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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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Easter Sunday

Romans 6:1-14

Dead Men Living

AN ESCAPE TO STORY

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lucy finds a magical book that tells about a cup, a sword and a green hill. The story is the Narnian equivalent to the gospel. Lewis describes Lucy's fascination with the story. He writes, " She was living in the story as if it were real, and all the pictures were real too. When she had gotten to the third page she came to the end and said, 'That is the loveliest story I've ever read or shall read in my whole life. Oh, I wish I could have gone on reading it for ten years."1 

The Easter story holds the same fascination. We may listen to passages from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John year after year, but we never tire of hearing them. Each reading and each sermon allows us to hear a different nuance. Our thoughts focus on a different event. One year we are drawn to the women who walked out to the tomb, while it was still dark, another time we focus on the men who raced to the tomb and still another reading will direct us to the sight of the folded grave clothes.

Stories are powerful teaching instruments. They allow the listener to draw their own conclusions. They require us to think for ourselves. That demands the listen take an active role in the learning process. But stories can also distract. We may use stories to escape from the reality of our broken and depressed lives. Fantasy substitutes for living. Make believe avoids responsibility. Even the stories from the Bible may become obstacles for faithful discipleship. Paul did not allow his readers to succumb to this temptation. Rather than retell the stories Paul wrote his interpreted and application of them. He took the stories that he had heard and weaved their lessons into practical teaching about God and the Christian life.

DEATH PRECEDES LIFE

In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul has been describing why all men and women are equal before God. He states that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Guilty by association, all of their descendants must suffer the punishment of a broken relationship with God, with one another, with Creation and finally the ultimate punishment-a physical death. 

Paul explains that both the Jew and the non-Jew are guilty of disobedience. The Jewish people have broken the law given through the prophet Moses and the Gentiles, the non-Jews, have broken the law that God had written on their hearts. The Gentiles have also, according to Paul, chosen to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Both groups stand guilty before God and deserve punishment but God offers his grace through faith. Salvation is a gift not the reward for religious works.

While this argument may seem obvious to us, it was not obvious or logical to many. Paul's opponents argued that if God forgive so easily what is going to keep people from continuing to disobey the law. Why would anyone want to go to the trouble, effort and inconvenience of obeying the moral code? His rivals also contended that if God likes to forgive and men and women like to sin, why not keep on sinning so God will keep on forgiving. To which the apostle responded with horrific outrage, "God forbid!" 

Paul's vehement reaction was not based on his obsessive conformity to the moral law but in his understanding of the connection between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christian baptism. When he tells the Romans that they have been united in the death of Christ he is drawing upon the rich imagery of adult baptism. 

Unlike infants who are presented by their parents and sprinkled with water, an adult is often baptized by full immersion. The new convert enters the water, makes a confession of faith and crosses their arms upon their chest. The minister supporting the convert by the back lowers him or her into the water as if the person is being lowered into the grave. The water symbolizes not only the washing of sin but also being united with Christ in his death. 

This was a powerful symbol for Paul. In the act of baptism, our old self, with all of its weaknesses, all of its inconsistencies, all of its idiosyncrasies become crucified with Christ and placed in the tomb. They are dead. The first act of living the Christian life is to die to your past.

This may come as a shock to some to hear this message on Easter morning. Today is supposed to be a day of new life, new birth, the blooming of spring but Easter Sunday does not come without Friday afternoon. Life is born from death.

Too often, we say come to Jesus he will accept you as you are. We talk about faith as a gradual, pleasant, upward assent to the open arms of a warm, caring, loving accepting God.2 But that is a distorted message. Paul knew better. On his journey to the city of Damascus, Jesus appeared to him in a blinding light. Paul fell on his knees and in that moment, Paul experienced a spiritual death. His old self died; that part of him that was absorbed with obeying rules and regulations; that part of him that hatred anyone who did not believe. On a dirty county road, Paul died to his past.

William Willimon, the chaplain at Duke University, asked a group of people, "Has anyone ever died to be a Christian?

The room was silent for a while. Everyone waited for someone to speak. Then an older man said, 
 

"I thought that I couldn't live in a world where black people were the same as white people. When segregation ended, I thought I would die. But I didn't. I was reborn. My next-door neighbor, my best friend, is black. Something old had to die in me for something new to be born."

Another said: "I used to be terribly frightened to be alone by myself. When my husband went out of town on business, I either went with him or took the children and stayed with a neighbor. But the night that my eight-year-old child died of leukemia, I stopped being afraid."

"Forgive me," I said, "but I don't get the connection.

"You see," she explained, "once you've died, there is nothing left to fear, is there? When my wife died, I did too."3


CONSIDERING DEATH

The apostle Paul understands that the Good News of the Gospel is that death is not the end but only an intermediate step to resurrection. Once we have died to ourselves, we can then live to God. So Paul tells the Romans to consider themselves dead to all the things from their past; to treat every desire, every temptation, every old habit as if they were lifeless.

John Stott in his commentary on Romans writes:

This [counting] is not make-believe. It is not screwing up our faith to believe what we do not believe. We are not to pretend that our old nature has died, when we know perfectly well it has not. Instead we are to realize and remember that our former self did die with Christ, thus putting an end to its career. We are to consider what in fact we are, namely dead to sin and alive to God like Christ (10). Once we grasp this, that our old life has ended, with the score settle, the debt paid and the law satisfied, we shall want to have nothing more to do with it.4

What was once a part of your past? Or maybe that past is still apart of your present. You may still struggle with depression. Getting up in the morning is a grueling ordeal. 

You may still spend too much time surfing the Internet searching for certain sites. Your thoughts are filled with images and a world of fantasy.

You may still consume too much alcohol. You drink to enjoy but one leads to another and another. You become defensive if someone questions how much you have drank. 

You may have filled you the closets of your house with clothes and toys. Your credit cards are approaching the limit. You spend all your time looking at picture of new items for the home, dreaming about a new car or a new summer vacation. You won't look at pictures of hungry children or refugee camps and you do not like to hear your minister talk about tithing.

You may be involved in a relationship that you know is not healthy to your marriage or your spiritual life.

This is all part of our old self that Paul tells us to count as dead; to put it aside; to be done with it; to act as if it is dead and has no life.

Before we can say yes to God, we must be willing to say an emphatic NO, to certain desires, habits and behavior. We must be willing to die to that old self before we enjoy a resurrection of the new.

SETTING OUR THOUGHTS ON LIFE

After we count ourselves dead to our past, Paul tells the Romans to consider themselves alive to God. Motivational speakers echo a message that the apostle Paul learn 2000 years ago, attitude makes a difference. We can either choose to live with an attitude of limitations or live in a world of possibilities. We can choose to wallow in self pity or choose to rejoice in the blessings of God.

On Friday afternoon, one man walked down the 18th fairway at Augusta National for last time. During his career Arnold Palmer won 4 Masters titles on that famed Georgia course but at the age of 74 he has decided that his 50th Masters would be his last. The game of golf would not be the same today without Arnold Palmer's legacy. I still remember joining the ranks of his Army at Highland Golf Course for the Cleveland Open. Palmer had a special talent for game but he also credits his success to winning attitude. On the wall of his study, hangs a plaque that captures his undefeatable spirit

If you think you are beaten, you are. 
If you think you dare not, you don't. 
If you'd like to win but think you can't, 
    it's almost certain you won't. 
Life's battles don't always go, 
    to the stronger or faster man, 
    but sooner or later the one who wins 
    is the one who thinks they can."

Every time Arnie took a swing, every time he stroked a putt he only thought about making that one shot. In each of his victories, a moment would come in the tournament when Palmer would hitch up his pants and start his infamous charge. If he missed a shot, he would recover on the next one. Bogey a hole and he would tee up on the next expecting to make birdie. Somehow, someway he would work his way into the lead and ultimately the winner's circle.

RESURRECTION LIVING

That's what resurrection living is all about. It is more than a story about two women who walked to a grave when it was still dark. It is more than a story about two friends who race each other to an empty tomb. It is more than a story that happened in the past. 

Resurrection living is about 11 uneducated, unskilled men, fishermen, tax collectors, revolutionaries turning the world upside down with a message of hope, faith and love. It is a story about the transforming power of God to change lives. It is a story that continues each day, whenever someone counts himself dead to sin and alive to God. 
 


1 C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 
2 Adopted from William H. Willimon, "Through Death to Life," Pulpit Resource, Vol. 27, No. 2, Page 51-54.
3 William H. Willimon "Letting Go Down Here," Christian Century, March 5, 1986, p. 231, Online: http://www.religion-online.org/cgi-bin/relsearchd.dll/showarticle?item_id=1002, April 9, 2004.
4 John Stott, Romans, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 179.

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