This Sunday's Sermon
Message for Sunday, May 22nd
Romans 5:20 – 6:11
A story has been told of a gathering, in England, of notable religion professors. They began a debate as to what – if anything – is unique to Christianity. They began eliminating the possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions evoke stories of gods appearing in human flesh. Resurrection? No, the rising up from death likewise has parallels. They continued until famous British scholar and Christian author, C. S. Lewis, wandered into the room. "What's the rumpus about?" he asked, and heard in reply that they were discussing Christianity's distinct contribution to world religions. Without hesitation, Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's Grace."
Whether the story is historically accurate or not, the conclusion voiced is absolutely true. Grace is unique to Christianity. The notion that God’s undeserved, unmerited, unconditional love comes to us free of charge, with no strings attached, is not only distinctive, but astonishing. Grace stands in marked contradiction to every human instinct that would convince us that there’s no such thing as a free lunch; and that pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is great and high virtue. And yet… Don’t think for one minute, writes Saint Paul, that you can ever hope to earn your way into God’s Realm by perfectly keeping the commandments, because sooner or later some sin – spiritual pride, for example – is going to trip you up.
Early on in his Letter to the Church in Rome, Paul makes an argument that the Old Testament story of Abraham and Sarah is an example of God’s unmerited, undeserved and unconditional gift, called Grace, that embraces us when we believe. Listen to how THE MESSAGE communicates Romans 4:2-3… If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we're given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, "Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own." And this, Paul elaborates, happened long before any of the Bible commandments even existed.
Paul, then, is writing to convince people that Christian faith begins, not with what WE do for God but with what God has already done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the core of Christ’s mission and message is God’s saving Grace by which we’re loved and forgiven without conditions and without limit.
Now speaking of God’s boundless forgiveness, I recall the conversation had with a former school teacher colleague who’d learned of my plan to become a preacher. "So God’s in the business of forgiving sins, right?” he asked. "Yes,” I replied. "And will God forgive me over and over and over again?” "Absolutely!” "So it’s okay, then, to keep on sinning because God will keep on forgiving!” he concluded. Well! No! That’s a distortion of Paul’s Word on Grace; and goodness knows but it’s an old distortion.
It’s apparent, given what the apostle wrote in Romans 6:1, that some believers in his time were likewise twisting his Message on Grace, going so far as to argue that more sinning on our part is to God’s advantage – reasoning that it will provide God with boundless opportunities to show off the gift of amazing Grace. It’s kind of like saying that even more deadly disease will provide scientists with so many wonderful opportunities to discover life-saving vaccines. Paul’s response to this perverted logic is his argument that dead people don’t sin; and baptism is his object lesson.
My mother has spoken of her baptism, as a teenager, in Snake Spring Valley Run, which winds its way through a forest behind the Snake Spring Valley Church of the Brethren. Mom, however, has often described her family of origin as amongst the "Dunkard Brethren”. Well! "Dunkard” or not, the word describes HOW she and everyone else in her church were baptized as adolescents or adults; and baptism by dunking – that is, full immersion under water – illustrates Paul’s thoughts on death to sin and new life, in Christ.
Going under the water is emblematic of going into a grave, writes Paul. Coming up and out of the water suggests a life made clean, whole, and new. Here’s how THE MESSAGE renders Romans, chapter 6:2-10… If we've left the country where sin is [supreme ruler], how can we still live in our old house there? Or didn't you realize we packed up and left there for good? That’s what happened in baptism. When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace – a New Life in a new land! That's what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we’re lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we’re raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we're going in our new grace-[ruled] country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life – no longer at sin's every beck and call! What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ's sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection… When Jesus died, he took sin down with him, but alive he brings God down to us.”
Ed was born into a prominent family. How awkward it was when he was arrested for possession and selling of illegal drugs. He lost his job, he humiliated his family, and he ended up in jail, awaiting arraignment. Yet the judge was merciful. Ed’s choice was more time in jail OR time in drug rehab. It was while at the rehab center that Ed heard the message on Grace and received Jesus Christ as his "higher power.” It was not a painless decision, as it hurt to totally and completely abandon ALL of his former friends – the very people who’d walked the walk with him on a path leading to self-destruction and self-absorption. Then, too, he was scared to death of failure. What if the rehab didn’t work? What if faith in Christ didn’t liberate him after all? Would he not, then, become imprisoned forever to the unhealthy attachments over which he had no control? Praise the LORD, it did work! The baptism promises made by his parents when he was an infant – the promises he’d confirmed for himself as a teenager – took on an incredibly new and deeper meaning. He HAD died to an old way of existing and he HAD been raised up clean and renewed, with Christ, to a life of grateful service and joy.
Now perhaps Saint Paul’s understanding of baptism as a kind of death and resurrection becomes less obvious when we baptize infants and toddlers by way of sprinkling or pouring water on their little heads. But don’t be deceived into thinking that what we’ve shared this morning is without that important meaning, and yet another important meaning.
It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was daddy to an infant son and his toddler sister. Truth be told, they contributed NOTHING – at the time – to the maintenance of their bedrooms or of our home. Not until some years later did they help us keep house. When still wee little babies, we had to pretty much do EVERYTHING for them, and what did we get in return but soiled diapers? All they did as infants was drink milk, sleep – not always on a predicable schedule – smile occasionally, spit-up on dad often, cry when in need of God only knows what, and… did I mention dirty diapers? They did NOT, in other words, produce anything tangible for the well-being of family or society. And yet…. we loved them more than anything on earth – as you do likewise with your children and grandchildren. We would have protected those little ones at the risk of our own lives. And why? NOT because of what they do, or produce; but because of WHO THEY ARE! They’re bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh. They’re the little vessels who carry and embody our grown-up hopes, dreams, and prayers. We love them without condition and without merit. They are our objects of Grace.
Infant and toddler baptism is a reminder that the great God of Grace claims us as beloved sons and daughters regardless of history or social standing. Surely, the Most High wants what’s best for the children of God’s creation. The Creator of the Universe desires more than anything that we live and grow joyfully as the authentic human beings we’re made by God to be. Sin is so abhorrent, not because we’ve broken the rules, but because it corrupts and pollutes the God-given Grace of the One who created and re-creates us for hope, joy, faith, peace, and love. Baptism stands as a reminder that Christians die to sin and rise up as new creatures re-made daily and always by God.
The amazing Grace of God does NOT mean, therefore, that we’re given license to do anything and everything our little ol’ heart’s desire. A rival once assaulted the Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, about his ‘rediscovery’ of God’s Word on salvation by Grace, received through faith. "If this is true,” said the skeptic, then "a person could simply live as he pleased!” "Indeed!” answered Luther. "Now tell me, what pleases you?”
Does it please you to live gratefully and obediently in service to the Master who has set you free by the Power of his Grace? Does it please you to offer up your treasures of money, effort, time, and talents for the love of neighbor and for the Glory of God? Does it please you to be as fair, just, patient, and compassionate as the Christ has been fair, just, patient, and compassionate with you? Does it please you to learn of God’s Grace, break bread with the believers, and worship in a community that has Jesus Christ as its head?
"God saved you by God’s Grace when you believed,” writes Paul in Ephesians 2:8. That’s where the Christian walk begins – with Grace; and where does the path lead us? "We are God’s masterpiece,” continues Paul, writing in verse 10: "God has created us anew in Christ Jesus” he concludes, "so [that] we can do the good things the LORD planned for us long ago.”