We are embarking on a four-week tour of Pauline theology this week, starting with Romans 6:1-14, our text for Sunday, May 1. This will, it seems, seal our quarter-long meditation on freedom and redemption with some hard-core Christian theological understanding of Christian freedom [from sin and death, especially]. Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We have studied texts from Romans before, most recently a four-week series of lessons last summer (here, here, here, and here), and at various other times [see the text index], but never this one. Hopefully, our past studies will have taught us a few things about this letter of the Apostle Paul’s to the church in the city of Rome, the scholars conclude sometime in the late 50’s CE. We’ll recall that Paul is writing to a church that is experiencing some intramural conflicts that stem from cultural and practical differences between Jewish and “Greek” members. We probably need to think of those “Greeks” as Greco-Romans. Gentiles, whatever their actual ethnicity and whatever their social station, who culturally were products of their first century CE Mediterranean society. They would have had different cultural “instincts” from their Jewish co-congregants, and those differences were evidently causing trouble.
The first eight chapters of the letter are a long argument (as I read it, along with many others, probably due to many others) demonstrating that these differing cultural instincts are not the main point. The main point is that “all have sinned,” whatever advantage someone might have from their relationship to salvation history or their lifetime of Torah study counts for nothing in the face of that, and as sinners redeemed by the grace of Jesus Christ all the members of the church are on the same [equal] footing. From where we live in history, it might be difficult for us to see the Jewish members of the Roman church as the spiritual elites and the Gentiles as the morally questionable riffraff, but that’s probably how it was.
Our text comes towards the end of Paul’s argument, after he has laid out his points about the universality of sin and the hopelessness of obtaining salvation through compliance with commandments; the example of Abraham, who was counted righteous by [God’s] grace, for the sake of his faith; and the role of Jesus Christ in providing “us” [Paul, and his readers – the Roman ones, and we think also the now ones] access to the same grace, also in faith. At the end of chapter five, he contrasts our inheritance from Adam – sin and death – with our inheritance from Jesus Christ – reconciliation, and life.
[We’ve never studied Romans 5:12-21, by the way. That text is the immediate rhetorical context for this week’s text, Romans 6:1-14. Romans 5:12-21 seems to me a little bit of a broken up bit of reasoning, relating sin, death, and law. If I understand it, which is not certain, it boils down to this: Adam sinned, by breaking a direct divine command. That brought in death, which ruled everyone from his time until Moses’s – and beyond. Then, came the law [we know from elsewhere, a good thing, in and of itself]. And did that help? It did not, because everyone still sinned, in fact, now we sinned even worse, because now we knew we were sinning and we still did it. I am dragging in things from chapter seven, which seem to be implied in and foreshadowed by Romans 5:21. Fortunately, now, as heirs of faithful and genuinely righteous Jesus Christ, we can faith-fully rely on the remedy of God’s grace. This, then, is the set-up for Paul’s “What then? Are we supposed to sin, so grace may abound?! By no means!! That’s not what I’m saying at all!!!” Then he keeps working on saying what he IS saying.]
The argument really doesn’t clinch until the beginning of chapter 8: if you have the Spirit of Christ, rather than the spirit of “the flesh,” your life is going to proceed from an inner spiritual source that comes from God, and is pleasing to God. Home free.
The first part of chapter 6 is an integral piece of this argument. This is the piece that establishes that those who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into Christ’s death to sin, and his resurrection to newness of life in God. This dying and rising with Christ frees us from our old slavery to sin.
It seems to me that Paul has in mind a slavery that operates though the mechanism of desire and its relationship to human choice and action. The divided self portrayed so dismally in chapter seven is an extension of this Pauline analysis. This is probably not news to lots of people, but it feels like news to me. I think it makes a difference in how we read Romans if we read it as a passionate work of advocacy for the transformation of one’s inner life, of desire and intention and choice, towards conformation to the Spirit – the desires and intentions and choices – of Christ. This transformation is made possible by grace, which cancels our earlier inability to even imagine different desires and choices, because of our slavery to sin and death.
I think this reading makes sense of Romans 6:12-14, the instruction not to “present your members to sin as weapons of wickedness” – which you now are free not to do – and instead “present your members to God as weapons of righteousness.” There is a war going on, Christ’s war against sin and death, and you are free now to be on the side of life.
Choose life. Desire life.
Usually I would have “CLOSER READING” here, but I have used up all my time reading the book of Romans trying to follow Paul’s larger argument here, and being blown away. Here’s why: I think we Protestants really, really, grossly underestimate the radical character of what Paul is saying in Romans when we summarize it [as we often do!] as “we’re justified by faith, not by works.” Yes, he does say we’re justified by grace, through faith, “apart from works of the law.” But: beyond that, this dying and rising with Christ through baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection opens up a whole new way of living based on a whole different INTERIOR way of being that is Christ’s own way of thinking and feeling and desiring and intending and thus of acting. That is to say: radical change of life.
I am tempted to say “radical freedom,” but because “we” [contemporary Americans] think of “freedom” as “getting to do whatever I want whenever I want to and not having anyone tell me what to do,” I’m afraid those words don’t communicate. What communicates to me is this: I used to be a smoker. Now, I am a non-smoker; I have been a non-smoker for almost twenty years. I cannot even remember the last time I had the urge to buy a pack of cigarettes, or smoke one; the thought of doing that makes me shudder with revulsion now. I think I get to say [almost] that I am free from smoking. [I say “almost” because, if I ever did have that urge again, and I think that still might be a possibility, I would still have to smother it. Because I’m pretty sure that if I ever did light up a cigarette again, I would be right back there, addicted, driving to the 7-11 in the middle of the night, and standing outdoors in sub-zero weather to get a fix.] I think that “being a non-smoker,” not having the constant desire to smoke, is an image of the “newness of life” Paul is talking about. That new life means we have new desires and preferences, new thoughts, new horizons and possibilities and dreams, new intentions, and from all of THAT, new behavior.
I don’t think this is new theology at all, though. Just think of old-fashioned words like “regeneration” or “sanctification” or even “theosis.” But we sure do not hear it much, do we?
[Although Romans 6:3-11 is a reading for Easter Vigil every year; and 6:1-11 and 6:12-23 are the epistle readings for the 12th and 13th Sundays in Ordinary time, year A. And there is plenty more Romans in the lectionary. So, we could.]
If we do not hear this much, how are we supposed to pay attention to what it means for us? To where we are seeing it at work in our own lives, and where we are not, and what we can be and need to be doing about that? To living into it?
And isn’t that the point?