone home happy. But that’s not the way Genesis 21 ends. Pain is the caboose at the end of happiness’ train.
Our text’s beginning, however, bubbles over with happiness. After all, against all odds, God has graciously kept God’s promise to give Abraham and Sarah a son. Yet while martial intimacy is almost certainly involved, Sarah doesn’t give birth just because of that intimacy. Infertile Abraham and she bear a son because of God’s promise.
Abraham responds as God had told him to. He names his son “laughter.” God has, after all, turned Sarah and Abraham’s laughter from that of skepticism into that of joy. In fact, Sarah adds, God has graciously made that joyous laughter so contagious that all of us cackle with her.
So, as Scott Hoezee, to whose earlier sermon starter on this text I’m indebted for many of this starter’s insights, notes, we can imagine there’s a lot of loud and happy laughter when Abraham throws kind of bar mitzvah for his son. You and I can even imagine some of that laughter spills out of the incongruity of it all. Who on earth, after all, would have predicted Abram and Sarah would get to throw a party for their own child? Certainly not Abraham, Sarah or any other human being.
Yet it’s a bit surprising how little attention Genesis pays to the miracle that is Isaac’s birth. You might argue that all of Genesis 12-20 has been pointing ahead to this happy event. But our text polishes off its account of it in just eight short verses, ending with, “On the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast.”
“But,” says verse 9 immediately. And we almost involuntarily shudder. After all, sometimes, as in Jonah’s story, “but” is a happy word that introduces great grace. At other times, however, “but” is an unhappy word. Verse 9’s “But Sarah …” is just such a word. If our text’s joy is a train whose caboose is pain, it’s just a one or two-car train.
Of course, Genesis 21’s preachers, teachers and those who hear us also know how short joy’s shelf life can be. We celebrate a pregnancy, only to learn of morning sickness, difficult deliveries and sleepless nights. We celebrate a new job, only to learn of new difficult co-workers, a plunge to the bottom of the seniority list and perhaps longer hours.
Morning’s joy may and, in fact, often does follow night’s sobbing. But all too quickly the evening’s weeping returns, deepening our deep longing for that day when there will be no more “but’s,” crying, mourning, pain or death.
Our text’s Sarah learns that the hard way. Hers, after all, isn’t the only child in her household. And while children are a great blessing, you don’t have to know much about family dynamics to worry this new reality will turn out badly. What happens next doesn’t surprise those who know anything about the struggles of what we call blended families.
Genesis 21’s Abraham has two sons living with him. One is Ishmael, the child borne of total desperation and little faith. The other is Isaac, the child born of God’s promise and little else.
So, of course, there’s a lot of laughter, not just in Abraham’s tent, but also in our text’s first eight verses. Yet it’s not just happy laughter that rings throughout Abraham’s household. Verse 9 reports “Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking.” But that Hebrew word our Bibles translate as “mocking” is very similar to the word that we translate as “laughter.”
The Hebrew word for mocking can also be translated as “playing,” “laughing” or “joking with,” and “entertaining.” In fact, the New Revised Standard Version translates verse 9 as Ishmael was “playing with” Isaac.
Genesis pins the blame for what happens next mainly on Sarah. Perhaps during Isaac’s party, she sees something that makes her fists clench and blood pressure soar. Maybe she senses Hagar’s son is somehow mistreating her son. Perhaps before she even knows what she’s doing, Sarah runs to Abraham and screams, “Get rid of that slave woman’s son right now!”
Neither she nor anyone else in our text, including even God, uses Ishmael’s name. That’s what we do with the various outsiders in our lives, after all. We just stick labels on them. So we’re not surprised that to everyone in our text, Ishmael is Hagar’s “son” or, worse, just “the boy.”
He’s also a source of festering tension between Sarah and Abraham, as well as Sarah and Hagar. Ishmael may even be a cause of Abraham’s “distress,” although we’re not sure just which son deeply troubles him in verse 11.
But to God, Ishmael is more than just Hagar’s son or “the boy.” He’s someone whom God created in God’s image and loves deeply. God’s promise to bless the nations runs through Abraham’s son Isaac. But God is also determined to make Ishmael “into a nation.”
That won’t happen, however, because Abraham provides so well for his son. After all, Abraham doesn’t treat his mistress and his son properly. He essentially washes his hands of the whole mess by basically chasing them out of his home and into the barren wilderness.
Abraham, of course, packs some basic supplies for them. Yet those meager supplies don’t last very long. When Hagar and Ishmael’s water quickly runs out, Hagar puts her son under a bush because she just can’t handle watching him die. She then walks and sits a long way away from her miserable son.
Perhaps only those who have watched a child die can even begin to appreciate the magnitude of Hagar’s pain. God has promised to turn Ishmael into a great nation. But God as well as everyone else seems to have abandoned him. Now his mother can do little but do the same as she waits for her son and her to die.
Meanwhile, there sits Ishmael all alone in a sliver of shade in the sweltering heat of the shimmering wilderness. Sarah can’t stand the sight of him. Abraham can’t bear to watch him. Even Ishmael’s mother is now too far away to see him.
So who’s keeping an eye on Ishmael out there in the barren wilderness? No one but God. When no one else is watching Ishmael, God is. When no one else can hear his mother weep and howl, God can. When no one else can hear Ishmael sob, God can.
When God’s adopted sons and daughters feel as though everyone simply looks right through or past them, God sees them. When we feel as though no one is listening to us, God listens. God pays close and loving attention to people whom everyone else basically overlooks. Genesis doesn’t even tell us that either Hagar or Ishmael prays to God. Like Abraham’s enslaved Israelite descendants, they simply cry out in their pain. Yet the Lord hears them anyway.
The lives of Genesis 21’s preachers, teachers and those who listen to us may feel so painful that we can hardly pray. God’s children may find we’re merely weeping, sobbing or even wailing. But God graciously hears our cries anyway. God’s people may not know what to even say to God. But God, for Jesus’ sake, graciously listens to us anyway.
God sees the woman and child whom no one else can or wants to see. God hears a woman’s cries that no one else can or wants to hear. And God calls by name the woman whom no one else calls by name.
In Genesis’ story focuses Abraham and Sarah, and their descendants, Hagar and Ishmael may seem unnecessary. But no one is a throwaway to God. So God opens Hagar’s eyes, not to a wilderness miracle, but to what’s already there. God opens her eyes so that she can finally see the well that she hadn’t yet seen.
That’s the way God often works, after all. We sometimes long for God to perform miracles, for God to disrupt the way God rules our world. But sometimes God just opens our eyes to something that was there all along, but we didn’t recognize.
So that ordinary little bottle of Tylenol becomes God’s gift of relief from pain. That neighbor to whom you’d never said more than two words brings you a meal. A leader who seems so ineffective becomes a maker of peace.
That at least suggests that those who want to imitate God by helping needy people don’t wait for miracles. We familiarize ourselves with resources that are already there. Or we help create a new resource. Then we walk alongside those vulnerable people as we point them to resources within the church and community.
God, after all, doesn’t forget about the people who feel forgotten or whom we’d even rather forget. God cares about people whom many prefer to ignore or abandon. God pays attention to those we push to the margins or even out of our big stories. No one is too little or unimportant to escape God’s gracious and loving care. So God comes to and stays with Ishmael, even as he grows up.
Yet while God is also committed to making an enormous family out of Abraham, it proves to be difficult. After all, things are seldom easy in even the best of families. At least some hurt is closely bound up with families.
Yet God graciously continues to work with families anyway. God keeps God’s promise to stick with both the family of the promise and the family of desperation. God moves behind the scenes of family lives to keep God’s promises and advance God’s good purposes.
Families don’t have to be perfect for God to do God’s work through them. They just need to be open to being used by God for God’s good purposes. After all, God continues to work out God’s plans, through and sometimes even in spite of families, to keep God’s promises.
After all, as one preacher notes, we managed to kill God’s only natural Son. But even that didn’t stop God. God won the victory over our limitations. God, in fact, continues to love, preserve and even expand God’s flawed family even to this day.
Kids Hope USA is an organization that creates partnerships that pair church members with local students who are at risk in supportive, mentoring relationships. Its mentors spend an hour a week doing things like reading, talking and listening to, as well as playing with a student whom most people overlook, except to scold him or her.
On its website, www.kidshopeusa.org, the organization tells the story of eight year-old Sam. She felt invisible on the playground as well as in the classroom. Sam felt like she was being left behind, unseen and largely uncared for.
When her Kids Hope mentor Kim entered her life, she called Sam by her name. She listened to Sam without interrupting or correcting her. Kim saw Sam in a way she thought no one had ever seen Sam before.
Sam’s sense of invisibility slowly began to melt under the unstinting, loving gaze of Kim. For the first time, she felt important. After all, someone who knew her name made her feel special and valued.
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 69 is the cry of a person in extremis. He uses the conventional language of drowning to describe his distress. The Jews were a non-nautical people, so the thought of falling into deep water where there is no firm bottom provoked the deepest terror. We can almost see the Psalmist flailing about as he sinks into the waves, screaming for help as water chokes him. As he goes down for the proverbial third time, he utters this cry of desperation in which the word “rescue” is heard again and again.
I said this is conventional, rather than literal, language because the Psalm is really focused not on drowning, but on enemies. The trouble was not that the Psalmist was floundering in the Jordan River or the Mediterranean Sea, but that he was surrounded by enemies who attack him so fiercely that he feels as though he is drowning. What’s more, he feels as though God has wounded him (verse 26) for some unnamed sin (verse 5). These enemies pile on, accusing him of sins he has not committed (verse 4).
But in spite of the real sin for which God has wounded him and contrary to the accusations of his attackers, he is, overall, a righteous person. Indeed, his persecutors are focused so fiercely on him precisely because he is zealous for God. Even his closest friends and family have turned against him because of his passion for God (verses 7-9).
In the context of terrifying descriptions of his situation, this desperate writer has two basic pleas regarding those enemies—rescue and retribution. “Get me out of here!” And “get them back for me!” Our reading from the RCL is the heart of the rescue section. As is so often the case, the RCL does not deal with the retribution section in verses 22-28. It is not “nice” language; indeed, one could legitimately argue that it is not at all in keeping with Jesus’ teaching about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies.
While that is definitely true, omitting the “non-Christian” prayer for retribution does rob us of the opportunity to explore those very real feelings. Even the most zealous believers utter these kinds of words when they are in extremis. If we only focus on nice texts, do we suggest to our fellow believers that real Christians don’t feel this way? If you do wish harm on your persecutors, does that mean you aren’t really a follower of Jesus? If we listen to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, we certainly shouldn’t ask God to blast our enemies.
But the Psalmist does. What are we to make of that? We can dismiss it as pre-Christian, angry-God, Old Testament religion, as folks have always done since the days of Marcion. Or we can wrestle with sin and grace in the lives of God’s people when they are drowning in trouble caused by determined enemies. I think that folks like those persecuted Christians in the Middle East might benefit from an honest exploration of how to live and pray in extremis.
But I digress. As I said above, our reading for today focuses on the rescue theme. The closer we look at this reading, the closer we get to Christ. There is much scholarly debate about the identity of the “I” who is speaking in the Psalm. Some scholars focus on the details of the speaker’s suffering and are struck by the parallels to the sufferings of Christ. Indeed, besides Psalm 22, there is no other Psalm referenced in the New Testament as often as Psalm 69. John’s Gospel quotes verse 9 in connection with Jesus’ cleansing of the temple (John 2:17). The same Gospel alludes to this Psalm as partial explanation of Jesus’ rejection by his own people (John 15:25). Similarly, the Apostle Paul uses verses 22 and 23 to account for the fact that only a remnant of Israel has believed in Jesus (Romans 11:9-10). All the Gospels record the mockery of Jesus by the crowds and the distancing of his closest disciples at the moment of arrest and trial. Verse 21 seems like a direct prophecy of the vinegar filled sponge given to a dehydrated Christ on the cross. And there are other connections between Psalm 69 and the suffering of Christ.
Thus, there is a whole group of scholars who agree with this statement of Father Patrick Reardon. “From the very beginning the Christian reading of Psalm 69 has uniformly interpreted this prayer in the context of the Lord’s suffering and death.” Reardon carries this general Christological interpretation so far as to say, “In Psalm 69 we are given a vision into the very heart of Christ in the circumstances of his Passion.” If Reardon is right, we could use this Psalm to give people an insight into what Christ suffered for us. That would be a helpful thing, because we don’t think about that often enough or deeply enough.
Others are a bit more cautious about the connection between the Psalm and the Suffering Servant. James Luther Mays, for example, suggests that it is not directly the prayer of Jesus or an intentional prophecy of his suffering. But it does reflect the passion of One who bore reproach for the sake of his God. The way he bore that suffering and the way his Resurrection vindicated his life and death give hope to those who suffer as he did. “Jesus is the consummate and correcting example of the kind of person for whom the Psalm was composed.”
That, I think, is a fruitful way to preach this Psalm—not first of all as a prediction of Christ’s suffering, but as a pastoral word for those who suffer as he did—for righteousness sake. This is a Psalm for people who try to do the right thing by God, but don’t quite get it right; who have the sense that they’ve done something wrong and God isn’t entirely pleased with them; who redouble their efforts to please God by prayer and fasting; who are filled with zeal for God and his house; and who are the subject of ridicule and gossip just because they try so hard to be righteous. This is a Psalm for the “Holy Joe’s,” the fanatics, the radical but flawed Christians who stand out in a crowd and get persecuted by the crowd for it.
I suspect that most of our listeners won’t be able to relate to that kind of person; indeed, we may be part of the mocking crowd. Most of us don’t want to stand out in a crowd. We practice our faith privately, to avoid trouble. We don’t want to be in extremis. We want to be Christian and comfortable. At least I do.
But Psalm 69 gives a voice to those who take Jesus seriously when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness…. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me (Matthew 5:10-11).” Psalm 69 puts words in the mouth of those who have experienced the truth of I Peter 4:12-16. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the suffering of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you…. If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed but praise God that you bear that name.”
Psalm 69 speaks for such people. We don’t have to simply endure such suffering. It is perfectly legitimate to cry for help. “Rescue me, rescue me, come near and rescue me; redeem me because of my foes.” And we don’t have to give in to our deep desire for retribution. That may be our reptilian response—“fight or flight.“ But the ultimate Christ-like response is, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” To repeat Mays comment above: “Jesus is the consummate and correcting example of the kind of person for whom the Psalm was composed.”
Jesus is not only our example, of course; he is also our rescuer. The Psalmist prays, “Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant….” On the cross, the Lord hid his face from the Righteous One who had come to rescue us. Through Jesus Christ, the goodness of God’s love has come into our trouble. He has turned to us, rescuing us from the raging sea of sin and the ridicule of the Adversary who mocks our feeble efforts to serve God well. Because of Jesus, we don’t have to curse our enemy; we can bless our God “who hears the needy (verse 33).”
Those drenching winter storms that broke the years’ long drought in California created some very dangerous conditions. I can still see those pictures of once dry lakes now filled to overflowing and those formerly trickling streams now become raging torrents. And I can still see those brave first responders wading into the floodwaters, maneuvering boats, dangling from ropes lowered from helicopters to save stranded motorists from their swamped cars. Do you remember what they called the actions of those first responders? “Rapid water rescue.” That’s what the Psalmist is praying for—rapid water rescue. “Do not let the floodwaters engulf me… answer me quickly….”
Author: Scott Hoezee
Be who you are. That is Paul’s most basic message in Romans 6. Paul tells us who we are and so reminds us how we are to live from now on as a result of our true identity.
Romans 6 is a landmark passage. Scholars can write (and have written) whole books on any one of these 11 verses. Given the theological richness here, we cannot do justice to all of it in any given sermon but we can try to take a bird’s-eye-view to notice a striking juxtaposition. On the one hand, Paul talks in very emphatic, indicative terms. Paul says flat out that as baptized followers of Jesus, we have died, we have been buried, our former nature was crucified, we have been freed from sin. These are all past tense expressions.
Typically when we talk this way about our own lives, we are expressing things that are over and done with and whose effect, therefore, is ongoing. If I tell you that I was fired from a certain job, then the implication is that I am still fired today and I will be in a state of having been fired tomorrow, too. My knowing this will keep me from driving to the office again for work tomorrow morning. You wouldn’t have to remind me not to go back into work. I would know I have been fired and so would know not to report for work.
That’s the way Paul talks about our identification with Jesus’ death and all that this implies for our relationship to sin. It’s past tense. It is who we are by baptism. We are dead to sin. And yet before this same passage is finished, you find Paul saying things like, “Therefore, count yourselves dead to sin. Remember that this is true. Don’t keep on sinning. Don’t use your body for immoral purposes. Instead, choose to do better things that glorify God.” But in one sense, these imperative commands are rather surprising.
Again by way of analogy: If someone tells you that he has been cured of cancer, wouldn’t it seem odd to respond by ordering this person to live now as a cured man? Would you say to this person something like, “Be sure you don’t go to the hospital for chemotherapy tomorrow.” Would it make sense to say, “Therefore, stop planning your funeral and stop crying over your impending death from cancer.” If a person knows he has been cured, and if you know that he knows this, would it nevertheless make sense to say, “Therefore, Charley, consider yourself free from cancer and don’t let this disease rule your body.” Wouldn’t that seem to be a rather unnecessary, even an odd, thing to say?
Paul tells the Romans they are dead to sin. It’s all wrapped up for them. Sin is no more because of Jesus’ death and their baptismal identification with, and mysterious participation in, that death. It’s over. Past tense. History. Yet in this case Paul knows that even so it is not at all weird subsequently to order the Romans to live like they know this is true. And if we didn’t bat an eye at this when Romans 6 was read a few minutes ago, it is probably because every last one of us knows that although we profess ourselves to be Christians, we still struggle with sin.
As someone once said, all of us know that even when we are engaged in worship, the wolves of sin may at that same moment be howling in our souls. It reminds me of that scene near the end of the story Elmer Gantry. The evangelist is on his knees in front of the pulpit having just confessed his sexual sins. As he opens his eyes from this prayer of confession and begins to lift up his bowed head, his eyes fall appreciatively on the nicely turned ankle of a woman in the choir . . .
But if our baptism into Christ does not automatically turn us into sinless people who lead saintly lives, then what is the purpose behind all of Paul’s confident rhetoric in this passage? If the Christian life remains a struggle against temptation, does baptism have no true effect? Is this just all talk? If we still need to repent of our failures even as preachers still need to remind all of us to stay away from that bad stuff come tomorrow once again, then what makes us different from any other person in the world who likewise gets reminded not to do bad things? Is there a difference?
Yes, and the difference is this: we can be different because in Christ we are different. As commentator Douglas Moo put it, the only reason Paul can plausibly say “Thou shalt” at the end of this passage is because he was truthfully able to say “Thou hast” at the beginning. Paul knows that the only reason he is able to tell the Romans what they ought to do is because their immersion into Jesus’ death has made it possible for them to do it.
The philosopher Immanuel Kant was famous for saying that when it comes to morality, “Ought implies can.” So if I tell one of my kids to sit up straight at the dinner table and say only nice things to the rest of the family, I do so only because I believe he or she can do this. That’s why I dare make it an order. To order what is not possible is as cruel as it is senseless. And so it would be only a sadistic father who would order his child to address the family in eloquent French even though the father knows full well the child has never learned one word of that language. Ought implies can–if we truly are obligated to do something, then it follows we possess the requisite skills to do it in the first place.
So in Romans 6 the emphatic, indicative statements that remind us who we are in Christ are the perfect set-up for the imperative commands that come later. We may struggle morally, we may fail all-too-often. But because we have died to sin, because we have been caught up in Jesus’ death, we now have inside of us the power that it takes to resist sin’s allures, to turn down proper paths, to break bad habits and overcome addictions of all kinds. We ought to do this because we can do this and we can do this because the power of no less than Christ Jesus the Lord is inside every one of us who has been baptized.
Even at the lowpoints of our struggles with temptation, we can have hope. Even when we are ashamed of something we did, we can have hope. Even when we fear we will never make progress in being more like the person we know God would have us to be, we can have hope. And this hope is not pie-in-the-sky optimism, either. This is not little orphan Annie singing “The sun’ll come up tomorrow, bet your bottom dollar on tomorrow” in some saccharine wish for a brighter day. We as Christians sing about the Lord Jesus who died for us and with whom we also died. Because when it’s Jesus you die with, you know that resurrection is the next item on the agenda.
Above all, though, when you are in Christ, you also know where it is you live. You know that you live in a new cosmic situation, a new place that is filled with hope. In Christ, you know for sure that grace is where you live. Did any of you notice something interesting about Romans 6? It begins famously with Paul asking the rhetorical question, “Should we sin more so that grace may abound?” It sounds like some cheeky people in the early church tried to caricature Paul’s message of salvation by grace alone. They poked a little fun of the free ride to salvation that Paul proclaimed by saying silly things like, “Well, if grace is such a great thing, then the more we sin, the more of this good thing we’ll get, right?! Since God loves doling out this free grace, let’s give him lots of excuses to do it then!”
It was a line of thought so blatantly dumb and finally also so cynical as to be almost beneath contempt. But Paul mentions it anyway and says that by no means should we try to make grace abound by sinning more. In fact, in verse 14 (just beyond the technical bounds of this lection), Paul says something wonderfully poignant. In encouraging the Romans not to let sin be their master, Paul says, “You are, after all, not under law but under grace.” In other words, Paul says that grace already abounds as it is! So in a way we could sum up this passage by saying that we don’t sin to make grace abound because, as a matter of fact, we don’t sin because grace already abounds! You couldn’t make grace any more hyperabundant than it already is no matter what you did!
Be who you are, Paul says. Recall your identity as all new people who are dead to sin. We have hope inside us that we can lead new, better lives because we have the living Jesus inside us. We have to take into account every day that grace is where we live. We have already become all new people. Remember that. Remember, and be thankful!
If you have ever watched the miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book, Roots, then you know that this story is about far more than some genealogical curiosity that seeks to fill in the blank branches on a family tree. Most of us have at least a modest interest in knowing the names of our forebears. Mostly, though, names are about all we learn. Barring the rare discovery that we are related to someone famous, the stories of our ancestors are unknown to us. Maybe that is why some people don’t find genealogies very interesting. When I had to make a family tree in high school, I interviewed my Grandpa Hoezee to get as many names as far back as possible. We didn’t get very far. “Sorry I can’t help more,” Grandpa said. “But my side of the family never much cared if we had a family tree or a stump!”
But Roots was about far more than old history and names. From the very beginning when Alex Haley’s ancestor Kunte Kinte was violently kidnaped from Africa, it was clear that what this genealogical tracing was about was nothing short of identity. Kunte Kinte’s story stayed alive, and needed to be passed down the generations, because that story would tell all his descendants who they really were. Kunte never accepted Toby, the name given to him by the white man. He never accepted that he was a slave. He was proud. He was a warrior descended from a strong and good and noble people. For Kunte’s offspring, knowing the family’s roots was not about information but formation. These roots did not simply trace back to what had been but drew lines forward to what still was.
Alex Haley’s people had to remember who they were. It reminds me of the line I have mentioned before from the great black preacher James Cone. When Cone was asked why sermons in black churches tend to be so long, he answered, “It’s because six days a week this whole society tells black people they are second class. So on Sunday morning it just takes a while to talk them back into seeing who they are as God’s children!”