Commentary on Romans 6:3-11
The Easter Vigil is all about anticipation. Gathered together in worship, we await dawn and the angel’s message to the women that “he is not here for he has been raised from the dead”. Ready and eager to burst forth our Alleluias, we forget that dwelling in the state of anticipation also is important. It keeps our attention focused. It challenges us to be alert. It invites us to see anew what is too familiar.
Paul’s words in Romans 6:3-11 are particularly apt for the Easter Vigil because they remind us that we live constantly in a state of anticipation. The hope that is the basis of our anticipation is that we will be united with Christ in a resurrection like his (6:5). This, however, is a future reality, not yet fulfilled. Caught between the now and the not yet, we live in a liminal state of anticipation. As Paul reminds us, this is not a passive state, but one that requires us to be focused, alert, and attentive.
Following Paul’s line of thought
Romans 6:3-11 is punctuated three times by words for “to know,” dividing the passage into three sections:
- “Do you not know” (6:3 [agnoeō]);
- “We know” (6:6 [ginōskō]) and
- “We know” (6:9 [oida]).
Paul keeps our attention by using different words for “to know”. To convey this in English we might play with the language a little:
- “have you failed to grasp” (6:3)
- “We have come to understand” (6:6)
- “We know with certainty” (6:9)
The first two sections each conclude with “if … then” clauses (6:5 and 6:8) that focus our attention on the hope of future resurrection. The third section brings the passage to a close with the resolute “so also” (6:11 NRSV [houstōs kai]) and shifts our attention to life in the present: a state of anticipation: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The power of sin
To understand what it means to be alive to God, we must first understand what Paul means when he says that we have been “crucified with [Christ] so that the body of sin might be destroyed and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (6:6) When Paul speaks of sin, he is not thinking of a list of missteps, in other words, words or actions for which we need to apologize or make amends. Paul perceives sin as a power that holds us in its grip, enslaving us, compelling us to do even that which we know we should not do. This does not mean we are absolved of our participation in sin. Sin plays to our desires and wants, inviting us to justify means by self-serving ends. The dilemma is that the power of sin is greater than the power of our will. We may resist, but as enslaved persons we are bound to serve that which has power over us.
The imagery of slavery may be unappealing, yet it is an institution that is alive and well. The Global Slavery Index (2018) estimates that about 40.3 million people are currently enslaved; 71% of these persons are female while 25% are children. This shocking reality is a reminder that we know very well what it means to enslave; it is not a thing of the past. What we may have difficulty with is the idea that we are enslaved. Our mantra is “free will”.
In Paul’s worldview, none of us are wholly free; we all serve someone or something. The choice from where he stands is between being enslaved to sin or dedicating our lives to God. But in order to dedicate ourselves to God, we must first be freed from the power of sin. This is achieved, says Paul, when we are baptized into Christ Jesus (“clothed with Christ,” Galatians 3:27). In baptism, we fully participate in Christ’s death. Our anthropos (“old self,” 6:6) dies with Christ on the cross and, as a result, is no longer enslaved to sin because that “body” no longer exists. It is not accessible to the power of sin.
A word of caution
It is essential to recognize that Paul is in no way advocating that we punish or destroy our bodies, or those of others in a vain effort to free ourselves from sin. Anorexia, bulimia, cutting, corporal punishment, or domestic violence have no place in Paul’s proclamation. Freedom from the power of sin comes through our participation in the death of Jesus through baptism. It is here that we find freedom, renewal, and, ultimately, resurrection.
Living in anticipation
When we are baptized into Christ we become a new creation. Our “old selves” have died, becoming lifeless bodies no longer enslaved to sin. Embodied in the spirit of Christ, we are now alive to God: that is, we have been freed to serve God, who is the power that makes it possible for us to participate wholly in those things that work together for good (Romans 8:28).
This remarkable, present reality also has a future dimension: the promise that we will be united with Christ in a resurrection like his (6:5, 8). The present, then, is filled with anticipation. Our anticipation, however, cannot be passive; it must be active, alert, attentive: a vibrant hope guiding us as we continuously learn and explore what it means to be alive to God now. Julia Esquivel expresses it beautifully this way in her poem, They Have Threatened Us With Resurrection:
“To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep,
To live while dying,
And to know ourselves already