Text: Romans 5:20-6:14
Last September, my older sister and her family came out to visit Kelly and I over Labor Day weekend. It was good to see my sister and brother-in-law, but the real highlight was seeing my nephew Charlie. At the time he was only 1 1/2 years old, so his mastery of the english language was pretty limited! Charlie voiced every displeasure, and negative reaction by saying, “No way!”
We took Charlie to the beach on their visit, taking him down close to the water and the waves. And at first he seemed ok with it, until we set him down in the sand. The wind was blowing, the he started sinking in the sand, and the waves, while not that big, probably looked like a Tsunami to little Charlie. He didn’t like it, and he looked at us with this scared look on his face and said, “No way!” Despite our encouragement and giving him time to get used to the beach – the sand, the waves – Charlie got more desperate, and just kept pleading “No way!” “No way!” “No way!” as he reached out for his momma.
In our reading, Paul talks about while sin just seems to build and build in the world, the grace that comes in Jesus Christ covers all those sins and more – as sin increases, grace increases all the more. And if that’s how it works, then maybe we have an unlimited free license to just keep sinning, right? If he was here today, Paul would probably take a cue from Charlie and respond, “No way!”
Paul saw sin as a force that holds people captive, and it’s grace in Jesus Christ that sets us free from sin. In the ways that sin leads to a life of death and destruction to ourselves and others, faith in Jesus Christ leads us to “walk in newness of life.” We are raised to live a new life, free from our old ways of sin.
Now that’s good news. But is turning from a life of sin really that easy? Grace and new life in Christ often gets understood simplistically, in two ways. One, we make a commitment; we just turn form all those bad sins and habit we have, and simply go on living a new, better life. A life of faith is making a commitment to overcome or resist sin.
The other way is that new life in Christ is just one big, happy celebration. New life means eternal life…..a spot reserved in Heaven. And since we got that, there’s nothing to worry about in this life – all that sin, brokenness, suffering? It’s really not that bad, you have Heaven to look forward to, remember? Be optimistic; pretend like sin doesn’t really exist.
But I wonder if sin is something else. We find ourselves standing on the beach, the sand shifting and unstable underneath us, the wind blowing and the waves crashing in. We’re standing there on that beach and honestly, it’s terrifying and scares the daylights out of us. And so in our desperation we cry out – at first a weak confession like “I just have to have more faith” or “Jesus never gives us more than we can handle.” But the truth is we’re crying out in despair because we realize, no matter how hard we try, we can’t get ourselves off that beach, and we can’t simply pretend it doesn’t exist or that it’s not so terrifying.
That is the sin Paul is talking about in the reading today. That’s the sin that holds us captive – the brokenness and suffering and the horrors that come with being part of the human race in this world and in this life. Let me give you a couple examples: a teenage girl who struggles with her body image and develops an eating disorder. A military veteran who returns from combat, and feeling so disconnected from the “normal” world around him, falls into depression – post traumatic stress. The person who go through failed relationship after failed relationship because every time they experience a healthy, intimate relationship, the immediately push that person away.
Let me give you one more example.
I think I’ve told most of you, but for those of you who don’t know, I was adopted at 6 months old. According to my adoption documents, I was found by someone in a nearby bush near the adoption agency and placed in an orphanage from there, and the rest is pretty much history – I was adopted by my parents in Minnesota, and here I am today.
But as good as my life is, as many times as people have told me how blessed I am, how God must have had a plan for me – my grandmother always used to call me a “modern day Moses” – as many times people have said my birth mother must have really loved me to give me up for adoption, I can’t shake the feeling that somehow, I just got lucky. Because the truth is there were lots of babies in South Korea during that time that were left in bushes, on doorsteps, and who knows where else – because they were abandoned. Discarded. Unwanted. I can’t shake the feeling that my mom probably was a scared teenager – and I don’t blame her for this whatsoever – discarded me in that bush like a piece of trash, left for dead, and that I really shouldn’t be standing here before you today.
And that feeling comes up from time to time in my life – more than I care to admit. There are times I can’t shake or avoid that feeling that I was discarded, unwanted, abandoned, and that while I got lucky, I’m ultimately worthless and insignificant. No matter how hard I try, I can’t shake or avoid that moment at the very beginning of my existence, the force it is in my life today, and how it holds my life captive.
Paul talks about baptism in this reading today….and most of us look at baptism as a commitment ceremony, a display of the commitment we make to live for God, to be a Christian and live a life of faith. And others look at it as a celebration of life – eternal life we get because we’re saved in the waters of baptism. But both are pretty simplistic ways of understanding baptism. Baptism is more than that. Baptism is really about a death. Our death.
It’s about a death each and every one of us die. Whether we sprinkle water on someone’s head or completely immerse them, baptism is about God putting to death the sin that’s so enmeshed in our being, the sin that holds us captive. God puts to death the sin in us that breaks us and leaves us terrified, scared, and alone – the kind that leads to the diminishing and even the death perhaps – of our own lives. But it’s put to death so that by grace we might be freed, and by grace we are given a new life – life as a child of God, with infinite worth.
Martin Luther was fond of saying, “Remember your baptism.” And it’s not just a nice little Lutheran cliche we say. It’s a powerful statement that reminds me that when the sin that holds me captive – those feelings of worthlessness and abandonment – creeps in and terrifies me, there is a God who puts that to death. There is a God who beyond all my failures to put that moment in my life behind me who puts that to death, and raises me up and says that in the grace of Jesus Christ “I have claimed you, you are mine, you are precious in my sight, so go live and be free and remember that your life is a gift.” You’re freed by grace because your life is a GIFT.
What holds you captive? What really holds you captive? As you ponder that question this week, remember that there is a God who in the terror and brokenness and sin that hold you captive who by grace can put that to death. And by this wide and all consuming grace, God has claimed and freed you so that you might live and walk as a child of God. Amen.