Download or listen to The Second Sunday after Pentecost, “The Only New Beginning” (Romans 6:12-23)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Everyone loves second chances, don’t they? When we see someone in a movie or TV show who’s really messed things up, don’t we all—most of the time—hope that that person gets a second chance to make things right? We even call it “redemption”: they get a shot at redemption! At fixing things! And we all pick up things as we go through life. We’ve all got baggage that we’re carrying around. We’ve made choices, and we’ve done things an left things undone; we’ve said things we wish we could unsay. And don’t we all, at least sometimes, think it’d be nice to start over again, get a new beginning, a second chance? A new place, a new job, a new school; maybe a new congregation, or even a new family. We want the anti-Cheers: a place where no one knows our name. But the bad news is, there really is no such thing as a completely new beginning, a clean slate; we cannot erase what’s in the past. Even Jacob, who held on tight to the divine Wrestler and got a blessing and a new name out of Him, still had to face Esau and all his own deception and dishonesty. The only way to get rid of everything in the past, to have a new beginning is death. Not the sort of death you might cause yourself; not taking your own life. That doesn’t really solve anything, for you or for anyone else, even if it might appear to do so at a given moment. No, the death that actually gives a new start is the death that God brings to the sinner, when He brings a new person out of the death of the old. Baptism is the only new beginning that there is; but baptism is only the beginning. Baptism is the only new beginning; but baptism is only the beginning.
That’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 6. We heard the first half of Romans 6 way back in January at the Baptism of Jesus. Now we come back in with the second half. Paul is answering a question with which the Christians in Rome were apparently struggling: Shall we continue in sin so that grace may abound? If a little sin gets us a little grace, maybe a lot of sin will get us a lot of grace. This misunderstanding is still around today, when we think we get a little forgiveness for a little sin. But Jesus gives all the forgiveness, all the grace, for all the sin. Shall we go on sinning so that grace may abound? Paul can barely comprehend the question: Absolutely not! How can we who died to sin live in it any longer? Why would you want to resuscitate that corpse? Don’t you know—maybe you’ve forgotten—don’t you know that as many of us as have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death? You were buried, therefore, with Christ by baptism into death. Not a picture, not a metaphor, not a symbol; we were buried into Christ’s death so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk around in newness of life. You didn’t cause this death; this is a death that God brings to you. It’s a passive verb: you were buried. And if you have been buried with Christ in a death like His by baptism, then you will also be raised with Him in a resurrection like His. We haven’t seen that yet, but it’s coming. Your old sinful nature was nailed to the cross and buried in the ground so that the body of sin might be brought to nothing. You’ve been joined to the Christ who died, but who has risen again. He can’t die any more; death is not lord over Him. He is Lord of life and death. Death is not your lord; Christ is your Lord. Baptism is the only new beginning that there is.
But baptism is only the beginning. Your life in Christ didn’t end when you were baptized. You didn’t automatically go straight to heaven. As far as you or anyone but God can see, your sin didn’t suddenly disappear. Your sinful flesh still clings to you. The battle didn’t end when you were baptized; it began. Before, when you were dead, there was no struggle: you simply did what you wanted, which was to sin. But when you are buried and raised with Christ, then the battle begins between the Spirit and the flesh; then the devil is hung around your neck, a life-long enemy trying to tear you from your Lord, Christ. And so Paul says to the baptized Christians in Rome: Do not let sin be king in your mortal bodies. Don’t give the members of your body to sin as instruments for unrighteousness. Instead, your body was bought with a price and now it is to God an instrument for righteousness. Why? Because this mortal body is going to be clothed with immortality; this perishable body is going to put on the imperishable. And on that day we will say, Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? But thanks be to God for the victory He gives us in Jesus Christ! We do not long to be unclothed; we do not long to get rid of this body and be a soul floating around in the clouds, playing harps or something. We do not long to be rid of this body, but to be rid of sin in our body. We long to be further clothed, with a body made by the hands of God in the Man, Jesus Christ. Jesus Himself took on a mortal body, lived in a mortal body, died in a mortal body, and was raised in a glorified and immortal body—but still a body, though without sin. And you have been joined to this Jesus. So it matters what you do in your body; it matters how you treat others in their bodies. On the last day, God is going to raise up me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true. So what we do in our bodies matters. Don’t go on sinning, as if it didn’t matter. Don’t be slaves to unrighteousness, and to your old sinful nature. What did you get from all of that? When you were slaves of sin, you were free with regard to righteousness. But it was all lawlessness, leading to more lawlessness. And the irony of this lawlessness, is that it puts you right back under the Law. And what does the Law say to you? It says, this is what God demands of you. You must do this in order to live. But you don’t. And you don’t even want to. So more lawlessness, but under the burden of the Law. And what did all of that get you, the things of which you are now ashamed? Nothing. Nothing but death.
But you are not under the Law, but under grace. Your body and its members are now slaves to righteousness, leading to holiness. And the end-result of that holiness is eternal life. Not in a step-by-step way: do this and this and this, and you will be holy, and you will be rewarded with eternal life. But this eternal life is a free gift of God in Jesus Christ. Death is the wages of sin, which is what you have earned, what you have deserved. Your bodies are now instruments of righteousness, not toward the God who gives you eternal life—what does He need with your righteousness? He’s got all He needs in Jesus. But the people around you, they need your righteousness. They, in their bodies, need what you can give them. God requires nothing of you for eternal life; the only thing that is required of you is love, given form and shape by the law and will of God (so that we don’t go around inventing our own good works). Don’t run away from your job, or your family, or your congregation, or your community; for now, at least, God has put you right here. How do you know? Because you’re here. And you only have to examine the Ten Commandments according to those relationships to know what God requires of your for the sake of those around you. Yes, the flesh is weak. But don’t go back to sin and death and let sin be king; if we allow the old Adam, the old sinner, to have free reign, to grow stronger and stronger, then baptism is not being used but resisted (Luther, LC). Use your baptism; live in its freedom. Use your body not for sin, but for righteousness. Use your body to serve the needs of others in their bodies. Because all these bodies are going to be raised. This is why Jesus does the things that He does; this is why He feeds the hungry; this is why He heals the sick; this is why He raises the dead; this is why He casts out demons. Because this is what life in the new creation in new bodies is going to look like: no sickness, no death, no demons, no poverty or hunger. So we also serve bodies in these bodies. Bodies matter to Jesus. He has one. So use your baptism, and return to it daily in confession of your sin, receiving again the forgiveness of Christ’s cross. The Christian life is nothing but a daily baptism, begun once and continuing ever after. Baptism is the only new beginning, but it is only the beginning. And Jesus will finish what He started.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/21/14