Thirteenth Sunday of Pentecost

Series on Romans:

Buried, Yet We Live


Scripture reading: Romans 6:1-11.

Sermon text: Romans 6:12-23.

Proud parents gaze down at the newborn baby, thinking of the nearly limitless possibilities they hold in their arms. What will this baby do in life? Will she display a knack for healing the sick and enter the medical profession? Will he tear everything in sight apart and reassemble it, like a budding engineer? Perhaps the child will demonstrate an inquisitive mind, ruthlessly driving for the truth in every situation; driving our new parents absolutely crazy with questions, but giving them hope for a scholar in the family.

Then, the reality sinks in: This child will become whatever the family’s master decides, regardless of any potential talents. For this child was born a slave. The little girl will grow into a woman who serves at the pleasure of her master, whatever that pleasure may require. The little boy, so brilliant in his mind, may well spend his life in a mine if his master so desires. This child will most likely find freedom only in death.

St. Paul’s Roman readers knew about slavery. At its height, roughly one-third of the population of the Roman Empire lived in slavery, even in the imperial capital. Christianity first spread rapidly among the slave population. Although St. Paul mentions only one slave by name that we know — Onesimus, in his letter to Philemon — chances are that many who heard his letter to the Romans lived in slavery.

Slavery corrodes the soul of every civilization it touches. It degrades both the speaker and the subject of the phrase, “I own you.” No civilization that relies on it emerges unscathed. Rome paid its price with massive unemployment, social inequity, and inevitable collapse as free men refused to defend militarily the society that pitted them against free labor. Here in the South, we’re still suffering from its effects, 144 years after the end of the Civil War that ended slavery in the United States.

One master doesn’t care.

Last week, we read in Romans chapter 5 of sin’s intrusion into a perfect world. Adam gave sin a tiny sliver of an opening; sin roared through and usurped the throne of earth meant for humanity. Sin still reigns as master, wielding death as its ultimate punishment against its slaves. Death alone can seemingly bring freedom from the pride, greed, and guilt sin uses to control us, but death — for many — brings only eternal enslavement to Satan and his demons.

Freedom from sin comes only from Almighty God, our Creator, but our rebellion against Him left us unable to cry to Him for help. Our pride keeps us from admitting we can’t win freedom for ourselves. In His mercy, Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, came to earth to win our freedom from sin. Jesus sacrificially gave His life, entered death itself — and crushed it, wrenching its power from sin and leading death itself into captivity.

St. Paul had closed the thoughts of chapter 5 with the sentence, “… as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Many people may think that if grace — the undeserved favor of God — now reigns, they’re free to do as they wish. After all, what is the ultimate expression of God’s grace if not forgiveness? If we wish for grace to spread, why not sin like mad so people can witness our forgiveness?

“By no means!” cries St. Paul. We cannot continue to live in slavery to sin when we have received grace. But if freedom from sin requires death, how can we consider ourselves free? St. Paul continued: “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Now where did St. Paul arrive at this thought?

Remember that slavery in Rome, except for those cruel cases where masters freed elderly slaves to avoid caring for them in their infirm years, ended only with death. St. Paul took this fact and provided a way of demonstrating Christian freedom from sin. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” In other words, those who confess Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, take His death for our own.

We then announce that action to the world through Christian baptism. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism demonstrates that we no longer serve sin, but Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died to free us from sin. Baptism signifies that our old lives spent in slavery to sin no longer exist.

Notice something else about this death: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Crucifixion: The most shameful death imaginable; the death Jesus suffered for us. Jesus didn’t die from illness or from an accident; He died in a state-sponsored execution reserved for murderers and traitors. I’ve heard people say, “Baptism would embarrass me.” Jesus died naked on a cross to give you the privilege of baptism. If Jesus can bear shame for us, we can certainly face embarrassment for Him.

There’s a good reason why you’d want to undergo baptism: “For one who has died has been set free from sin.” Baptism proclaims to the world that you have died to sin; sin’s ownership of you ceases at that death. However, St. Paul’s news gets even better: “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” Baptism reminds us that, one day, we, too, will rise from the dead as Jesus did and live eternally. “We know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” Death’s dominion over us ceases with the expiration of our mortal bodies. When our bodies rise again, we’ll never again experience sin or death in our existence, for all eternity.

“So, I’m dead to sin. Why do I still want to sin?” Contrary to popular belief, salvation does not free us from physical desires and instincts. If anything, the Christian finds himself fighting those desires even more, because those living in slavery to sin merely submit to those desires the moment they hit. St. Paul warned the Romans, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” Temptations will still occur; otherwise, Jesus would not have encouraged us to pray (as we do every Sunday at New Hope), “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Unfortunately, Christians still sin; Christians still sometimes give themselves over to sinful lifestyles. Believers who do this — who voluntarily return to sin — need reminding to present themselves “as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” Those who are free from sin’s tyranny must never return to its mastery. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal life awaits everyone who confesses Jesus as Lord, experiencing His death in the waters of Christian baptism.

I see two lessons regarding baptism that particularly apply to us today as we celebrate Baptism and Holy Communion at New Hope.

First, baptism signifies to everyone here that those baptized have renounced their old lives and now live as new creations before God. Some people fail to realize that God began recreating the world at the moment of Jesus’ resurrection. Humans will play an integral part in the new Creation, and every human who confesses Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, will live in the new Creation for all eternity. As Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, we are buried in the waters of Christian baptism.

I also see an eschatological significance to Christian baptism, and I’ll have to use a word avoided by most Baptists to explain it: “Sacrament.” The best definition you’ll find for the word “sacrament” explains it as “a visible symbol of an invisible grace.” By God’s grace, we will one day live again, free from sin for all eternity. Baptism reminds us of a coming day when we will never again face the evils of human slavery; the fear of death will never appear in the new Creation. No animals will die; no illnesses will mysteriously arise and threaten entire populations. When Jesus rose from the dead, He signaled the beginning of true life as God intended in the Garden: Eternal life, in full fellowship and relationship with our Creator.

People of God, as we experience the joy of Baptism and prepare for the celebration of Holy Communion, never forget one fact. While we prepare to partake of the other Sacrament of the Church — eating the broken Body of Christ and drinking His Blood to remind us of His shameful death — never forget His resurrection. As the candidates rose from the water today, Jesus Christ our Lord rose from the dead. One day, so will we.