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Paul and the Victory of the Cross
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PART 5 OF “THE MESSAGE OF THE CROSS”

ROMANS 6:1-14

lent series titleSo far in this series, we’ve been looking at the cross and the meaning of Jesus’ death through the lens of history and the message of the whole Bible. In the first sermon, we looked at the scandalous nature of crucifixion in the ancient world and, in the second, we talked about how the method of Jesus’ death was commensurate with the human condition under sin. In the third sermon, we looked at how the cross and resurrection of Jesus are the climax of the larger story of the Old Testament and, last week, we looked at how the life and death of Jesus not only fulfill the promise of that story, but also provide the shape of the new humanity that is possible because of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

 

That brings us to the point in the biblical text that draws all of these themes together into what we might call a “theology” of the cross, and for that theology we turn to the one who gives us the most comprehensive summary—the one with whom generations of Christians, theologians, and scholars have had to reckon in order to understand the message of the gospel. We have to turn to the apostle Paul.

 

Who was Paul? He was originally named Saul, a very Jewish name for a very Jewish young man. He was raised in Tarsus, on the southern coast of modern day Turkey. While Tarsus was the place of residence for a community of diaspora Jews, it was also a center for Greek philosophy.

 

We learn later that Saul was born a Roman citizen, probably because his father was a merchant and either was born into or bought citizenship (an important identity in the empire). But he was raised as a Pharisaic Jew in a family zealous for the law of God. So zealous was the family that they sent young Saul to Jerusalem to study under the rabbi Gamaliel, who taught him that strict obedience to the law of Moses was the means by which God’s kingdom, God’s reign and rule, would come to reality.

 

As he grew into a young man, Saul parted with the “live and let live” philosophy of his rabbi teacher and became radicalized. He became so zealous that he approved of the stoning and death of a member of a new sect of Jews that had arisen—a sect known as “The Way.” Saul believed that these Jews had gone astray by saying that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, had been raised from the dead and was Israel’s true Messiah and the world’s true Lord. To Saul’s way of thinking, this was unacceptable and was causing Jews to move away from the teachings of the law. Everything possible had to be done to stamp out this movement that would impede the plan of God, which Saul and his friends saw as being fulfilled through zealous attention to the law. Saul eagerly agreed to be one of the Pharisees who would bring these wayward Jews into line, even if that meant violence and death.

 

On the way to Damascus, however, where he planned an attack on one of these renegade Jewish cells, something happened that changed everything. The risen Christ encountered Saul on the Damascus road. The one whose people he had come to destroy stood before him and called him to walk a different path. In that moment, and in the days that followed, Saul began to believe that the plan he and his friends had anticipated had actually been fulfilled in a way they could not have imagined—he began to believe in Jesus as the crucified and resurrected Messiah and Lord.

 

It’s hard to imagine Jesus choosing anyone more appropriate to be what amounted to the 13th apostle. Saul was a Jew who understood the law and the prophets backwards and forwards. As one commentator says, it seems that the young Saul had “swallowed the Bible whole.” He had all the Jewish street cred one could imagine. But he also understood how the Roman world worked—its cultures and customs and worldview. He would have been exposed to it in Tarsus and that exposure would enable him to become an apostle to the Gentiles as well as speak to his fellow Jews about how God’s plan for the world had come together in Jesus the Christ.

 

Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road altered the trajectory of his life. It altered his worldview, his understanding of the Scriptures; it caused him to take on a new name, “Paul” which in Greek means “small or little;” and it sent him on journey to proclaim a new message—the “gospel” or the “good news” about Jesus—for the rest of his life; a message that would even result in his death, which he saw as an association with his crucified Lord.

 

What was the gospel that Paul preached and taught? Well, we first have to begin with the caricatures of the gospel that many people have lifted up over the years. First, Paul wasn’t going around the ancient world telling people how to be nice to each other. There were plenty of ethicists doing that and they didn’t wind up in jail. Second, Paul was not traveling around giving people the message of how their souls could go to heaven when they died. The Greco-Roman world already had philosophers who had done that, famous ones like Plato and Plutarch. Again, no one would have given that much thought and certainly wouldn’t have had someone beaten for saying what many if not most people already believed.

 

And neither was Paul preaching a new religion called “Christianity.” To read Paul that way is to miss the point. Paul was a Jew and he saw everything through the lens of Judaism. No, Paul was going around the ancient world proclaiming the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham—a promise given to redeem the whole world, including humanity and all of creation, from slavery to sin and death. Jesus was Israel’s promised Messiah and the world’s true Lord, and in his death and resurrection ushered in a new age and a new world order, a promised king to which all the other kingdoms of the earth will bow down.

 

This is the message that Paul preached and it’s the message that got him in trouble. As we said in the first sermon in the series, both Jews and Gentiles would have found it offensive to lift up a crucified man as an object of worship. Jews would be shocked at the idea of a crucified Messiah and the Romans suspicious of anyone being Lord other than Caesar. Paul’s proclamation of the gospel was thus a monumental task.

 

But it was also a gospel that began to impact people and drew them together, both Jew and Gentile, into the kind of new humanity that God had promised. Wherever Paul went, these communities began to spring up and flourish. But they also struggled to live in this new reality. Old patterns began to emerge, misunderstandings were frequent, false gospels abounded. So Paul dedicated significant time to writing letters to these communities to instruct them and to build them up. It’s through these letters (which are a lot like listening to one side of a phone conversation) that we get a glimpse of the message Paul was preaching and how that message of the cross began to shape the church. It’s the message that, if we recapture it in its fullness, can reshape the church today beyond.

 

If we were to pick one theme from Paul’s letters to focus on, however, it would be moving from one sort of humanity—the broken humanity enslaved by sin and death—to a new humanity in which we become a new family, the Messiah’s people. That new humanity is the focus of what is arguably Paul’s most comprehensive and sophisticated letter—the letter to the Romans. I hope you had a chance to read through it again this week. Here we saw Paul drawing together all the themes we’ve been talking about—sin, covenant, cross, resurrection, and new creation. We don’t have time to do a thorough analysis of Romans this morning (it’s actually easier to preach the whole Old Testament in 30 minutes than to do so with Paul!). Paul is a deep thinker and his theology resists what many have tried to do with it—tie it up in a nice bow by carving out a few verses. But that will not do. We need to see Paul’s thought as a part of a much larger story with a much more rich theology and anthropology—how we become the people God now and how we live the new creation.

 

All of that theology is caught up in the sacraments of baptism and communion. We have talked about how our other sacrament, communion, is a constant remembering of the new covenant God fulfilled in the blood of Christ. That is an ongoing sacrament, an ongoing reminder. Baptism, our other sacrament, is a one-time event—why? Because it marks us as being part of God’s new humanity. Romans 6 and, indeed, the whole letter, is about how God brings together Jews and Gentiles into a new family where the old markers of circumcision or genealogy don’t matter anymore. What matters is that we are now newborn, adopted children of God—we’ve been given a brand new life.

 

In verses 1-4, Paul shoots down a rhetorical argument. Hey, so, since God has done all this for us, since we’ve received this grace, does that mean we can go on sinning because Jesus dealt with our sins once and for all? No way, says Paul! Christ has set you free from sin, why would you go back to that old life? Indeed, when you were “baptized into Christ” your old self died with him and a new person emerged. Just as the crucified Christ was raised from the dead, so you, too, have been raised to walk in newness of life.

 

Paul is echoing the Exodus story here. In Genesis 15, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago, God told Abraham that his family would be slaves in Egypt, but that God would liberate them from that slavery. We know how that story goes—they escape through the Red Sea, through water, and to freedom, all by the hand of God. And now, Paul says, since you are one of God’s covenant people through justification by faith, you, too, have been delivered from slavery to sin and death, brought through the waters of baptism and into new life. The old life, Adam’s life, is dead in you—it died with Christ on the cross. But on the other side of the water is life—Jesus’ life, resurrection life. So, Paul says, in 6:11, “you must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ.”

 

If we’ve been baptized, if we’ve been justified, we must no longer (v. 12) “let sin exercise dominion in [our] mortal bodies,” nor should we “present [our] members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life.” In other words, don’t go back to Egypt! In Christ, you have taken the wilderness road out of there, through the water, and to freedom! Indeed, Paul says, in 6:15-23, you are no longer slaves to sin but “slaves of righteousness” (v. 18). And (v. 22) now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification—holiness, a renewed life. And it’s not just the life you will live after you die (indeed Paul says nothing about that here)—it’s the life we are intended to live in the present

 

It seems counterintuitive—freedom from sin through slavery to God, but as E. Stanley Jones once pointed out, “the first thing in life is to obey, to find something, or rather Someone, to whom you can give your final and absolute allegiance.” We call that allegiance “faith”—we put our whole trust and confidence in the one who brought us out of slavery to Sin and now makes us into the servants, the priests of God we were meant to be from the beginning.

 

In other words, we who have been baptized are to live out the victory of the cross. Sin must no longer have dominion over us—only God does; the God who died for us that we might live for him. If you are in Christ, you are part of the new creation; you are a new person and part of a new family. And so, Paul goes on to say in Romans 12, you should be “transformed by the renewing of your minds, which is your spiritual act of worship.” The transformation of baptism alters the trajectory of our lives and enables us to give our true worship to the only one who deserves it—the God who made us and gave himself for us.

 

I was digging around in my office at home this week, looking for Rob’s birth certificate so that he could apply for a new passport, and I came across my baptismal certificate. I was baptized on September 13, 1964 at the tiny Presbyterian Church in Tunnelton, PA—my grandparents’ church. The elder who held me at my baptism was my great uncle Joe, and the other witnesses were Alice Long (who became my Sunday School teacher when I spent time there in the summers) and Nathaniel Nesbitt, who was old enough to have had a father who served in the Civil War.

 

When I looked at the certificate, however, I noticed that they put down the wrong birthdate for me. I was actually born in 1963, but the certificate says 1964 (though I wouldn’t mind being a year younger). My baptism, however, was September 13, 1964, which means, according to the certificate, that I was actually baptized before I was born.

 

Now, having lived in Utah for seven years, I’m familiar with the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead. But baptizing in advance of birth? Well, that would be presumptuous, wouldn’t it?

 

Of course, biblically and liturgically speaking, baptism is only for the living—for those who are able to show up and go under the water, whether they are 9 months or 90 years old. But as I thought about this, I came to realize that while we get baptized later, the life that God has intended for us—and for all of humanity—from the beginning, is the baptized life—a life that reflects the image of God and God’s purposes in the world. It’s the kind of life that the writer of Psalm 139 wrote about when he said to God:

 

“You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made… My fame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret… your eyes beheld my unformed substance.” A similar view is expressed by God to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrate you” (Jer. 1:5). Point is that God has a way of life in mind for us—a way of being in the world. It’s that way that we read about a couple of weeks ago in Genesis 1. We were created in God’s image to reflect his glory and to be his representatives and stewards on the earth (Genesis 1:26-27). That’s our human purpose, even before we’re born. It’s the purpose made possible by the cross.

 

As I look at my baptismal certificate, I’m reminded that this way of life is what God has had in mind for me—indeed, for all of us, even before we were born—a life of reconciliation, a life of assurance, a life of suffering love, a life with Jesus’ people. No other life will do. Oh, there are times when it’s tempting to go back to Egypt—in fact I’ve been tempted to cross over many times in my life. But the only way to live is the way God created me for—a life that reflects his image. That’s the life all of are meant for.

 

How about you? In our baptismal liturgy, there’s a provision to “remember your baptism.” Occasionally, someone comes to me wanting to be re-baptized. One guy said it was because “it didn’t take the first time.” Well, whose fault was that? But even while we are sometimes looking back to Egypt, God is still calling us forward—to remember that we came through the water, and because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we are free to be the people whom God created us to be.

 

The apostle Paul would spend the rest of his life telling people how they, too, could be free. What the world saw as a scandal and a horrific death played out by a man on a cross, Paul saw as the beginning of a whole new world—a world in which the forces of sin and evil have been defeated. No amount of jail time or number of beatings could keep him from proclaiming that good news—the news that the world’s true Lord was a crucified Jew who had won the ultimate victory.

 

So we end with an admonition from Paul and a reminder of all that God has done for us: Thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Jesus Christ!



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