Not Merely "Christian," but "In Christ"
Pentecost XI (O. T. 20); August 20, 2017
I'm doing a sermon this week on baptism and one next week on the Lord's Supper before heading to follow the footsteps of Martin Luther. I look forward to sharing some of that experience with you when I return.
This short section of Paul's Letter to the Romans gets us thinking about baptism, but let's back into the passage. He has been writing about how the grace of God abounds even more than sin does. As sin increases, grace increases even more. Paul is convinced that God's grace is always more abundant than human sin, no matter how much we sin. So he asks a rhetorical question: in order to make sure that God's grace overflows, should we sin as much as possible?
And the answer? "Are you out of your mind?" We've died; we're dead people. Dead people don't sin. We've already been buried. It would be unnatural for us to sin. It would be Night of the Living Dead and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies rolled into one. How are we dead people going to crawl out of our graves and sin?
Of course, the answer to that one is that we don't crawl out of our graves: God pulls us out of our graves, but not in order to sin, but in order to live in righteousness. We have died and we have been raised from the dead: we went into the tomb with Jesus and we were yanked out of it again with him. Good Friday and Easter, death and resurrection: they've already happened to us.
"When?" You cry. When you were baptized. When you were dunked in the river or the water was poured on you, then you died and then you were raised again to life. You live in Christ.
Paul is a little less dramatic in the way he puts it at the end of the passage, and I like the way he puts it. He uses an accounting metaphor. You folks who work with numbers, you'll get this. You tote up the figures, you calculate the reality: and the bottom-line is to conclude that you are alive to God in Christ Jesus. Which column predominates in calculating your life: still in sin? Or alive in Christ? Tote up the figures and see what is the result.
One the one hand, we claim that something is true in Baptism whether we feel it or believe it or not: that we are new creatures, not merely "Christian" (practitioners of a religion) but "in Christ" (a different sort of people). But on the other hand, he urges us to act as if it is true: add up the column, look at the result, consider yourselves alive to God in Christ Jesus.
"This is true, so act as if it's true." But you know how it is: very little in life is automatic. Some things are automatic: keep breathing and having birthdays and you will grow older. But most things are not automatic. I've told you before the story of our family gatherings, but I'll tell you again. You may take encouragement from this and it also serves as a good example of what I'm talking about. Three years ago my mother died; when we were out to dinner after her funeral, I said to my brothers, "Mom always kept this family together; now if we want to be a family, we'll have to do it ourselves." So we planned a week at the beach the next summer. The summer after that we all gathered for a family wedding. And this last week we were at the beach again. I left early to get back here for a Presbytery meeting, but for a few days we were all there.
We are a family, and always will be, no matter what. But in order to relate as a family we have to make the effort to make it happen. It is true, and not by our own action. But for that truth to be realized in our lives, we have to consider ourselves a family and act like one.
That's what Paul is telling you and me. By your baptism, you are in Christ, and that is simply the reality. It is not your doing; it is God's doing. You don't baptize yourself; the Church baptizes you. And you don't make yourself a Christian; God makes you in Christ. But for that truth to be realized in our lives, we have to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Here is a thought experiment. Imagine Jesus walking up 108th Street. He turns into the Whispering Hills apartment complex and walks around, noticing who is there, what is going on. He walks around the other apartment complexes in our neighborhood, does some shopping at Family Fare, maybe has a burger and beer at the Ice House. He walks through the single-family housing developments around here, where many of you live. He visits the elementary schools. What does Jesus notice? What is he thinking? What makes him weep? What makes him smile?
We don't need to imagine Jesus in our neighborhood; so long as we are on this hill Jesus is in our neighborhood. We are in Christ; we are Jesus' presence in this neighborhood. And we are in Christ as we are on these streets and in these businesses and these schools.
I have to think about what happened in Charlottesville; it could happen here in our city. There could be white supremacists protesting and then others counter-protesting and there could be violence. How are we in Christ at such a time? What makes Jesus weep? What makes him smile?
So many of my decisions revolve around What do I want? Or What suits my politics? Or How can I protect myself? Or How can I get what I think I deserve? And not What is Jesus thinking? But since I am baptized and am a new person - not merely a Christian, but in Christ - I have to tally everything according to a different scale. I need to consider myself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Baptism creates a new reality; it puts the old self to death (even if the old self is only a few months old!) and raises one to new life. But in order for that reality to be fully realized, we worship and study and relate to individuals and our neighborhood and the world in such a way to know, when we tally it all up, that we are not merely Christians; we are in Christ.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master