Commentary on Romans 6:1b-11
Sometimes the editorial decisions of the Lectionary committees astound me. Why in the world does our text begin with Romans 6:1b instead of Romans 6:1 in its entirety?
It is as if when we read a letter that begins “Dear Mr. Smith” we are told to skip the “Dear Mr. Smith.” Our hearers are apt to miss the important point that what we are reading is a particular kind of literature, a letter.
Romans 6:1a reads: “What therefore shall we say to this?” It is a formula that makes clear two things about our passage:
1) Romans 6:1 depends on what has been said in Romans 5. “What therefore shall we say to this?” is a polite way of asking, rhetorically, “So what?”
2) Romans 6:1 introduces a particular kind of literature. It follows a traditional debating formula called the diatribe. Paul imagines what someone hearing Romans 5 might think: “Shall we remain in sin that grace may abound?” Unless we understand that Paul is answering an imaginary interlocutor we have a hard time following what he is saying.
What has been said in Romans 5 is that God’s grace in Jesus Christ is an answer to human sin. However great Adam’s transgression may have been (and however greatly we transgress as Adam’s children), God’s grace in Christ was greater–abundantly greater.
Now that he’s said this, Paul begins to wonder about what his audience might think. “If sin is the occasion for grace, perhaps we should just keep on sinning so that God might go on showing us God’s grace.” Imagine the Prodigal Son come home from the far country and discovering not only forgiveness but feast. What if six months later he decides, “That worked so well, I’ll just head for the far country again. The greater the sin, the greater the grace.”
Paul’s answer to this query is in two parts. Part one is as rhetorical as “what shall we say about this?” He says; “God forbid!” (Romans 6:2a) Or, “You’ve got to be kidding.”
Part two is profoundly theological and can be summarized in a simple but not simple-minded formula: “Be who you are.”
Very often the source for Paul’s theology is Scripture–our Old Testament. That is the case in his discussion of Abraham in Romans 4 and of Adam in Romans 5. Sometimes, however, the source for Paul’s theology is the practice of the churches. What do we do at church and what does it mean?
One thing we do in church is get baptized. It is not just because I am a Baptist that I would argue that for the Roman churches that meant being immersed. It is also because the imagery Paul draws on here is not the imagery of cleansing but the imagery of going down and coming up again. It is the imagery of death and life.
Maybe when the Roman Christians got baptized they came out of the water and put on a new robe as a sign of new life. Surely when they got baptized they went into the water dry and dignified and came out of the water sopping wet. They were not who they had been. Something had changed.
What has changed, says Paul, is pretty much what changed for Jesus in the hours days between Good Friday and Easter morning. They had gone from death to life.
And this new life for the Christians is evident in two ways:
1) Those who had been baptized into Christ will celebrate his conquest of death; they will live with him forever. (Romans 6:8)
2) Those who have been baptized into Christ will celebrate his conquest of sin; they will live true and holy lives right now. (Romans 6:6-7)
For Paul the idea of a sinful baptized person is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. “You are dead to sin,” says Paul, “so stop acting as if you were capable of sin. Be who you are.”
Every parent and every child of a parent remembers the most telling times when discipline rested on grace and not on law. The child offends and the parent replies: “That isn’t like you.”
Imagine a television commentator in dialogue with a fellow commentator. The second speaker launches into a rant against the American poor claiming that somehow they have brought their distress on themselves. The first commentator (a fellow Christian) calls the second to attention: “You’re a better person than that.”
When Christians are told to “remember our baptism” that does not mean so much remembering the time and the place or who were the sponsors or who performed the sacrament. It is a way of saying: Remember who you are; you have died to sin and now you live a new life in Jesus Christ. It is a way of saying: Be who you are.
“Remember your baptism” also means, “Remember who you belong to.” In North America we are so enamored of our own individualism that we proudly claim that we are self-made, have pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and don’t owe anything to anyone.
For Paul and his readers that would not have made any sense. Everyone belongs to someone or something. To put it even more strongly, everyone is servant or slave to someone or some thing. Before baptism we were slaves to sin. (Romans 6:6) After baptism we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11)
It is a perennial and inescapable puzzle of the Christian faith that when we are truly servants we are truly free, so long as we are servants to God. When we are servants to sin or to sin’s progeny–envy, greed, ambition–we are not free at all.
Remember this, says Paul, in baptism you put envy, greed, and ambition to death.
Christ lives: serve him.