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This morning, we wrap up our series from the Letter to the Romans. To be clear, there is so much more in this epistle to read and learn about. And three weeks is not nearly long enough to deep dive into this extensive book of the Bible. But next Sunday is Pentecost, bringing with it a whole new season.
So today, we wrap up what is called Eastertide, which is the season of fifty days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday. The resurrection of Christ is still something we are celebrating yet today. In fact, every Sunday should be a celebration of resurrection, a mini-Easter, if you will. Afterall, it was the first day of the week, a Sunday, when Jesus rose from the tomb. And the good news of the gospel which we proclaim weekly, is that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, new life is possible for each and every one of us.
Resurrection, then, is not just for the Messiah, it is offered also to us. The good news is, Christ is risen (He is risen indeed!). And we, too, are promised resurrection.
The more challenging news, however, is that resurrection is not possible without death. Let me say that again: resurrection is not possible without death.
Paul assumes that his readership in Rome, at some point in their lives, have committed their lives to Jesus, which, to him, meant that there has been a certain kind of death to their former way of life: a change in their priorities, and a shift in their alliances would be indicators that they have died and been buried with Christ.
In fact, for Paul, one way of understanding baptism, was the sacrament as a means of participation in Christ’s death.
I grew up in the Bible Belt, in Southern Baptist territory. And pastors there used to joke, that during baptism, which was, of course, by full immersion in their tradition, you should, “hold them down long enough, so they really feel like they’ve died with Christ.” I was glad to be Presbyterian and sprinkled with water instead!
But the idea that baptism is dying to one way of life and rising to Christ’s way of life is one way the church has understood the sacrament for centuries. In fact, one of the traditional questions asked at baptism is: “Do you renounce evil and its power in the world?”
In other words, do you believe that evil no longer has a stronghold, in our lives and in the world? That’s a hard one for me.
It means that sin no longer has dominion over our lives. It means that I’ve turned my back to evil. It means I have hope that goodness and mercy shall prevail. It means that I believe, like Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, that “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards justice.”
Renouncing evil and its power in the world is hard for me. I think I’m hard-wired for cynicism, some of us are, and maybe with good reason.
Because have you read the news?
Renounce evil and its power in the world? Really?
To be honest, I’m more likely to become Anakin Skywalker and choose the dark side than I am to become a jedi.
And is there no better villain in comic book nerd-dom than Magneto from X-men, whose experience as a Jewish boy in the Holocaust made him utterly distrust humanity for the rest of his life?
There are some death-dealing forces in our world. So renounce evil and its power in the world? How? How do we do that?
Well, resurrection is not possible without death. But death can be both literal and metaphorically. So perhaps one way to think of death is to face the very worst of who we are, as individuals and as a society, and to say no and choose another way.
Perhaps when we are honest about how much evil there is and is possible in the world; perhaps when we acknowledge the harm we cause one another, and stop being afraid to admit the ways we daily deal death to one another, then and only then can we practice true resurrection.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.” From the depths of death and holy darkness, new life is made possible.
At the beginning of this month, our Racial Equity Initiative team hosted an antiracism Workshop here at Calvary. We hoped for about forty people. And we got nearly seventy!
But as our sister Tosca Lee says, this work is uncomfortable. It’s digging deep into the ways we have dealt death to our sisters, brothers, and siblings of color; how our policies and our biases have tried to dehumanize and strip BIPOC of rights and of life. But unless we go there and face how we have caused and participated in death, new life will not be possible. And unless we go there willing to put to death the ways of racism and white supremacy, new life will not be possible.
But people showed up. And the hope of resurrection was in that room that day.
Paul reminds us in chapter six verse five that: “…if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
Note the tenses in that statement. “We have been united” with Christ in death—past tense. And “we will be united” with Christ in resurrection—future tense. We are currently caught in an in-between time which is why it feels so hard to renounce evil and its power in the world.
Several months ago, I preached a sermon that talked about the word Parousia. It is found often in the letters of Paul, and it means the second-coming of Christ.
In the early 20th Century, Gerhardus Vos began tying the idea of parousia to a state of “already but not yet.” This meant God’s kingdom is already here, among us, within us, being built all around us, but also not yet complete.
Similarly, according to Paul’s letter to the Romans, we are “already” united with Christ in his death. But we are “not yet” united with Christ in his resurrection. That is the tension in which we now live as followers of Jesus.
Resurrection, in its fullness, is not complete, but, friends, new life today, in this world, is possible and at hand. We can still actively take part in the new life offered to us, and live as those who have been liberated from sin and death.
Toi Derricotte writes, “Joy is an act of resistance!” And indeed, joy is an antidote to hopelessness. And hope is an antidote to cynicism.
Emily Dickinson once wrote a poem called, “hope is the thing with feathers.” It’s one of those classics, often taught in high school English.
But in this almost-dystopian world in which we live today, Caitlin Seida wrote a new poem entitled, “Hope Is Not a Bird, Emily, It’s a Sewer Rat.” There’s some language, so I won’t read the whole thing from the pulpit.
But she proclaims:
Hope is not the thing with feathers
That comes home to roost
When you need it most.
Hope is an ugly thing
With teeth and claws and
Patchy fur …
And survives in the ugliest parts of our world,
Able to find a way to go on
When nothing else can even find a way in.”
Maybe you can renounce evil and its power in the world through the hope of a bird with feathers. But I need the grit and tenacity of a sewer rat.
Israel Kamudzandu, Associate Professor of New Testament, at Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo. likens the hold of sin and death over humanity to colonization. He writes,
It should be reasonably clear that those who have lived under colonial oppression … have a better understanding of Paul’s message of liberation.
Sin is like a foreign domination in that it dehumanizes and reduces one to a victim position… Paul’s message is that humanity can be freed from sin…
…that new life “with Christ” is an assurance of salvation or pledge of hope … [and] This assurance is lived out in discipleship, that is, a life dedicated to God.
I believe, and I think we’ve all witnessed how the effects of colonialism, whether it be countries colonized by empires or humanity colonized by death and sin, can continue to be felt long after the colonizing power has been defeated.
The structures and the systems put in place by the colonizers must be torn down and allowed to die, so that something new and more just might flourish.
Interestingly, the star-word I received on Epiphany was the word “captive,” not captivating or captivate, but captive. I remember thinking the word seems kind of negative. What am I captive to? What holds me captive?
Well, Paul would say that all of us are held captive by this thing called sin.
Many of us think of sin as something we commit, a wrong that we administer or a good that we fail to do. But sin is not just the things we may or may not do, it is a stance in which we have turned away from God, even though God is perpetually turned towards us.
John Calvin, another one of those pesky Protestant reformers, and the one we trace our heritage back to, coined the concept of “total depravity.” In doing so, he fell in line with Augustine’s understanding of original sin which came into the Christian ethos in 400 CE.
Augustine, living in Rome at the time, wrote about this idea of original sin as inherent within all of us. In other words, we are all born sinful and live in a state of brokenness without the grace of God.
Pelagius, a contemporary of Augustine, living in Ireland, believed differently. He emphasized “original good” writing, “What is deepest in us is the image of God. God’s wisdom is born with us in the womb. Sin has buried the beauty of God’s image, but not erased it.” (The Book of Creation)
In Pelagius’ view, the grace we receive from God was not to replace our sinful nature but to release what is most fundamental—its goodness. Our renunciation of evil then, was to turn away from the oppression, the captivity, the colonization of sin and to turn towards what is most deeply planted within us, what God at creation called “good.”
Some Presbyterians still hold to the notion of total depravity and original sin. Others have chosen to reclaim Pelagius and his understanding of human nature as ultimately good.
But I think the greater point is this. Humans are both capable of both great good and great evil.
And based on how I experience the world, I am prone to accept the concept of total depravity. But Calvin never meant that that means we are not capable of good. He meant that no matter how much good we try do, we are incapable of earning God’s grace and love, because God’s grace and love are freely given, not something doled out on a merit basis.
And perhaps, left to our own devices, evil is not inevitable, but it sure is an easy default.
Part of the reason why I stay in the church and chose to become a pastor is because I, too easily, assume evil is inevitable.
But you know what is actually inevitable? Resurrection. Because resurrection already happened through the person of Jesus Christ. And it keeps happening again and again around us if we’re willing to pay attention.
And we are promised resurrection, too. So, the reason I keep coming to church is because I experience that resurrection most among you all and because I am offered the hope of resurrection in worship.
When we rise to live, fully alive to the world, to one another, and to the spirit of God, we reclaim and profess the resurrection and new life offered in Christ Jesus.
My pastoral care professor Homer Ashby used to always say that “we are a resurrection people.” And what he meant was that we have endless second chances and opportunities to start again, and that we can live in hope that this time, we’ll do better.
A resurrection people know and understand grace. So new life doesn’t mean we won’t mess up. It means that we have oriented ourselves to another way, the way of resurrection, that believes we can try again today.
Resurrection in Greek is ἀναστάσεως (ana-stas-eōs). It can mean literally to just “stand up and rise up”, or it can mean “a resurrection as from death.” But another interesting connotation it holds is “to rouse to action” or “to rise and leave the sanctuary.”
I love that idea of resurrection—that the new life to which we are called compels us to action and prompts us to not stay in the safety of a sanctuary, but to go out and leave the comforts of a safe place to share God’s love with a dangerous world.
We have been raised, resurrected, from death to life. All that held us back, all that held us captive, no longer needs to dominate our lives, be it shame, fear, cynicism, greed, or hate.
And we have been given not just any life, but abundant life which Christ has prepared for us, a life of love and mercy and gratitude and compassion.
So perhaps it is time for to be roused into action. Perhaps it is long past time for the church to rise and leave the sanctuary, to be fully alive in the world as ambassadors of God’s abundant grace.
May it be so. Amen.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 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. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
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