Rev. Teri Peterson
Growing Into It
17 May 2015, Easter 7, NL1-37
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old humanity was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For the One who died has been freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness. For sin shall not be master over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
~~(NRSV, with translation corrections by JRD Kirk, Fuller Seminary professor)
For the past several weeks, it feels like everywhere I turn there is talk about a very small big thing. Well, not a thing, a very small big person.
The royal baby.
Two years ago we met His Royal Highness Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge…and this spring everyone has been wondering about his new sibling. When she was born, the excitement about a princess was bubbling…and the speculation about her name was out of control. There were people placing bets, websites publicizing their guesses, and probably two tired parents wishing they could just call her Mary like all the women in the Bible and be done with it. But a few days later the world was introduced to Her Royal Highness Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge, to great applause and wonder at their savvy in choosing names that were both traditional and had a little family flair.
Can you imagine growing up with all those titles and names? It feels like the name is almost longer than the baby. But she will grow into it, of course. As Charlotte Elizabeth Diana grows up, she will do all the things children do—cry, eat, crawl, walk, run, pull the dog’s tail, learn to read, pass notes in class, argue with her parents. Her titles don’t change the fact that she’ll be a kid who pushes the boundaries like they all do. Her august names don’t mean that she will always be a perfect angel. And at the same time, she will be learning about her namesakes, about her family history and the expectations for her future, about who she is and how that identity is reflected in her titles and names.
The whole thing—Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge—may feel unwieldy now. Heavy, even, if she knew what she was getting into. In some ways, she is not yet all that the name proclaims her to be…and yet in the most important ways, she is already everything her name proclaims her to be.
This is how Paul talks to us about baptism.
Because in our baptism we have died with Christ, Paul says, now we walk in newness of life. We are to present ourselves to God as those who are alive in Christ, as instruments of righteousness, as people under grace, not law. In baptism, we are given a new name, one that is a little too big, a bit unwieldy and maybe too heavy at first, but as we continue to live and practice Christ’s way, we grow into it. We become in life what we already are in Christ—alive, righteous, grace-filled.
Does the fact that we are already alive in Christ, who has claimed all of humanity out of the depths, mean that we will never do wrong, never make mistakes, never sin? No, of course not. Just as the royal Prince and Princess will still get into trouble like children do, we will also get into trouble as we grow into our identity. Sometimes we will work against God’s Spirit, sometimes we will hurt each other, sometimes we will harm God’s creation, sometimes we will sow discord rather than love. That does not change the fact that we are children of God, claimed by the Spirit, alive in Christ. In the words of our liturgy, “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.” We can keep on practicing the way of Christ, keep on growing into who we already are.
Paul anticipates the objections of those who cannot believe that God’s love is infinite, that forgiveness is as radical and all-encompassing as he is saying. The notion that God’s forgiveness and grace is all around us and within us, that we cannot earn it or lose it—even today they can be hard to swallow. So he asks: should we keep sinning in order to experience more grace? It seems the obvious answer—no need to even try to be Christlike. In fact, we should actually strive to be bad, because then there will be more evidence of forgiveness in our lives and in the world for people to see. Besides, if we can’t lose God’s grace by breaking the law, then why bother working so hard to keep it?
By no means!! Paul would probably have used all the exclamation points if he had them. How could we, who have experienced God’s unlimited grace, want to live as if it was not real? How could we, who have been buried with Christ and raised into new life, continue living the old life? It is incomprehensible. Those who have been given this new name will want to grow into it. Our life is our gratitude for all God has done. Because we are in Christ, sin has no power over us—which means that grace does. In Paul’s mind, these are the only two options. We are bound by and beholden to one or the other: sin, or grace. Since Christ has broken the power of sin, we can no longer be captive to it, which means we must instead be captive to grace.
It takes time to grow into this reality. The brokenness of humanity is sometimes more evident than God’s forgiveness. The temptation to work for our own gain at the expense of our neighbor is strong. The desire to ignore God and follow our own way sings in our ears. But we are not captive to sin. We will still be imperfect reflections of God’s image, because we are not God. But even a broken mirror reflects fragments of glory, and even we who are not God can act like who we are: beloved people of God, called to new life and righteousness and grace.
Sometimes it might feel like an act. We are to, in Paul’s words, “consider ourselves alive to Christ and dead to sin.” Sometimes it might take hard work to see ourselves and the world through Christ’s eyes. And while I don’t exactly want to buy into the old cliché of “fake it ‘til you make it”…there might be a little something to that. Because the more we act like disciples, the closer to Christ we walk. The more we seek God’s way, the more alive we become. The more we allow the Spirit to work in us, the more gracious we will be. The more we live as if the good news is true, the more the world is transformed into the kingdom of God. Along the way, as we practice life with God, we will become who we already are, who we are called to be.
It can be dangerous, this practicing life. During the conference I went to a few weeks ago, the leader gave us a Pilgrim Prayer that included the phrase “change me, bend me, break me, if need be.” We talked about what scary words those are, and that we should not pray them if we don’t mean it. I was reminded of the hymn where we invite God to melt us, mold us, fill us, use us…words we shouldn’t sing if we aren’t willing to be melted and molded, words we shouldn’t pray if we aren’t willing to be changed or broken. And yet…that is how we grow into who God created us to be.
To practice resurrection is to consider ourselves alive to Christ and dead to sin. It is to know that in baptism we have not only been welcomed into a church family, not only marked with the seal of the Spirit, not only experienced the symbol of God’s amazing grace: we have joined the rest of humanity in being buried with Christ, the One who died for all…and then being raised with him, breaking the power of sin and death and proclaiming the good news that God is love, and God’s love is stronger than the worst we humans can do. This good news, this new name we are given, is so big that it will take some growing into. Sometimes we will stumble, or wander away, or forget who we are. To practice resurrection is to not only believe the good news, but to keep coming back to live it: in Jesus Christ, we are forgiven, loved, and free.
Thanks be to God.