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The New Me

Date: June 2, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey
Baptism of Christ, painted by Stephen Achugwo

Scripture: Romans 6:1-14

Scripture Reader: Chuck L.

At one point in my life I watched a lot of “makeover” shows. Before makeover shows, they were regular features in magazines, especially those aimed toward women and teenage girls. I’m sort of over it now—I haven’t even looked at the Queer Eye reboot on Netflix, even though I used to love the original—but there are probably folks who still enjoy them. Maybe there are even makeover videos out there, on YouTube or someplace; but I’m not interested enough to go look.

What’s the appeal of these shows, these articles, these videos?

Maybe we are looking, like my parents are when they watch those “Judge So-and-So” shows or Live P.D., for a self-esteem boost. “Thank God I’m not like that woman standing in front of Judge Joe Brown, suing my sister because she borrowed my favorite hat and ruined it.” “I’m not on camera getting busted for driving a golfcart drunk; I must be okay.” “I know I have the fashion sense of a hippopotamus in a tutu, but hey, nobody’s sent my name and embarrassing pictures in to What Not to Wear.”

That was one of my favorite shows when it was on. I was thrilled once to see Clinton and Stacey giving a young woman pastor a makeover—I got to see how a woman can be stylish and have a fun wardrobe, but still present herself professionally in a role that a lot of folks still see as the realm of only men.

But thank God nobody sent my name in! At that time my wardrobe for every day but Sunday was straight out of mid-’90s grunge: jeans, t-shirt, flannel shirt, Doc Martens—I looked more like I’d aged out of Pearl Jam groupie-dom than like I had a master’s degree and an ordination. But I wasn’t on What Not to Wear, so it’s all good, right?

Or maybe we watch to get ideas. Not everybody who got a makeover on that show was young and cute, with a perfect figure. There were plenty of folks who were heavy, or older, or had figure flaws they were hiding in the wrong way. You might see someone who had similar body issues or body-image issues, or who was trying to dress for a profession similar to yours; and maybe you’d come away with a sense that if they could figure out how to look better, then surely you could, too.

Whatever the reason, these kinds of shows and articles and such have always been quite popular. I think we like the idea that somebody can “fix” us, make us better than we are. And there is some satisfaction in seeing the “reveal” at the end—seeing a dramatic change that happened in the space of a one-hour tv show or two-page magazine article.

This passage from Romans 6 is part of his much longer discussion about the relationships of sin, grace, and law in the Christian life. He begins by setting up sort of a straw man that he can knock down. “Well, if we’re justified by grace, shouldn’t we just keep sinning so God will have plenty more chances to give us grace?”

Frankly it’s a silly question, and Paul knows it.

We tend to see Paul’s letters and the letter of James as sort of opponents of one another—Martin Luther certainly did when he called James “an epistle of straw,” too focused on law and not enough on grace. But they’re not nearly as far apart as we often imagine.

Yes, Paul is big on grace. Paul teaches that we cannot earn our reconciliation to God, the restoration of the relationship that was broken through the disobedience of Adam and Eve clear back in the opening chapters of the Bible. We are justified (or saved, or reconciled, or whatever word you prefer) by grace—by a gift God gives us that we neither deserve nor have the ability to get for ourselves. That grace comes through faith in Christ—or, as I’ve said before, in an alternate translation, through the faithfulness of Christ.

Some scholars think the reason Paul speaks this way about salvation by grace is because it’s what he understands as having happened to him. Paul’s first appearance in the Bible comes in Acts 7, where he is holding the coats of the people who stoned the deacon Stephen to death. He fought hard against the Jesus movement, what Acts initially calls “the Way,” traveling from place to place to look for Christians to chain up and take to Jerusalem for trial.

But on one of those trips, Paul meets Jesus in a blinding light, and Jesus tells him he’s been chosen to tell the Gentiles the good news about him.[1] He hadn’t done anything to earn this calling. As a matter of fact, he had done a lot to prove himself unworthy of it. He isn’t told he has to do any penance, doesn’t have to fast or offer sacrifices or wear a hairshirt or anything. Jesus just says, “Get up and go.”

And from that moment on Paul was a different man. It was as dramatic a reveal as any that was ever seen on What Not to Wear. So when he starts talking about justification by grace, he speaks from his own experience.

After his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road, Paul is baptized, and then begins to preach—but a lot of other Christians didn’t trust him! You can sort of understand why not, I think: If the last time you saw someone, he was trying to kill you because of your beliefs, and then he shows up preaching the very same thing he previously wanted to kill you for, how would you react?

But Paul was a changed man. And so when he talks about life in Christ, he assumes that a similar change will be evident in our lives, too.
He’s not all that far from James—James is basically where Paul goes whenever you see a “Therefore” in one of his letters. This theology is all well and good, but like James, Paul believes it should make a difference in how we act.

I don’t know to what extent it’s true here, but I know that in my former community in Iowa, it was sort of standard operating procedure that when a person was baptized, they would get dressed in new clothes after they came up out of the water. That may have just been a local thing—I don’t remember it happening when I was baptized 40 years ago in Kansas—and the parents who get those new clothes for their kids to put on that day may not realize it, but this practice has very ancient roots.

In the early church, people were oftentimes baptized naked. (I for one am very glad that particular custom has not continued!) And when they came out of the water, they were given a new, white robe to wear.

In our Scripture reading for today Paul explains the symbolism.

If I were to ask you what the meaning of baptism is, what would you say? Would you say it’s like the ritual baths required by Jewish custom, which symbolically washes off sin and impurity? (If you would say that baptism means having your sins washed away, that’s what you’re saying.) Would you say that it’s an initiation into a community, the moment when we officially become part of the church? Would you say that it’s a symbolic death and burial—so, in a way, we die and are buried as Christ died and was buried, and then are raised into new life?

It’s fair to say that all of the above are true. But in Romans 6, Paul focuses on baptism as a sharing in Christ’s death, and preparing to share in Christ’s resurrection. What is put to death in baptism is our old, sinful self—what Paul often calls the flesh—the part of us that rebels against God and is, frankly, not capable of escaping the grip of sin on its own. (Paul doesn’t, as I think I mentioned two weeks ago, think of sin simply as the bad things individuals do or the good things we fail to do. He sees sin as a force opposed to God’s will, and quite capable of enslaving people and groups of people.) That “me” goes down into the water and is put to death, and the “me” that comes back up is totally different, totally new. It’s another “reveal,” like on the makeover shows.

With this in mind, we go back to the question where Paul began this morning: “Should we continue to sin in order that grace may abound?” It’s not just a silly question, Paul answers; it’s complete nonsense. With the old me dead and buried in the water of baptism, sin no longer has me in its grip. I can now choose what I couldn’t choose before: not to sin. The very idea of choosing to sin, for any reason, even to receive more of God’s grace, runs counter to everything Paul understands about the meaning of baptism.

Does that mean we’re never going to sin again?

Unfortunately, that question is as silly as the one Paul asked in verse 1. Yes, we will sin again. The difference is that now it isn’t inevitable—and now, when we sin, we can recognize what went wrong, confess our sins to God because we’re already assured of forgiveness, and choose a better path next time.

And we no longer have to find and choose that better path by ourselves; we are no longer groping in the dark, because the Holy Spirit is there to strengthen us and guide us. That’s where we’ll be going next week, on Pentecost, when we finish this quick dip into Romans.

[1] See Acts 9.