There is a place in my mind where I go when things don’t match up between how I think they should be and how they really are . It’s a big room with a wall solidly constructed of old red brick, though there are bits of mortar missing here and there. In the center of that wall is a splotch, a stain where I have repeatedly hit my head against the wall, until I allow God’s word, his reality, to reign. There is a reality that I deny on a regular basis on various issues. I can either make up my own reality and pretend it’s real, or I can follow God’s lead, accept true reality and be rewarded for it. It is in this sense that Paul speaks to the Romans. It is in this sense that he speaks to us today.
Paul, who had held the clothes for those stoning Stephen, had been born anew. He was transformed into a defender of the faith and an Apostle. In the beginning of Romans, Chapter 6 he explains that disciples must share in Jesus’s death and resurrection. In fact, he says, we are baptized into his death and are united to him in his resurrection.
Paul strengthens his argument through a series of questions and answers. Taking the questions asked by the people, he reframes them, outlining the process God uses to make us holy. In the second half of the chapter, he turns to a context that many of the people of the time would have been able to identify with, slavery. There are two things worth exploring about Paul’s analogy: one of power and one of perspective.
First, one of power…
I remember my first day at West Point. It is fitting, because the class of 2021 will start tomorrow (Part of a sermon delivered July 2, 2017 to Church of the Resurrection in Odessa, Florida). We were picked up by bus from Michie Stadium, leaving family and friends that morning, and by the afternoon, we were marching as New Cadets.
Each of the candidates had made a choice to submit to a new way of life and surrendered his or her independence to a cadre of people who before that day they did not know. At the end, if they submitted themselves to the process, they gained in military prowess, becoming full cadets, and eventually regular Army officers.
Not the same, you say? Perhaps I am reaching? Paul tells the Romans, “Be obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.” Hear me out...
The cadre make each incoming man or woman change into black socks and military dress shoes, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt. Hanging from the shorts is a checklist of things that must be completed.
Every newcomer is in a place that he or she has never been before, not allowed to speak to anyone unless spoken to and ordered to go from place to place to pick up supplies, learn how to march and salute and prepare for the afternoon parade. I can still hear it: “Report to the cadet in the red sash!”
You can do it your own way, but that leads to failure at best and possible death at worst, when you take into account the lethal nature of the weapons handled and the inherent danger of training such as jumping out of airplanes or rappelling from helicopters. Or you can do it their way.
Many times you do not understand the why of things. It is difficult. It requires a lot of effort, but at some point, you begin to realize that things have changed, that you are not the same person that you were when you started.
In a sense, an external power invested time and effort on you as an individual, and the result is a new person as seen by the fruit. You walk and hold yourself differently. You handle stress in a new way, and you have a military bearing where before there was none. You have been entrusted to a teaching and been transformed.
The second part of Paul’s analogy is one of perspective…
In the previous example, we concentrated on the power of the transformation. That transformation required our participation, but the actual changes were wrought from outside of ourselves. And even though we had made the initial commitment to the process, it took a minute-by-minute recommitment to complete it.
This is where the analogy breaks down. It is also where we have the most difficulty following Paul’s argument. People often hold those who have completed a challenging process in high regard, as if the individual had a superior will or an unmatched intellect.
The Jews in Rome felt that they were free from Paul’s discourse. They were sure that they were God’s people because of birthright. Christians often seem to have the same attitude toward the lost today, not so much that it is a birthright, but that there is some superiority in already knowing Him. But we miss the key portion of Paul’s message.
Human effort without God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, leads only to death. Jesus’s death and resurrection break the bonds of sin and allow us to reconnect with God, but we still don’t have the power to save ourselves.
Our obedience leads to righteousness, not to eternal life. Eternal life is a free gift from God, a gift offered to all. The focus is on His efforts, not our own.
There is absolutely no reason for pride as if we have picked ourselves up by our boot straps. We know it intellectually, but we can’t seem to help ourselves; we judge those who fall short of our expectations.
It is only when we recognize our reliance and complete dependence on Him that the “they” becomes a “we”. The wages of sin are death. We earn death. But eternal life, we are freely given.