Scripture: Romans 6:1-11
It all started because of some dirt from the Holy Land. In 1278 the abbot of a monastery located in what is now the Czech Republic returned from a pilgrimage with some sacred soil. As a way of blessing the ground, he scattered this soil across the cemetery located on the monastery’s land. This made the cemetery extremely popular and there was a great demand to be buried in that blessed ground. The cemetery expanded and part of this expansion was the building of a small chapel with an ossuary, essentially a cellar to collect bones. The plague then swept Europe and after that a series of devastating wars in the region followed a century later. These two events swelled the cemetery and the ossuary to beyond capacity. Eventually a local wood carver was hired to organize and do something with all the bones that had been stored in the ossuary. The man honored the dead by doing what he knew how to do the best. He made art. He used the bones to decorate and adorn the chapel. Because of his work the Sedlec Ossuary is known as the church of bones and features some truly macabre decorations such as an enormous and elaborate chandelier constructed entirely of human bones. What is truly remarkable though is that the Sedlec Ossuary is not an anomaly. Portugal, France, and Germany also have chapels where human bones are used to decorate the space or are even used as the primary building material.
These skull and bones chapels look like something that we would associate with a horror movie and not with a place of worship. Yet in every instance, these places were created with reverent intent to be sacred spaces. Today, we often associate the Christian faith with being positive and encouraging, and we usually do not see death as positive and encouraging. Christian singer-songwriter David Crowder put it best, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” The bone chapels of Europe and this morning’s scripture reminds us that death is a major theme of our faith. This morning’s scripture is a prime example of how death imagery is all over the New Testament. In Christianity death is not necessarily a dark and grisly end because we believe that death does not have final victory and the grave has lost its sting. This scripture teaches us something that has long been an important truth in our faith we die so that we may live.
For the next several weeks we will be looking at scripture from Paul’s letter to the Romans. I mentioned last week that Romans is the closest thing we have in the bible to a systematic theology. This morning’s scripture is one of the best statements in the bible about the theology of baptism. Baptism is a deep and meaningful sacrament. It is a ritual that has layers of meaning. There is unfortunately a lot of denominational disagreement over baptism. Much of this disagreement between different branches of the Christianity stem from which aspect of baptism’s layers are emphasized. In this morning’s scripture we get a valuable glimpse of the theology of baptism as practiced in the early church. The aspect of baptism that this morning’s scripture lifts up is one that is not really emphasized today. In fact in our United Methodist baptismal liturgy there is only a single line that directly acknowledges the major point this morning’s scripture makes about baptism. When we are baptized we are to be symbolically dying to ourselves so that we can be resurrected as a new creation in Christ.
There are some non-biblical sources as well as archeological discoveries that shed light on what baptism was like for Christians in the first and second century. The ancient liturgy that has survived and the ancient baptismals that have been found really seem to embody the thoughts found in verses 3 and 4 of this morning’s scripture. Paul wrote, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”
The ancient baptismal ritual really emphasized this. The baptismals had three steps into the water, aligning with the three days that Jesus was in the tomb. The idea was that the person being baptized was symbolically recreating the death and resurrection of Jesus. Being submerged into the water is the act that represents being placed into the tomb. Just as the grave could not keep Jesus, the water cannot keep us and we emerge resurrected born anew. In the ancient baptismal liturgy our old self enters the water and dies, we then emerge out of the water living a new life. One of the beliefs that we hold about baptism in the United Methodist church is that the sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. The physical acts represent a change in our hearts. When it comes to baptism the change that is represented is dying to sin. This morning’s scripture is clear that baptism represent the crucifixion of our old self as it should be completely done away with.
John Wesley once wrote about the baptized heathens that made up his native England. These were people who had been baptized into the life of the church, but they sure did not live like it. An uncomfortable truth that we all have to face is that we likely are all guilty of being a baptized heathen at one time or another. This morning’s scripture states, “We should no longer be slaves to sin –because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” This scripture is not meant to be a hyperbolic statement. It is meant to be a literal description to what happens when we receive justifying grace and forgiveness in our lives. Because we are supposed to be dead to sin and alive to Christ, then that means we are supposed to have the freedom and power to be able to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever form they present themselves. Our failure to do that, our giving into temptation, and our sometimes hardened hearts are evidence that more often than we like to admit we are guilty of being baptized heathens.
When we have baptized into Christ and confirmed that claim on our life but then continue in sin, we are like a person who has been freed from prison but willing returns because we find the prison bed more comfortable than a free one. I realize that in many ways that is an over simplification. When it comes to the temptation and sins we face, it often feels much more complicated than a simple choice to sin or not sin. There are cultural issues, systemic issues, environmental factors, mental health issues, and even physical factors that can stem from addiction that can all contribute to us giving into temptation. No matter how complicated the issue is for the particular sin you struggle with is, this scripture is clear if you are a follower of Jesus, if you have been initiated in to Christ’s Holy Church, then the only control sin as on you is that which you give it. The power to resist sin fully and completely is already in you.
This is wonderful news, because it means that, there is light at the end of the tunnel. It means we really can change, and it means we can become the people we know God meant us to be. We are forgiven, but imperfect people living in a fallen and imperfect world. The inward change that baptism represents, the power and freedom to resist sin, is an instant work of the Holy Spirit but generations of Christians have taught us that living into that work is a process. The theological word associated with the idea of dying to our sinful nature and living a new life in Christ is regeneration. Part of our spiritual heritage as United Methodist is the Evangelical United Brethren church. I especially like how the EUB confession of faith defines regeneration. It states “We believe regeneration is the renewal of man in righteousness through Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, whereby we are made partakers of the divine nature and experience newness of life. By this new birth the believer becomes reconciled to God and is enabled to serve him with the will and the affections. We believe, although we have experienced regeneration, it is possible to depart from grace and fall into sin; and we may even then, by the grace of God, be renewed in righteousness.”
I especially appreciate the last part of that confession and that the doctrine itself is called regeneration. God’s grace is not a onetime thing. When we fail and fall short then by the grace of God, we can be renewed, we can be regenerated again. Because of the power of baptism and the transformative grace it represents we can once again go from being baptized heathens to being baptized saints. I really like how the band Tenth Avenue North put this to words in a song a number of years ago. In the chorus of their song The Struggle they sing, “Hallelujah! We are free to struggle, we are not struggling to be free.”
While all of us struggle to live more perfect sin free lives, our struggle can also be part of our testimony. This morning’s scripture makes the point that baptism represents the inward change where we die to our old selves and our born again to a new life. Paul wrote in verse 5, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” As I consider this scripture as it relates to baptism and regeneration, one of the thing that strikes me is when Jesus was resurrected he was resurrected with his scars. His hands and his feet were still pierced. When we become new creations in Christ, we are much the same way. Being redeemed, regenerated, and renewed in righteousness does not erase the memory of our past falls from grace and it does not erase our scars. Yet, Jesus used the scars he bore as evidence to the mighty work of God. We can do the same thing.
An example of this is Scott Highberger who is originally from Michigan City. He wrote about his journey from crime to grace in a 2018 book entitled Behind the Wire. He had a troubled upbringing that led to a life of criminal activity, and he was first arrested at the age of 12. Over the next several rocky decades he would be arrested a total thirty five times and sentenced on five separate occasions. In the book he documents how Christ entered his life and how his life journey led him to the pulpit. Highberger’s primary area of ministry, is somewhat unsurprisingly, men who are incarcerated. Highberger like all who are in Christ has been born a new and has the power of the Holy Spirit and the freedom to be dead to sin. However, he still bears the scars of a sinful past and through those scar he can testify to the power of God.
It is almost a certainty that Scott Highberger is better equipped to share the gospel of Jesus to someone who is incarcerated then I ever will be. In the same way though, there are likely people to who I can better communicate the love, forgiveness, and grace of Christ to. This is true for all of us. We all have our struggles, but we also all have our victories. Those victories where the power of God in us has enabled us to overcome make us uniquely suited to share the gospel with certain individuals.
If you have been baptized into Christ, then may you act like it. May you claim the freedom and power that comes from being redeemed and may you resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. If you know that you are not living quite like you should, if you know that you keep saying yes to something that you should be saying no to, then may you embrace death to sin. Whether this is the first time or just the first time this week, may you be willing to confess your sin and know that God’s grace is still there and even now by the grace of God you may be renewed into righteousness. May you know that by the forgiveness of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, you are FREE to struggle and you no longer struggling to be free. May we all embrace a death to ourselves, a death to the body ruled by sin, and a death to slavery to sin. In embracing this death, may we indeed find life and life abundant. May we count ourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus as the people of God for the glory of God. Thanks be to God.