Frankenstein’s Requiem: A Sermon on Romans 6:1-11

Introduction

I’d like to open with a quote from one of my favorite theologians, Eberhard Jüngle,

“That Jesus Christ was made sin for us by God means that the destruere et in nihilum redigere [to destroy/demolish/tear down and to reduce/drive back/render into nothing/ness] which is enacted in and with our sin is revealed in Jesus Christ, as he and he alone dies the accursed death which we live. Jesus’ death on the cross is grace, since it reveals that in the midst of life we are in death. He makes manifest the nothingness which the sinner celebrates under the illusory appearance of being. Or at least Jesus’ death on the cross reveals this when we allow it to speak for itself (that is, according to the law).” Eberhard Jüngel[1]

The best way for me to explain what Jüngel is saying is: apart from Christ we are the walking dead. I think Paul in Romans 6:1-11 is saying something similar (and lucky you, that’s the passage we’ll be looking at this morning). St. Paul writes, “Therefore we were buried with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, in this manner we also might walk in newness of life” (v.4; translation mine). If we are in Christ as the living, walking in the newness of life, then apart from Christ we are the dead, but yet we move and exist in this state, thus, we’re the walking dead. Yes, we’re essentially zombies apart from Christ.

Let me quote Jüngel once more here,

“For part of human actuality is our striving to realize ourselves and thus to determine our own being through our own achievements. Expressed in biblical terms, the whole of our life-context is qualified by the reality of sin, which does not just simply make the human person bad—that would be the moralistic understanding of sin!—but rather which exposes human persons to the illusion that they can make themselves good.”[2]

While I think the image of zombies is a good one, I have to confess: I think our state apart from Christ, apart from the event of justification is actually far worse than merely a zombie existence. It’s a sham existence. Let’s be clear, in no way shape or form are zombies giving any thought about making themselves good, and they are certainly not trying to strive to realize themselves through their own achievements. They are the dead, the barely animated, they just act from a primal, base, neurological response from the bottom of the brain-stem.

We, on the other hand, are worse off because we are actively trying to self-realize (striving to do so), to make ourselves good. A better image maybe be: we’re hack humans, random parts thrown and sewn together, products of the scientist Frankenstein gone mad who is locked in our minds, who is each of us. Apart from Christ and on our own, we stumble about, alone, turned inward, bent on our own justification.

What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1-4)

Paul begins chapter 6 in the book of Romans by asking a question, “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?” (v.1b). In other words, should we desire to do evil in a way that causes grace to abound? And before anyone gets the chance to reply, Paul answers his own question, “By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” (v.2). Very literally, the Greek here means: hell no; absolutely, positively not; in no way shape or form is this a plausible thought; never, ever, ever think this.

Paul has such a strong response to the question, because, as Martin Luther writes, “…this idea [desiring to do evil to make grace abound] is absolutely contrary to the work of grace”.[3] God’s grace given to us by the power of the Holy Spirit by faith (also a gift) doesn’t manifest itself in our lives as that which desires to do evil; rather its presence brings about the opposite. For Paul, that which participates in the realm of death has no business meddling in the realm of life.[4] And if we’re taking the Easter story seriously, which I believe we should, then those of us who are Christ’s own by faith and who have received God’s grace are the resurrected thus the living and the living aren’t dead.

It’s simple logic, but let it sit in.

Not only does Paul give a fixed “Ah, hell no!” to his question, he furthers the intensity of his response with a “how”, a “how” that is a densely packed argument that illuminates that the train of thought—that we should continue in desiring to do evil in order for grace to abound—doesn’t have an engine. Paul’s argument: that thing that you’ve died to and have been resurrected from you can never go back to because your resurrection in Christ has defeated it, returning is an impossibility.

Also, nothing we do makes grace abound; we weren’t the ones who caused it or brought it in the first place. Grace, divine grace, is strictly divine territory. When it comes to making grace abound, He got this.

But before I move on, I want to add that Paul isn’t arguing that now as Christians we are never sinning or are without sin, that would be a lie (1 John 1:8, “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us”). “We,” according to St. Augustine, “…are in sin until the end of our life…‘Until our body is raised to life and death is swallowed up in victory, our evil desires will afflict us’.”[5] There is always the war that wages between that which we desire to do (the good) and that which we do do (the evil). The brilliant aspect of the divine deposit of faith and the Holy Spirit lies in the shift in our desires; in Christ, we now desire to do the good although we still do evil. Paul will drive this point home (in a number of places) but specifically in the very next chapter in the book of Romans, chapter 7, when he writes,

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. retched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (vv.15, 21-24).

Jesus himself says, “‘…the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak’” (Mt 26:41b; also, Mk 14:38b). The desire to do good should not be brushed off, counted as nothing, for here in this desire of the spirit to do good by the Spirit is where good works are born.

And we can have assurance of this spiritual deposit because, as Paul says vv.3-4, returning to our text in Romans 6,

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Luther writes, “…the threefold dipping of Baptism signifies the three-day death period and the burial of Christ, into Christ Jesus, that is, by faith in Christ Jesus, were baptized into His death, that is through the merit and power of his death”.[6] This is why baptism is tantamount for Luther, this is why throughout his life he returns to his baptism (recalls it) in times of trial because in this simple act, what seems like a simple act, is the outward sign of an inward reality: we have died with Christ and in dying with Christ we are raised with Him; as He dies we die, and as he lives we live. In baptism, in this death,

“is the death of sin and the death of death, by which the soul is released and separated from sin and the body is separated form corruption and through grace and glory is joined to the living God.…For to this kind of death alone belong in an absolute and perfect way the conditions of death, and in this death alone whatever dies perishes totally and into eternal nothingness, and nothing will ever return from this death because it truly dies an eternal death. This is the way sin dies; and likewise the sinner, when he is justified, because sin will not return again for all eternity, as the apostle says here, ‘Christ will never die again’”[7]

This is Luther’s way of explaining the “destruere et in nihilum redigere” mentioned by Jüngle at the beginning of the sermon. What occurs in our baptism, what occurs by faith, what occurs by Christ’s advent and death and resurrection is the destruction, the demolishing, the tearing down and the reducing and driving back and rendering to nothing/nothingness all that belongs to the realm of death. All of our suffering, grief, sorrow, pain, fear, sin, condemnation, and death itself receives the divine verdict: no, no more. And over that verdict, in a louder voice do we receive our divine verdict: yes. In this yes to us and no to death we lose our (old) lives and thus receive our (new) lives, we find our lives in Christ by faith “‘and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:38-39).

So, Paul Continues…

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Romans 6:5-8)

Through what Christ has done for us, by his advent and death and resurrection (and ascension) and our encounter with the living God, by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, we escape death, and, to quote Luther again, this “…means to enter into a life which is without death.”[8] Though our body dies, for now, we live as those who walk in the newness of life because that which has been sentenced to death–not us–is dead (for good) because it has not been raised–like we are. We have been “spiritually” planted “with Him who was planted bodily” by a death like his which is signified by baptism.[9]

We’ve not been sentenced to death in Christ, but to life: we’ve been given life, and life abundant not only in the future, but, more importantly, in the here and now.[10] Because, our old selves have been “crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (v. 6); thus, we are no longer slaves to sin in that our old selves and the sinful nature no longer have dominion over us.

By the grace of God, we are free, in the truest sense of the word: free, liberated, loosed from that which has bound us, healed (albeit imperfectly now) of the “extremely deep infection of this inherited weakness and original poison, by which a man seeks his own advantage even in God Himself.”[11] By the grace of God, we are united together with Christ in his death and thus in his resurrection and life, and we are free from sin and its accompanying threats and condemnation. (vv.7-8).

We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:9-11).

Now that death has no dominion over Christ (he will never die again), death ought not and does not have dominion over us.[12] According to Luther, “[Christ] is our life, and through faith He flows into us and remains in us by the rays of His grace. Therefore, just as Christ is eternal, so also the grace which flows out of Him is from His eternal nature.”[13] And this is what it means to be justified by faith apart from works: our eternal reception of God’s eternal grace.[14] The event of justification, that word of absolution heard (perpetually) by the hearer, parts space (like God did through Moses parting the sea) and stills time (like Jesus did the tumultuous stormy waves with one word) and the hearer is reborn (created out of nothing) into the present by the word of promise and sustained therein by the words of promise.

The past can no longer condemn you and your future is secured, rooted in the one that defeated future’s condemnation which is death. And this gift of the present, new life, and the word of promise by faith in Christ is given to you every day; this is what is actually given to you daily and, once for all (v.10); it will never be taken away from you (cf. Lk 10:38-42). “Answer me, O Lord, for your love is kind; in your great compassion, turn to me” writes the Psalmist (Psalm 69:18). And God has answered us; God in Christ has answered us once and for all.

Having the entirety of what Christ offers to us by his life, death, and resurrection by faith alone, we walk in the newness of life. And this newness of life is not particularly simply and merely for us ourselves alone. Justification unifies with others, with our neighbor—my justification doesn’t occur in a vacuum, isolated from other people. This unifying event of justification with our neighbor means that not only are we united to Christ but we are also no longer on our own, stumbling about, alone, turned inward, bent on our own justification. Justification is a social event, the tie that binds me and you to each other in an intimate way. Make no mistake, this is the vital and manifested aspect of walking in the newness of life.

Correspondingly, just as Jesus suffered as His people were being persecuted by Saul (Acts 9), so to do we suffer when our neighbor suffers. In that we are bound to our neighbor in the event of justification, their pain is our pain, their oppression our oppression, their injustice our injustice. “From now on…regard no one according to the flesh…Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16-17).  Not only is our relationship with God under a new heading, reconciled, so is our relationship with others. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not merely just for me, but for you and thus for me and for us and between us.

Being a new creation—remade by the work of God alone by faith alone—and walking in the newness of life means not only that which is of death has been sentenced to death and that which is of life shall live, but also that we have been given new eyes, new ears, a new heart, and new words to speak. In other words, to be a new creation walking in this gift of the newness of life is to have a radical and altered perspective that is rooted in the spirit and not in the flesh. There is (now) a radical discontinuity between who we were outside of Christ and who we are in Christ. When we used to see/think of only ourselves, we now see/think of/act and fight on behalf of others.

We are now no longer monstrous creations of the scientist Frankenstein. We are not thrown and sewn together, brought to life by the happenstance of nature’s electrical current. We are beautifully and wondrously remade by the intentional and consistent and life-giving word of God in Christ Jesus. We are, in every sense of the words, new creatures. Because, in light of being reconciled to God and our neighbor through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and in light of the things of death (our old selves) being sentenced to death we have received our lives, our very new selves marked not by condemnation and slavery to sin but by divine grace and freedom and union with Christ and our neighbor.

And with this reality our voices can join with Jeremiah’s, “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of the evildoers” (20:13).

[1] “The World as Possibility and Actuality: The Ontology of the Doctrine of Justification” Theological Essays. Translated by J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989. (108)

[2] “On Becoming Truly Human: The Significance of the Reformation Distinction Between Person and Works for the Self-Understanding of Modern Humanity.” Theological Essays II. Translated by Arnold Neufeldt-Fast and J. B. Webster. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995. (231)

[3] Luther’s Works: Lectures on Romans, vol 25 Hilton C. Oswald ed. St. Louis: Concordia, 1972. 50.

[4] Ibid, 50.

[5] Ibid, Augustine qtd in Luther 308-9.

[6] Ibid 50.

[7] Ibid 310

[8] Ibid 311

[9] Ibid 51

[10] Luther “…that is, in resemblance of His death, because we have been buried into a mystical death” thus, “we shall certainly be raised, to a spiritual resemblance with Him, in a resurrection like His, that is, we shall become like it” (51)

[11] Ibid 313

[12] Ibid 52

[13] Ibid 315

[14] Ibid “…this expression ‘once for all’ (semel) does not determine the number of acts of repentance, but rather it is a commendation of the eternal nature of grace, and it denies the possibility of some other kind of righteousness, so that the meaning is that whoever has been baptized o has repented has already so escaped sin and acquired righteousness that never again for eternity is it necessary to escape sin or to acquire another righteousness. But this single and only righteousness is sufficient forever” (315-6).

The Free Gift

Every semester in seminary there would be this one moment in the middle of the semester where all of my classes would collide on one theological or biblical concept; different teachers teaching different classes, yet the trajectory of the lectures landed each professor and each class here at this specific point. Divine. I loved it when it happened, pure joy all the way down. While I’m no longer in seminary and moving along a sizeable course load, I still get that sense of joy when books I’m reading overlap, when the fiction book I’m reading provides the picture for the theological concept I’m reading about in my theology book. Today, such a wonderful event happened: reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment just a bit ago, I was given a wonderful little scene that put images to words that I had read in Luther’s Commentary on Galatians yesterday evening.

Luther:

I am not speaking at such great length without reason. It seems to be exceedingly inadequate to say that the Holy Spirit is granted solely through hearing with faith and that nothing at all is demanded of us but that we refrain from all our works and just listen to the Gospel. The human heart neither understands nor believes that such a great prize as the Holy Spirit can be granted solely through hearing with faith; but it thinks this way: ‘The forgiveness of sins, deliverance from sin and death, the granting of the Holy Spirit, of righteousness and of eternal life–this is all something important. Therefore you must do something great to obtain these inestimable gifts.’ The devil approves of this opinion and magnifies it in the heart. Therefore when reason hears: ‘You cannot do anything to obtain the forgiveness of sins except only to listen to the Word of God, it immediately exclaims: ‘Oh no! You are making the forgiveness of sins too meager and contemptible!’ Thus the greatness of the gift is responsible for our not accepting it. Because such a great treasure is being offered freely, it is despised Luther Lectures on Galatians 3:2 (213)

And Dostoevsky:

‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’ Raskolnikov went on, suddenly frowning and looking down. ‘Setting aside the question of payment–forgive me for referring to it’ (he turned to Zossimov) ‘–I really don’t know what I have done to deserve such special attention from you! I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it. I tell you so candidly’ (Raskolnikov to Zossimov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (195))

I think there’s an assumption that if something is done for someone else freely, in charity, that that free gift will not only be taken advantage of (along with the giver) but that it naturally perpetuates a taking-for-granted cycle. While maybe sometimes the case, I’m not sold that it’s always the case. There’s no part of Raskolnikov (here) where he’s taking the posture of taking for granted medical care that has come to him in a great time of need and freely at that. He’s done absolutely nothing to deserve or to earn such treatment. So Zossimov’s treatment given as a true gift, freely, breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason; it just doesn’t make sense, and that it doesn’t make sense it weighs upon him. “‘I don’t know how to thank him either,’… I simply don’t understand it…and…and…it weighs upon me, indeed, because I don’t understand it” isn’t the language of someone who is taking something for granted even though it was something freely given.

A gift freely given is a confusing thing. And the larger the free gift the harder it is to understand.

As the free medical care from Zossimov breaks from Raskolnikov’s reason, causing him to be both confused and weighed down, so it is with us and the free gift that is given to us by faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are given deliverance from sin, justification, righteousness, life of very life, and God himself. All of this is given to us all by faith in Christ alone and none of it by anything we have to offer or what we bring to the table, and beyond any we attempt we could make to earn it, and this breaks from reason and weighs heavy upon us. To refer to Luther’s words, we want to despise the free gift; it’s offensive to us on so many levels.

But here is one of those moments where the Law and Gospel, death and life, collide at one point: the free gift (the very beautiful free gift) reveals that something is wrong, that we are not well, and that in fact we are near death (or dead in our trespasses). It’s a light in the darkness that exposes the situation for what it is: dire. But then it’s also the free gift that’s freely given that makes well, heals, and brings into existence a new life, a new creation; as it exposes it is given. And as we are exposed by the free gift we also receive this inestimable gift of God himself through faith in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore if I am little and the thing that is being given to me is great—in fact, the greatest there is—I must think that the One who is giving it to me is also great and that he alone is great. If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness, No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing and faith. (Luther, Lecture on Galatians 3:2 (214))

And what miraculously flows forth from our hearts is gratitude, which eclipses the reality that our flesh so despises this free gift because it doesn’t make sense. In not knowing how to thank Zossimov and expressing his confusion about the free gift, Raskolnikov articulates a deep and abiding gratitude that is beyond words that trumps the confusion. Gratitude is the furthest point from “taking for granted.” It is gratitude that  is produced by seeing that God so wills it that you have this inestimable gift. It is gratitude that produces the love and worship of this man Christ Jesus who is God who gave himself freely for you. And it is gratitude that drives us towards our neighbor in love to freely give to them as we have freely received. 

 

Cinderella in My Shopping Cart

Last week I was leaving a store, Liza was happily sitting in the shopping cart as I pushed it through the exit. Minding my own business, then, “Excuse me, Ma’am,” came a gentleman’s voice to my left. As the sliding doors parted, I stopped and looked at him. “I see you have a princess there,” and he motioned with his eyes toward Liza.

I gave a quick smile to him, “Yes..I do,” I barely choked out without revealing my disdain for the princess craze.

He was a Redbox employee. Older. From what I could deduce from the situation, he was switching out the older Redbox movies for the more current ones. He was holding some small, perfectly square movie posters in his left hand. His right hand was extending one to me, “This is for your little princess.” I looked at the poster as it traveled from his space into mine, and as I took possession of it. Cinderella.

“Oh…” I worked really hard to muster up the right response and reaction: gratitude. “Uh…thaaaaaaanks,” was all I could muster as I stared at the poster depicting this damsel in distress. All I could think was how much I hate Disney princess movies. I hate the message these movies convey to our daughters: women are weak, they need to be saved, specifically by a man. My husband and I have done well keeping all said princess paraphernalia out of our house–even to the point of being considered extreme by friends and family. We’re feminists–Daniel and I, he more than me in many regards! When Jack accidentally uttered, “Quinn’s crying like a little girl!” at the dinner table one night, he all but cried uncle under our 10 minute tag-team diatribe about why that phrase is offensive. And here I was, trying to exit the store, holding in my hands a square piece of really nice poster-board containing within it’s four edges everything I disdain about how our society treats girls. I wanted to hand the poster back to him. I wanted to tell him exactly why I wasn’t going to take this poster with me. Let him know that this poster violates many of my inner most gender principles.

But then I looked back at him.

As I held this thing I couldn’t stand, I looked at him. He smiled at me. He was so happy to give this to my daughter. There was this child-like joy in giving a free gift to a child. What girl wouldn’t want this Cinderella movie poster? He was truly doing a nice thing, a giving thing, a gracious thing. A very gracious gift. My heart melted. Principles or not, it was more important at that moment to love him, my neighbor, than my personal dogma and my urge to tell him what’s what.

I smiled at him; returning his genuine smile of joy with my genuine smile of gratitude. “Thank you,” I said again, this time meaning it. Liza grabbed at the poster, proclaiming her possession of it, Mine! “We love it. It’s so generous of you to give this to us.”

He smiled back and nodded. “You two have a great day!” He persisted in his joyous smile and waved us good-bye as we exited the store.

Often when we talk about loving our neighbors as ourselves we tend to speak in terms of works done for them–I’m sure you’ve heard the oft and maybe over quoted saying, “God doesn’t need your works but your neighbor does.” I hold to this philosophy. But another aspect of loving your neighbor as yourself can also manifest when you see them and enter into their moment, whether it be happy, sad, anger, joy, etc. Sometimes, putting yourself and your personal principles and dogmas aside to make room for this other person is very much loving your neighbor as yourself. Sometimes, putting yourself and your desire to correct and set straight aside is very much loving your neighbor as yourself. Seeing that other person as the human being they are, bearing the same image you do, needing the same saviour you do, is very much loving your neighbor as yourself. When we see our neighbors in such cruciform light, we will find ourselves–by the beautiful and unifying power of the Holy Spirit–acting with more grace towards them even when all we want to do is bring the law.

Liza proudly held that Cinderella poster in the shopping cart all the way to the car and then held it in her car-seat it all the way home. We still have our very special gift.