It’s Epiphany now and, in the Church Year as we observe it, that means we’re into that space where God is revealing to us Jesus Christ, who was born in Bethlehem. We’re looking at the life of Christ and, as our theme says, we’re moving From the River to the Mountain – two geographical features as points on a map that measures out the life of Jesus Christ. Pastor Free said to you this morning, “It Begins with Baptism…”
In this season perhaps we should ask, “What begins?” Is it the life of Christ that begins? Probably not. We’ve noted that already at Christmas. Instead, it’s the work of Christ that begins. As Mark’s gospel relayed it, John was on the scene baptizing, but he wasn’t the guy. He was pointing ahead to someone “more powerful”, who was so royal John wasn’t worthy to be his footman. Still, powerful Jesus insisted on receiving a washing called baptism that normal people like us receive. But, when that powerful Jesus came up out of baptism’s waters, as you heard, God’s approval of his work was supernatural. God’s voice broke into human space, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
And it will be that way throughout the earthly journey of Jesus’ work from his baptism in the River Jordan until he reaches the mountain of Transfiguration when God says the same thing again. To paraphrase one of our own sainted theologians, Jesus’ work is meant to be that kind of duality – earthly and heavenly – on the one hand so common and meant to be connected to your work and lives, but also so perfect, so pleasing to God, so everything we cannot be that his work will take him to places only he can go and where we ought to watch in holy adoration from a distance. But not just yet. In this now, this morning, as Jesus’ work begins, we get in close…
Particularly because St. Paul is talking about how you closely identify with Jesus’ work and with Jesus himself. As Jesus is baptized, St. Paul’s words remind of our own baptism and its connection with the work of Jesus Christ – that, actually, who he is and what he does has shaped who we are… Just so: we have been baptized into new life.
This is the way Paul’s been talking in Romans – about the perfect work of Christ and how powerful it is. In Romans 5, he’s been saying things like, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (5:6–8) And the significance of that work, (5:9-11) our relationship with God is good because we’ve been declared “not guilty” of our own sins. And God calls us pleasing to himself (5:18-19) and puts our hearts at rest in peace with him. (5:1) Because, for however much sin increased, God’s grace increased more and more. Paul might say in our lives it’s grace, grace, grace.
Which is how Paul asks the kind of logical question we ask in our own lives – for various reasons, “Well, if sin increased and brought more grace, more grace, more grace — God’s love was poured out because of sin, perhaps? — then, do we keep on sinning so more grace can be?” Even if you think that’s a silly question, it’s a valid question. Because, even if you don’t theologically ask it, you practically ask what to say and do all the time. Because your life is not like Jesus Christ’s identically – your holiness and mine has not ever reached heaven rending levels… Instead, we struggle with sins. We have real lives, with weak relationships and resolutions that die in week one. We live in a tempting world, where we recognize there’s often a choice – do I do the sinning here or not? If we ask it, we ask it in a way more like, “Who am I?”
So, Paul reminds in Romans 6 who you are – that’s not you, that’s not your life, that “should I sin” sort of thing. No, you have been baptized into new life – one that is just like Christ’s life. And, Paul makes beautiful, logical statements in this section, words that encompass our lives in grace, peace, and joy. But I think they can be summarized in two beautiful pictures.
First, we’re united with Christ. The word’s in v.5 – “For if we have been united with him…” Don’t think about anything else for a moment except that word – and that word united in this way: literally, it means “grow together”. And the Lutheran theologian, George Stoeckhardt, translated it like this: “we are entwined with…” Christ.
There’s the beautiful picture… If you’ve ever seen the Wisteria plant – which grows here in Wisconsin – you might understand. It’s an entwining vine. It’s not like kudzu – that all-over destroyer. This one blossoms in beautiful purple cascades as it grows up around fences and trees and other plants in a beautiful symbiosis… It’s pleasant. Just like your life as Christians. Just like that vine, you’ve grown up together with Christ, your life is entwined with his… So much that you don’t so much say, “Here Christ ends and I begin,” but more, “as it happened to Jesus, so it is with me.” Just like that wisteria plant growing on the fence, that is who you are, so entwined with Christ – what’s happened to him has happened to you. Like so…
Keep it simple: Christ was baptized in the river and began his work of living under God’s law, dying for sins, and finally rising to life again. And, of course, he did not do that for himself but for you. So Paul says to you who are baptized. When someone sluiced water over you in God’s Father-Son-Spirit name and God called you his own in baptism, though it was probably a long time ago, it means now (v.4) that you aren’t living in sin but in a new life – just like Christ. Entwined with him you are – he died, you died with him, he was buried fully dead and that much dead you were too, he was raised and so were you – fully alive to a brand new life. But with daily operating meaning pictured this way: you’re set free.
Track it through these verses: v.5 – if you’re united with Christ like this – he died, you died, he rose, you rose – this is actually what you know… v.6 – this sinful body we’ve each got, it and all its temptations has been not “done away with” really but “made powerless” – it doesn’t hold control over you; you are not a slave – no sin-master controls you – v.7 you died when Christ died – and somebody who’s died “has been set free from sin”.
The sense of what Paul says is that thing we say when our loved ones die – about disease and slow diminishment and weakness and pain – “Now they’re free of all this…” The word Paul used is “justified” from sin – which usually means “not guilty of”. But sometimes we say it in regard to sins, though, don’t we? Say – as a couple have in the last weeks – if they’re dying of alzheimers or something else and in their weakness they say all kinds of nasty things to us, we might finally say when they die, “Now they’re free of all that.” And, as Christians, we mean that all that sin doesn’t stick to them – it isn’t any longer a temptation, not a complication – they’ve died. Even more, we might say, it’s not even a mark on their record…
Did you hear Paul talk about your record this morning? Almost in a way like, if you’re doing the checkbook – looking over the online or the paper record and you can see all the transactions, the finances – you have an objective picture of things. And, actually, no matter how you feel about the finances, the real numbers tell the story — hopefully a good one. It’s a good story God tells about you. V.11 – “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Your account reckoning says that you are dead to sins – the ones you’ve done, the ones that tempt you, the ones that will – they do not characterize your life. Those died – paid – when Christ died – and in baptism you died with him and you died to them. They got nothing on you; they aren’t even on your record. What story does your account tell? You’re living – for all the things that matter – toward God – concerned about what he loves, forgiven of your sins, filled with his glory, empowered by his Spirit – in his abundant grace to live with Christ, you’re set free…
That’s what this portion of our church’s year is actually for. From this first stop at the river all the way to the mountain, down into Lent and his cross, and finally in Easter resurrection. As we watch the holy work that only Jesus can do, know that he’s not far removed but united with you; his saving work sets you free. At Jesus’ baptism, remember that you are baptized into new life. One in which God considers you sons and daughters he loves, with whom he is well pleased.