Lectionary Commentaries for April 4, 2015
Vigil of Easter

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 20:1-18

Karoline Lewis

The resurrection appearances in the Fourth Gospel include four distinct stories that focus on individual characters: Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and Peter.

[Looking for commentary on Mark 16:1-8? See this commentary for Easter Sunday by Lance Pape.]

By specifying a single person around whom the episode revolves, John once again emphasizes the importance of the individual encounter with Jesus as central to believing who he is and the necessity of reciprocity when it comes to relationship.

The first appearance of the resurrected Jesus is to Mary Magdalene, yet the first acknowledgment of the resurrection is not that Jesus has been raised but that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb. Mary comes to the tomb when it is still dark. The reference to the time of day again reinforces one of the major theological themes of the Gospel, light and darkness. That it is dark at the tomb indicates that full recognition and belief is yet to come and like other encounters with Jesus in the Gospel, there will be a progression of sight throughout this first resurrection story. Mary’s conclusion to what she finds is peculiar. The text does not say that she ever actually looked into the tomb but only that she saw that the stone had been rolled away. She goes to Peter and the beloved disciple with the first announcement about the resurrection that is not the claim of having seen the empty tomb but the moving of the stone. Mary’s inaccurate assumption, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2) succeeds in delaying the real truth that lies behind the stone having been rolled away. We should ask why Mary assumes a missing body. Why not say to the disciples, the stone has been rolled away? Her report, however, succeeds in getting Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved to the tomb. Preaching on this portion of the first resurrection appearance might explore our assumptions about resurrection and new life. How does what we see, or what we are willing to see, determine what we believe? What does the stone represent?

Like other passages in the Gospel such as the foot washing and the anointing of Jesus, this first discovery in the garden is narrated in real time, creating a sense of wonder and suspense. Verses 3-8 could easily be condensed into a brief summary of what they discovered. Instead, the experience is described to delay the discovery but also to give witness to the very real and embodied sense of what this experience would be like. They saw and believed but yet would not know the truth about what they have seen, in part because they do not give testimony to what they have witnessed. To believe in who Jesus is also requires acting on that belief, particularly in the form of being a witness. Peter and the beloved disciple return to their homes after the event at the tomb without saying a thing about what they saw. This Gospel, however, is not content with leaving the individual encounter with Jesus at the level of that alone. To be a true believer, a disciple, a follower, of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel is to then give witness to what you have experienced in encountering Jesus, not only for the sake of making it true for yourself, but also for the sake of those who would hear and have their own encounter with Jesus.

As a result, the story returns to Mary for we have yet to hear how she will respond. We find her back at the tomb, presumably having returned there after reporting to the disciples what she had seen. She is weeping. While not the same verb as that used for Jesus in John 11:35 about Lazarus, there is certainly a connection to the death of Lazarus. Now here again, there is weeping over the loss of a friend. That Mary cries, weeping in her grief, also draws attention to the deep and intense manifestations of humanity that permeate this Gospel. For the incarnation to be taken seriously, being human must be taken seriously. When a friend dies, we cry. Mary’s weeping is mentioned no less than four times in four verses. The repetition has the function of emphasizing this important expression of what it means to be human and also validates her response. Of course Mary should cry. The scene would suffer a strange and awkward void if her emotions were not given voice. Preaching this scene in the story would acknowledge the levels of grief that would accompany this experience.

That Mary decides at this moment to look in the tomb and not before is interesting. What does she hope or expect to see? The angels call attention to her weeping, asking her why she is doing so. Her answer for the angels is the same as her announcement to Peter and the beloved disciple, but with one striking difference, the switch from a first person plural confession to a first person singular testimony, “and I do not know where they have laid him (John 20:13). “I do not know!” She is alone at the tomb, like the woman at the well, and being alone with Jesus will result in a public confession.

The resurrected Jesus appears for the first time, to Mary, asking her the same question that the angels asked of her but now with an additional inquiry, “Whom are you looking for?” This is the third time this question has appeared in the Gospel, every time asked by Jesus. They are his first words to the first disciples, with the only difference being “what” instead of “whom” (John 1:38). To ask this question of Mary here takes the reader back to the calling of the disciples and implies that Mary, too, is considered a disciple. Jesus poses the same question to the Roman soldiers and the Jewish police who come to arrest Jesus at the garden (John 18:4, 7). We are then reminded of the setting of this first resurrection appearance in a garden (John 19:42-43). Mary assumes that Jesus is the gardener because this is taking place in a garden. This setting is unique to John. The arrest, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus take place in a garden and is an image worth exploring when it comes to preaching this passage. All of which the garden has symbolized up until this point should be brought to bear in this encounter, particularly its intimation of life.

To locate the death and burial of Jesus and the first resurrection appearance in a garden brings this Gospel full circle from its start. “In the beginning” situates this story of Jesus first outside the temporal constraints of the incarnation and at the same time alludes to the theological premises of the creation story in Genesis. Themes of creation, new creation, surround the presentation of abundant life in the Gospel of John. To preach the meaning of the resurrection against the background of the creation story extends our sense of what the resurrection can mean beyond simply eternal life or some heavenly reality beyond our death. Resurrection is nothing short of re-creation. That the burial and resurrection of Jesus take place in a garden underscores the Fourth Gospel’s unrelenting commitment to holding the divine and the human together. Death is the reality of life, but resurrection points to the reality of abundant life.

It is not until Jesus calls Mary by name that her recognition comes. Two passages in the Gospel must be brought to bear if choosing to preach on this moment in this resurrection story. The first is the Shepherd Discourse (John 9:40-10:18), Jesus’ interpretation of the healing of the blind man. The blind man’s first reaction to Jesus is hearing and not sight so that the blind man is, in the end, truly a sheep, a disciple. The sheep know and recognize the voice of the shepherd and he calls them by name. Now here, in the garden, Jesus calls Mary by name and that is the moment of recognition. Mary is the first person to whom Jesus appears and she is the first person to realize that it is him, the good shepherd, her shepherd.

The second episode that hovers in the background of this moment of recognition between Jesus and Mary is the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus exits the tomb when he is called by name, “Lazarus, come out.” Responding to his name being called, Lazarus is brought to new and resurrected life with Jesus. The same is most certainly true for Mary. Her life will be made new, once again, in the presence and power of the resurrected Christ. Preaching would explore the specificity of the resurrection for Mary. What does it mean for her that is perhaps different from Lazarus? All too often our preaching on the resurrection stops short of particularity in favor of general and safe claims. In Mary’s resurrection moment, how might she begin to understand what it means for her? One clue to her express experience of the resurrection is Mary’s response to Jesus. She calls him “Rabbouni” meaning teacher, the very same title given to Jesus by the first disciples (John 1:39). That she recognizes Jesus as teacher is simultaneously an acknowledgment about who Jesus is and a confirmation of her own identity. She is a follower, a disciple, with Jesus as her teacher.

John 20:17 has always been a puzzling verse for interpreters and preachers of John. Why was Mary holding on to him? Is this a literal or figurative holding? Given the previous tendencies of this Gospel toward misunderstanding and ambiguity, it is likely both. Yet, why provide this detail in the first place? What is Jesus meaning by asking this question? What is Mary holding onto, besides, perhaps, him? The incarnation? What are we? What are we being asked to let go of? A theological answer to these questions would focus on the certainty that that which becomes flesh must eventually go away. One of the striking aspects of this Gospel, typically overlooked because of the assumption of its “high Christology” is certain truth that the revelation of God in Jesus must end. This unique expression of God, this one and only period of history in which God entered our world as a human being, cannot be forever. When Jesus says “do not hold on to me” he is stating that truth and that he knows what that truth feels like. It is important to note that his words of comfort that follow his command do not lie in the promise of the resurrection but the future of the ascension. It is the ascension that is presented as that in which we can have hope. Yes, the resurrection means release from the grave, but it is the ascension that assures the promise of abiding relationship with the Father.

This abiding relationship with the Father, promised in John 1:18 for all believers, is then affirmed by Jesus in his commission to Mary. Jesus does not tell Mary to share the fact that he has been raised from the dead, but rather, that he is ascending, “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” This is the promise. Jesus confirms that all of which he has shared about his relationship with the Father will be for every believer in his ascension. The incarnation will come full circle in Jesus’ return to the Father.

Mary’s announcement to the disciples of what she experienced in the garden has great significance for this Gospel and for preaching. She does not offer the disciples a third person, impersonal, doctrinal statement about Jesus’ resurrection, much like our liturgical responses at Easter, “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!” Rather, it is a first person claim, a testimony, a witness to what she has experienced. She gives voice again to that which is so critical for this Gospel, one’s own experience and encounter with Jesus so as to recognize who Jesus is. Mary’s proclamation is not only a witness to her encounter with the resurrected Jesus, but also an interpretation of it. She realizes that for Jesus to be raised from the dead is also an assertion about her own resurrection, her own future. The first person statement is simultaneously an announcement about what she saw and a statement of belief in her promise of future life with Jesus and with God.


Vigil Reading IV

Commentary on Exodus 14:10-31; 15:20-21

Cameron B.R. Howard

Have you ever taken your Bible to an unusual or unfamiliar place to read and study?

Old words can sound very different in a new setting. Take, for example, Elijah’s first encounter with the widow of Zarephath and her son (1 Kings 17:8-16), in which the prophet fills the starving family’s food jars with inexhaustible meal and oil. Imagine reading that story in five-star restaurant, in a homeless shelter, and in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. The words can resonate very differently according to the context in which they are read.            

What changes, then, when we read the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt at the Easter Vigil instead of in a “regular” Sunday morning worship service? How do these old words sound in a new setting? In the Easter vigil, the grief of Good Friday and the doubt of Saturday give way to the hope of Sunday morning. Joy begins to emerge, because we know what is coming. We know how this story ends, or rather, how the story is transformed and begins anew. Life conquers death; resurrection transforms hopelessness; forgiveness and reconciliation triumph over sin and brokenness. At the vigil we live the “already / not yet” of Christian faith perhaps more concretely than at any other time of the year. We celebrate as people already redeemed, even as we once again anticipate the redemption that is to come.

Given this unique context, I can imagine several ways that the exodus narrative will echo differently at the Easter vigil:

  • “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the LORD will accomplish for you today’” (Exodus 14:13a). Moses exhorts the Israelites with three imperatives: do not fear, stand firm, and see. These commands strike me as just what we are called to do at the Easter vigil. We take courage, we stay put (this is a vigil, after all!), and we act as witnesses to the redemption that God is working for us. Just as God delivered the Israelites at the sea, God delivers the world from the powers of sin and death at the cross.
  • “So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea” (Exodus 14:27). Many readers feel a little squeamish when reading about the demise of the Egyptians at the hands of God. Or what about all those innocent Egyptians who suffered during the ten plagues? Couldn’t God have accomplished this deliverance without all this bloodshed? As admirable as these difficult questions may be, and as heartfelt as the concern for the Egyptians may be, I daresay that any hedging against the appropriateness of God’s total triumph will — and perhaps should — recede at the Easter vigil. In the Exodus narrative Egypt epitomizes the world’s powers of slavery, torture, destruction, and death. The “civilization” that Pharaoh has cultivated is already one of exploitation, of both his own people as well as the Israelites. We remember in the exodus and in the resurrection that God opposes the death-dealing ways of the world, which privilege money and power over justice and love. God’s victory is, ultimately, one of life over death: servitude to God instead of to Pharaoh, a privileging of the powers of heaven over the powers of earth. Thus, when Miriam sings, “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!” we also hear the taunt of 1 Corinthians 15:55, “O death, where is your victory?” God has accomplished life.
  • “Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing” (Exodus 15:20). Care is given in both the exodus story and the resurrection narrative to highlight the role of women. Miriam leads the Israelite women in their victory songs. It is likely that women led musical celebrations after any military victory, and their presence in Exodus underscores the war imagery that permeates the exodus event: God has defeated Pharaoh in battle. Miriam is named specifically as a prophet in the text, but the women who discover the empty tomb and deliver the news to the disciples are similarly prophetic. They are serving, according to the classic definition of a prophet, as “mouthpieces of God”; they deliver God’s word to those who need to hear it. The Bible has a reputation as a male-centric text, and it often deserves that reputation. However, in these key narratives, women take central roles.
  • “Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses” (Exodus 14:31). As Pharaoh’s army is bearing down on them at the edge of the sea, the Israelites are terrified. They yell at God and at Moses, sure they have been brought out of Egypt simply to perish in the wilderness (14:11-12). But when they see, as they have been commanded to do (14:13), they believe. Witnessing this mighty act of deliverance ignites faith in the Israelites. Yet we need only turn a page or two to see how quickly they forget. Just on the other side of the Red Sea, thirsty and faced with bitter water, they complain against Moses (15:24), by no means for the last time. One hardship sets in, and their faith blows away in the wind. How much are we like the Israelites in the wilderness! We may leave the Easter vigil or the Easter morning services with our hearts on fire with faith, nourished for our journeys once again. But it only takes a few moments for the enthusiasm to recede and for “real life” to settle in. Preachers are challenged at Easter not only to help us celebrate the day, but also to help us cultivate a faith that travels with us for a lifetime.

Vigil Reading V

Commentary on Isaiah 55:1-11

Melinda Quivik

Any preacher whose congregation will be celebrating the Vigil of Easter will encounter this text when the assembly listens to Old Testament (OT) readings.

This is one of at least four — and as many as twelve — of the most significant faith stories from our Hebrew ancestors that through the centuries have been chosen for the Vigil readings. Isaiah 55:1-11 includes both invitation (“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!”) and the promise of forgiveness (“my thoughts are not your thoughts … ”).

Although a preacher may be overwhelmed by the wealth of texts on this night, do not be dismayed. The Resurrection is the subject of preaching on this night with equal emphasis on the baptismal calling of the body of Christ. Let the OT texts set the context for these matters. Assuming all twelve readings are heard, the trajectory of faith experiences and pronouncements adds layer upon layer of stories and imagery to the final proclamation.

Beginning with the Genesis account of creation, the assembly hears of the flood, the testing of Abraham, and escape through the waters to freedom. Isaiah 55:1-11 is next with its invitation to “the waters” and to a feast. The prophet’s cry is followed by a reading on God’s wisdom, two readings from Ezekiel (including the valley of the dry bones), gathering the people, Jonah coughed up by the fish, the people being clothed in garments of salvation, and deliverance from the fiery furnace. After each reading there may be silence or a song or other response to what is read and then a prayer. These texts constitute a wildly rich experience, usually bathed in candlelight as the night deepens.

The OT readings lead to Romans 6:3-11 (“all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death … ”) and then John 20:1-18 in which Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ mother, and Salome go to the tomb and encounter the youth in white who says Jesus has gone ahead to Galilee.

The preaching of the Resurrection and resurrected life for all is informed and bolstered by the twelve readings, and this Isaiah text is a fine participant. A mysterious speaker coaxes the people, cries out in the street like a vendor of goods, enacting precisely what the Gospel reading also does — calling everyone to be refreshed. The image of the waters is set out as already available for knowing the ways of the Lord: “Come to the waters!” The speaker enacts what the sacramental baptismal washing and the meal of bread and wine say to us: Beloved, I have made you for feasting and abundant life. Come!

The invitation to free water and free food contrasts with the life known in exile with no assurance even of survival, let alone a feast. Isaiah 55 lays out the irony between what is costly and what is free. Under oppression, in exile, away from what is nourishing and familiar at home, the people live a truly expensive life. Although in democratic countries we often speak of the high cost of liberty, the price of exile is also great. The people pay with devastation, anguish, loneliness, guilt, shame, terror, and more. Who in your community, state, nation, and on earth live in conditions of exile, devoid of what is stable and nourishing? Where is anguish and hopelessness? Who are those who need to be invited to what is life-giving?

The question for the preacher in our time is this: What is the meaning of exile in our communities? Isaiah speaks to a community that is about to be liberated to return home. In order to make a gospel life as vivid as possible when proclaiming the Resurrection, it is necessary to bring to the assembly’s attention the reality of lives lived in need of freedom.

When you settle on who would find the invitation in Isaiah 55 incredible and unanswerable, you will know who (people, creatures) and what (landscapes, air, water) needs to be heard from on this day as the preacher strives to make real the meaning of the empty tomb. Think not only of individuals who are desperate. Think of whole communities fraught with turmoil over injustices, racial strife, disabilities, destruction, thwarted dreams. Think of the ways in which communities are afflicted with the life-destroying temptations and afflictions of wealth and power, whether or not they wield either of them.

Think, as well, of those who lead the way toward liberation. These are they who put the lie to values that do not satisfy, to dreams that turn to dust when achieved, and to hopes that are too shallow to serve as food. The liberators are Resurrection majorettes, if you will. In word and deed they give the rest of us energy. They fill our imaginations with visions of a better world for all. Who are they in your sphere? I dare say that most of us yearn to follow the thumping baton of someone who sees an enduring vision, whose words renew spirits. We all need those who in and out of the church lead us toward what makes for the common good. These people exist today. Most of us know at least one of them. Name them! Show us where to look for the goodness of God alive in the world.

The preacher declares on this night the promise of the risen one having gone ahead of us, opening us into the way of God, clear as rain and snow that waters the earth. We are all led by the one who knows the agony of exile, who died out of favor with both religious and political power structures, and who watched all of his friends turn away. If there is any exile greater, I do not know it. If there is any homecoming richer and more powerful than coming back forever to be with your friends and betrayers, I do not know that one, either. Preach that homecoming.


Vigil Reading XII

Commentary on Daniel 3:1-29

Amy Merrill Willis

As the story begins, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, erects a massive golden statue and commands that all must bow before it.

Initially, it appears that the central conflict of the story involves idolatry. However, as the story progresses, a different conflict emerges — that between the kingship of Nebuchadnezzar and the power of God. The story alerts the reader to this conflict in Daniel 3:15 when the king, furious with Daniel’s friends, threatens them saying, “who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?”

This court tale about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is part of a larger series of stories in Daniel 1-6 dealing with the relationship between the God of Israel and the gentile kings.1 At times, the foreign king recognizes that the source of his power is the God of Israel and publically announces that fact (Daniel 2:47). At other times, however, the kings are recalcitrant and refuse to recognize the ultimate sovereignty of God. They try to claim their power as their own, and, in doing so, they create intense conflict and danger for the Jewish community caught in the middle of the struggle. This is the situation in which Daniel’s friends find themselves. At the end the previous chapter, Nebuchadnezzar had announced that true knowledge and true power comes from Daniel’s God. But at the beginning of Daniel 3, the king seems to have forgotten his earlier confession, and, at the prodding of some Babylonian sages (the Chaldeans), he entraps the Jewish friends and arrogantly dismisses their God.

What is puzzling, however, is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s answer to the king: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you … that we will not serve your gods … ” (Daniel 3:17-18). This response, accurately conveyed in the NRSV but emended in other popular translations, does not appear to be an enthusiastic defense of God’s sovereignty. It suggests that they have doubts about God’s power to rescue them and are not confident that God will do so. C.L. Seow argues, however, that the friends’ response conveys an unconditional and absolute faith.2 Their devotion to God is not based on any kind of quid pro quo from the LORD. Unlike Jacob who attached all kinds of strings to his commitment to God (cf. Gen 28:20-22), the friends announce that their dedication to God is absolute, regardless of what happens to them.

Comic relief, comic resistance

In the midst of tension and conflict created by this clash of sovereignty, the story offers some good comic relief. Notice the long lists of government officials and musical instruments that are repeated so frequently and so unnecessarily (Daniel 3:2, 3, 5, 7, 9, 15). The repetition of these complicated lists creates exaggeration and makes the king and his officials look silly. Moreover, as the story unfolds, the king comes off looking rash and easily manipulated: the king begins the story with an arrogant command, then becomes the pawn of his jealous officials who wish to get rid of the Jewish wise men. He then flies into a rage when the Jewish men do not obey them, but ends by blessing their God!

The satirical elements serve an important purpose. They help negotiate the conflicts that might arise between the Jewish community’s fidelity to God and its dealings with gentile kings. By showing him to be bumbling and blind, the story undermines the king’s fearfulness and tyranny and encourages resistance. At the same time, the story shows the king to be teachable — he learns to show honor to the true God. Thus God is shown to accommodate the king and also vindicate the participation of the Jewish men in the gentile government.

Survival and deliverance

Despite the story’s comic playfulness, its liturgical context in the Christian lectionary — the Great Vigil of Easter — highlights the weighty theme of deliverance from death. The three friends of Daniel, despite being bound in their clothes and tossed in, survive the overheated furnace and come out unbound and physically unharmed. In the midst of the fire’s damaging flames, there is a fourth person who looks like a man but has “the appearance of a god” (Daniel 3:25) or, literally, “a son of a god.” Although the Hebrew text does not tell us exactly who this figure is or what he does in the furnace, he seems to be an angel of the Lord who has come to protect and deliver the three. In some medieval interpretations, this angel is Michael.3 For many Christian interpreters, however, the language of “a son of god” suggests that the fourth figure is Christ.4

The clash between the power of God and the forces of the world; deliverance from an unjust death at the hands of the empire; a miraculous “son of god” not bound even by death; hope for physical restoration and resurrection (see Daniel 12:3) — these are some of the thematic links connecting Daniel 3 and the Great Vigil of Easter.

The story has continued to inspire resistance for communities facing unspeakable injustice. Jewish activist and holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, reminds readers that we live in a world where our neighbors continue to face the threat of eradication through fire and violence. Wiesel describes seeing the fires of the crematoriums as he and his fellow Jews, crowded into train cars, approached the concentration camp. His life reminds readers that while Daniel’s friends survived the fiery furnace, the gas chambers and crematoriums claimed millions more. For him and others who lived through and resisted injustice, Daniel and his friends offered hope for survival.5 What is more, the story serves as a reminder that we are all called to the work of faithful resistance.


Notes:

1 See further, C. Newsom, “Political Theology in the Book of Daniel: An Internal Debate,” Review and Expositor 109 (2012):557-568.

2 C.L. Seow, Daniel (Westminster Bible Companion; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2003), 57-58.

3 C. Newsom and B. Breed, Daniel (Old Testament Library; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2014), 97-127.

4 J. Collins, A Commentary on the Book of Daniel (Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 190.

5 Newsom and Breed, Daniel, 114-118. Breed points out that Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. also called upon these stories from Daniel in the midst of their civil rights movements.


New Testament Reading

Commentary on Romans 6:3-11

Kyle Fever

It’s common to say we’re dead to sin in terms of our spiritual self, or that “when God looks at me, God sees Christ and not my sinful human self.”

In reality we’re still sinners; God just does not see it because we’ve been baptized into Christ.

This passage does not seem to allow for this soft understanding of “dead to sin.” Paul writes of finality. When something is dead its existence in reality ends; it exists only in memory.

We must admit this passage jars us. It jars us to the point that we regularly say, “yes, but … ” Of course Paul knew of the ongoing struggles for those in the faith, even the reality of sinning; just consider the community in Corinth. Yet, one is hard-pressed to find Paul identify any in his communities as “sinners,” especially where he had every opportunity point this out pastorally. Paul knows of the potential to commit acts that fall under the category “sin,” but he draws focus to the new reality, with no “but we still struggle in sin” tagline.

When Paul does this it raises the problem of idealism versus realism. Are we really dead to sin? If so, why do we still struggle? Is Paul a little too idealistic here? Or am I missing something — captivated by later theological developments and anthropological views? Perhaps it’s “rhetorical”?

Paul’s words here, of course, do not stand in isolation. The lectionary selection (unfortunately) hacks off verses that rhetorically should be part of the passage. Everything Paul says in Romans 6:3-11 (in fact, the section should continue through 6:14) functions as a response to the questions he raises in 6:1-2. The leading question in verse 1 is, “shall we remain in sin?”

The “remain” language is important. Paul’s not just writing about committing occasional sins — an offense to our brother/sister here and there. It is more along the lines of “in what sphere of reality should we find and define ourselves?” He’s writing about where we reside, where we find our home, our identity.

The question functions as an (imagined) objection to what Paul said in Romans 5:20 (“where sin increased, grace increased all the more”). Now, I am not convinced that people actually thought, “hey, let’s continue to live in ways that violate God and our sisters/brothers — just so that we can keep receiving grace!” That seems silly to really think that people thought this in such simplistic terms.1 The underlying mentality, I suspect, is more complex. I suggest that the objection derives from a mentality of reciprocity that says, “If God gives grace in exchange for sin, then let’s stick with that deal and just make it an ongoing part of our reality. Let’s continue to recognize the reality of our state as sinners so that we can always be assured of God’s grace.” According to this line of thought, the fundamental human realty hasn’t changed; there’s just a way to deal with it through Christ.

It is precisely Paul’s point that the fundamental human reality has changed. We can’t even think of ourselves in terms of remaining in the realm of sin, even if it’s just to reinforce our need for God’s grace and forgiveness. (This is not to say that God’s forgiveness is not abundant where we do still struggle with sin. That matter is not Paul’s concern here, however.)

Paul responds in Romans 6:3-11 (really it should be verses 3-14) in four movements. In verses 3-4 he draws attention to baptism as the starting point. It is the act which communicates our identification with Christ’s death. In verses 5-7 he draws out the implications in terms of death to sin, and in verses 8-11 he draws out the implications in terms of life to/for God. He wraps up in verses 12-14 with a concluding exhortation.

A few things stand out. First, Paul emphasizes participatory sharing. It’s not just that Christ has shared his benefits with us. Beginning with baptism, Paul says, we are “co” with Christ, in both death and resurrection/new life.2 We are participatory sharers in Christ’s reality, swept up in something that’s not inherent to our original humanity. We are not just passive recipients of a spiritual truth.

Second, Paul uses punctiliar verbs to communicate this new reality: “we were buried with him”; “our old humanity was crucified with (him)”; “the body of sin was abolished“; “we died with Christ.” Paul does not say, “the old sinful humanity has been wounded; it’s still alive, but not as effective.” Yet this is how this is commonly read and communicated.

Third, the aorist “we have died” leads to “no longer continue.” The new reality is no less a reality, but it must still be worked out in life, which he gets at explicitly in verses 12-14. Paul, however, makes no concession that we have one foot in both the old and new! It is like the reminder to the Israelites that they are no longer in Egypt, that their existence now must display a distinctly new reality under a new God who orders this new and very different existence for them, and for the world.

It is important to keep in mind that Paul’s argument relates directly to the law. If believers remain in the old humanity in any way, then the law remains necessary. But if the old humanity has in fact been crucified, then the necessity of the law also goes away. This is where Paul is going (Romans 7:1-6). If our identity as “sinners” remains, so does the need for the law. But Paul is adamant that neither sin nor law continue to live.

Paul’s claims do not mean we’re “perfect.” In fact, Paul does not discuss being “perfect” at all. Such an idea is not on Paul’s radar. To let ideas of moral perfection creep in falls into reading through the lens of modern (primarily Western) morality — what I call “MPS” (“Moral Perfection Syndrome”). This is the idea that God demands moral perfection, and our failure to achieve said moral perfection is the problem. Because we think God demands such perfection, and because we’re never going to get it, we’re always “sinners.” This is not quite Paul’s framework; he’s talking about relocating the sphere in which we dwell as humans. What Paul is getting at is like the difference between Narnia and mid-20th century England in The Chronicles of Narnia. Rather than jumping back-and-forth between the two realms, according to this passage baptism symbolizes our passing through the wardrobe, into a new existence, never to return.

Yes, we still live in the old world; but it is now no longer home. Paul’s perspective is not “ongoing sin is just the way things are. But you’re washed in the blood of Christ; God just doesn’t see you that way any longer.” Paul turns his audience’s focus to the monumental shift in reality brought about by God through Jesus Christ. This does not just transform how we think God sees us or how we think about ourselves. It should transform our very existence. We might still struggle as we remain in the flesh; but we no longer “remain” in sin as “sinner.” That identity is dead.


Notes:

1 Some interpreters often connect the objection in Romans 6:1-2 with the objection in Romans 3:8 (“why not say [as some people slander us by saying that we say], “Let us do evil so that good may come”?), pointing out that it seems some people actually advocated living in sin to receive God’s benefits. I am unconvinced. The nature of the argument is quite different, as is the objection itself.

2 The use of the future tense leads some to think that experiencing new life/resurrection with Christ is only a future reality. The future tense may also function as a “logical future” as in Fitzmyer’s commentary. Nevertheless, while it is likely that the future refers to the future resurrection, Paul connects the two; the future reality has significant effects on the present life. Christ’s new reality and our future promise are the basis upon which the present reality is also changed.