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Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Awhile back Holland and I watched a semi-biographical movie called Beautiful Boy. It stars Steve Carell and Timothee Chalamet as father and son, and is about their relationship as the son continually struggles with drug addiction. The movie is very difficult to watch, dramatic and well acted but hits so close to home to someone with a child, or a loved one in their lives whom addiction has claimed. The ups and downs, the hope of the child recovering but the despair when inevitably he turns back to meth or whatever else, is grueling. I highly recommend the film, but not if you are already feeling glum; it is a rough ride. Even sadder is the number of people I see every day, next door or outside the corner store, people whose stories led them to a similar place of despondency. I often wonder what led to folks ending up there, on the street, trying to figure out how to get their next dose. It is a thing that haunts our society, and that we, to our collective shame, seem to have simply “gotten used to.” And, without diminishing the unique difficulty of folks with real addiction, it serves as perhaps one of the best examples of the human condition; in a sense, the addicts show us who we all are, they just don’t have the resources or strength to keep hiding it. Despite the love of God, abundant and unending, expressed in grace and freeing us from death and sin, we keep returning to sin, to the thing that enslaved us, and yet…we are free.
In chapter. 6, Paul is telling the Roman Christians that if they are one thing, that is, Christians, then that means they have been freed from sin and are now able to live in the Spirit. God has accomplished our freedom, has filled us with his Spirit so that we may live in faith, hope, and love. We are not only able, but privileged, and called, to live in the Spirit, not under the power of sin. Paul is telling us that in our union with Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God.
Last week Romans chapter 5 concluded with Paul’s wonderful exposition of our freedom in Christ because our justification, our reconciliation to God, is based on faith in the work of Christ for us. Even the Law, which is good, really served to reveal and enhance our sin, making it even more sinful, but in contrast, so God’s grace is abundantly for gracious than we could ever dream. That, though, raises an important question: “What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” If God’s love and the power of grace is so clearly shown through our sins being forgiven, why don’t we keep on sinning!
“By no means!” Paul replies. And from there goes on to say, that is not who you are. “How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.”
Our participation in the person of Jesus Christ, our union with him by the power of the Spirit and effected in our baptisms, has set us free from the power of sin, breaking its hold on us, and enabled us to “walk in newness of life.” The theme of the chapter really is that life is a type of slavery, and we are either slaves to sin, or slaves to God. We, those who are Christians, have presented ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God, and just as we died a death of self, dying to sin through our participation with Christ on the Cross, so we look forward to participating in his resurrection, his new life.
What Paul is saying here, is that living in that resurrection life is, yes, for the future, the untainted and holy life of immortal humans in the age to come. But it is also a reality now, a thing we have received as a gift within by the Holy Spirit, and we are able and thus called to live that resurrection life in our present life and circumstances.
Paul says, “But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Death and sin do not have power over you, Christian, or only so much as you let them. You have been freed so that you might serve your God, and out of love to the one who so redeemed us, we can truly live.
This being dead to sin and alive to God is a declarative statement of Paul’s, it is a thing true of us. It is a product of grace, and so does not depend on us. We are dead to sin and alive to God. We are guaranteed our final resurrection. However, as we all know, experientially we often find ourselves returning to our vomit, giving in to sin even though we don’t need to. Our time in the here and now is like being between two rubber bands, one pulling us to our eventual glorified lives, but the other tugging us back to who we are without Christ. That is why Paul has to say, “Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions.” Sometimes, we return to our old slave master. Sometimes, our old addiction calls us back, and we come running, because like the drugs sold on our streets, it comforts us, or gives us a feeling of euphoria, or perhaps because our despair jars us into a spiral of shame and self-harm. Sometimes we feel like we simply can’t help it.
That is not who we are. When we were baptized into Christ we were baptized into his death, so that we might share also in his resurrection life. And being dead to sin and alive to God, we are NOT the sum of our sins, but are set free from them. We have been set free from sin by grace, not so that we can go on deeper and deeper into sin, but quite the opposite; when the chains are broken, the prisoner runs with joy for the exit. When set free, the slaves of our own South rejoiced. When an addict can look back on years of recovery, they can celebrate it.
To even ask the question Paul poses at the beginning is assuming that one earns salvation. It makes God’s relationship transactional. But Paul encourages them to see that a person transformed by the Spirit through grace does not want to return, does not want to be a slave anymore. A person who knows who they are hate the idea of returning to who they were. But it isn’t easy. We’re still caught between. We’re all still addicts, who want to return to the comfortable embrace of sin. But in our union with Christ we are dead to sin and alive to God. When tempted to return to sin, as we all are, we must remember who we are, who God has said we are. And when we do sin, we are return to our new selves, by repentance, and renewed faith. God has said it, and so we must simply believe it. And in believing, be made ever more and more into the likeness of his Son, for ever and ever. Amen.
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