Some of you may remember Bob Kispert. He was a classmate and friend of mine who I knew to be a nice guy, but also irritatingly smarter than I was. He did some professional counseling here in Valpo. And I think he was the one who told me about a grief recovery group he once led. People were going around the room, sharing their experiences with great loss.
“It’s funny,” one woman said, “I was always afraid of being alone at home. When my husband would go on a business trip, I’d have a friend over or I’d stay with relatives. I was terrified at the thought of being alone at night.
“Then my little girl died of leukemia. The next night I realized I’d lost all fear of being by myself.”
Someone asked, “What did your daughter’s death have to do with you not being fearful?”
Bob said he never forgot her answer: “Don’t you see?” she said. “Once you have died, there’s nothing left to be afraid of.”
I think I get that: if you suffer a great loss, it IS as if you’ve died. And for some people, if you’ve died, it puts everything in a new perspective: stuff you thought was important suddenly isn’t. Certainly nothing is important enough to be afraid of.
The Denial of Death
Ernest Becker wrote a book, The Denial of Death, in which he contends the fear of death is one of the main motivating factors in human life, for good and ill. He suggests the fear of death makes us insecure and quick to see threats everywhere. The fear doesn’t have to be rational. I remember when the movie “Jaws” came out in 1975. It had a lot of us afraid to go in a pool. And I’m sure you can think of a lot of examples not nearly as funny. Prejudice can be partially defined as seeing a threat in anybody who is different. People with phobias may think they’ll die if they go outside or visit a doctor.
But Becker also said that many of the best things humans accomplish can be chalked up to our fear of mortality. When we finally accept the fact that we’re not going to indefinitely prolong our earthly lives, we may do our best to leave a better world for our children, or do something noble, or maybe create something that will live on after us.
Becker’s book won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction because readers thought he made a good case for the idea that our fear of death gives death a god-like status over us. …And it always has.
Perhaps that makes it all the more remarkable when Paul tells the folks at First Christian Church, in first century Rome: to get Christianity right, they need to understand: “You are dead….” (Romans 6:11a)
Let me set the context for that: for many verses Paul has been extolling the grandeur of God’s grace. If you were with us last week, you know all about the glory of that grace (and if you were with us and don’t remember, don’t tell me – it would break my heart). We call it “grace” because salvation is something God graciously gives. We don’t earn it or even deserve it. But in Christ we have learned that God is gracious and forgiving; taking us just as we are “without one plea.”
So far, so good. But apparently, some people (maybe in Rome, more likely in other churches where Paul knew the people better, some people…) have heard the Apostle talk about God’s grace and said, “Wow! If God is so forgiving, why not give God something really impressive to forgive? I mean, we like to sin; God likes to forgive. What a great arrangement!”
That may sound ridiculous, but have you ever known a kid who was overly indulged? It’s not a pretty sight. I had a secondhand encounter with the adult version of such a kid. Back when I was a counselor on the Indianapolis Crisis & Suicide Line, we got a call for a woman who was devastated because her husband left her-and-their-children for another woman. Mostly on the crisis line we listen, and that’s what I did when she told me, “He doesn’t even feel bad about what he did to our family. He says, ‘God will forgive me. That’s God’s job.’”
Gracious and Forgiving
W-e-l-l, Jesus DOES reveal a God who is gracious and forgiving. His best known parable compares God to a father who welcomes back his prodigal son for no good reason except that the Father loves the boy.
That’s the God Paul often talks about in his letters. It’s the God Paul knows first-hand because (remember): God forgave him on the road to Damascus even though Paul was only on that road to PERSECUTE Christians for what he’d worked hard to make the capital crime of believing in God’s Son! Paul used to believe God was punitive, judgmental, and severe; and God expected the same from us. But after he was forgiven for being as wrong about God’s will as it is possible to be, Paul realized it was God’s nature to be loving and grace-full. However, he also knew it was tragic to abuse God’s grace by living as if God doesn’t care what we do.
Actually, calling it “tragic” softens Paul’s argument. In our reading, he says (in effect), “Someone might ask, ‘Should we keep on sinning so God can keep on forgiving?’ (Romans 6:1) Are you kidding me? That is the poster child of stupid questions! Look, you are baptized. Baptism is a divine work in which God puts to death your old, selfish, deceitful selves and raises you up to new life as beloved children. To even ask ‘Should we keep on sinning…’—is to show you’ve got a lot more dying to do.”
When I mentioned a kid who was overly indulged, I bet you didn’t have any trouble thinking of somebody. And I’ll go even further and bet that if the kid you thought of has since grown up, they either had some traumatic experience that served as a wakeup call, or they still act like the rest of the world revolves around them. They can’t believe it if a cop gives them a ticket or an election doesn’t go the way they want, or a pandemic doesn’t care if they are inconvenienced
Paul says: don’t kid yourself. God is a loving and forgiving parent, but not an overly-indulgent one. God will allow us experience the consequences of our sin for one thing. But Paul is also getting at something deeper and more mysterious. He contends that – just as Christ died to death, sin, and evil and rose again triumphant – we need to remember that we do to! Baptism—in which the baptized goes under the water and rises up to new life—symbolizes what Christ is doing in us. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God miraculously frees us from forces — like self-centeredness, fear, selfishness, insecurity—that held us captive.
Paul’s argument may be hard for us to follow because his theology compares baptism to death by drowning. That’s odd for me because I love to swim; I’ve always seen water as my friend (with the exception of the two weeks after seeing “Jaws”). But in Second Corinthians, Paul tells us he was shipwrecked three different times! He did not necessarily see water as friendly. It was POWERFUL.
At best, you and I often think of baptism as a kind of symbolic cleansing, a rite that signifies our commitment to Christ and our initiation into his church. At worst, we think of as a cute ritual for young teenagers and new Christians.
But Paul sees baptism as (are you ready? I’m about to lay a fancy, I’ve-been-to-seminary word on you – Paul sees baptism as…) an ontologically transformative event. It’s not a ritual, it’s something that changes our very being.
The best analogy in nature might be the metamorphosis a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly. One life is gone, but a new life begins (that’s one reason we’ve made butterflies a visual theme this summer). When we’re baptized, we die and are raised from the dead as something new. Early Christians signified this by fully immersing the baptized (who, Hippolytus says, were baptized nude in third century Roman congregations which probably did wonders for attendance figures). When they came up out of the water, the newly baptized were dressed in a white robe as a symbol of their new life. They were different because of the promises and action of baptism.
For Paul, baptism is birth into eternal life, a defeat of death (Romans 6:8). More to the point of Paul’s argument in Romans 6, the baptized also share in Christ’s conquest of sin. The baptized are given the power to live holy lives right here and now (vv. 6-7). Baptism defeats the death and sin that we once thought were defeating us.
“You are dead to your old selves, therefore you are dead to sin,” says Paul. “So stop acting as if you’re living in the old, dead world where you were slaves to sin. Come on: you’re new people. Live like it!”
After all, what is there to cling to after we’ve died? Addictions? Greed? Hate? No, even clinging to life itself is over once we’ve died and been buried. Paul says: that radical-a-change happens to us at baptism.
Now, he’s not naïve. In fact, Paul is so self-aware that in the very next chapter he will famously say, “I do not understand what I do; for I don’t do what I’d like to do. Instead I do what I hate! ….Sin lives in me.” (Romans 7:15, 17b)
He’s like the alcoholic friend most of us have who’s been to AA, gotten sober, but fallen back a couple of times, and is very aware that it could easily happen again. Paul knows that – even though we’ve been baptized – we still struggle with sin. Sometimes we mess up, and we are always tempted. But Paul wants to remind himself and us that freedom has occurred, will occur, and is occurring in each of us, thanks to the death-to-life work of Christ.
The Reformer Martin Luther explained Paul this way: “In baptism the Old Adam,” the old you, “is put to death. Drowned. But Old Adam is a mighty good swimmer. So every day we must jump out of bed and continue our baptism; we must say to Christ, ‘continue to put to death my old self so that I might be raised to the new self you have in store for me.’”
Luther said baptism is a rite that takes only a few moments to do, but your whole life to finish. It’s only the beginning of our spiritual journey. And, sure enough, every day the Holy Spirit has to pry our hands off all the earthly things to which we tightly cling. Every day we have to learn again to let go and let God.
Knowing that the God who raised us out of the baptismal waters will also raise us on the last day (even though we aren’t perfect) is a great comfort in life and in death. It’s not something we dare take for granted, but it IS something of which we can be blessedly assured.
This is the chapel at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. Inside, there’s a large stone in which a bowl has been hewn out that’s filled with water on baptism days. The stone is from a long-ago slave market in a nearby city. Men and women violently kidnapped from Africa once stood on that stone to be sold to the highest bidder.
A plaque attached to it says: on this stone children of God were sold into slavery and death. Now, from this stone, people are baptized and freed into new life.
That’s us. You and I have died to a life of slavery to sin, and risen to a new life in Christ. Our challenge is to live like it. Amen.