Sermon on Romans 6: 3-11 and Matthew 5: 20-26, St Matthew’s, 31st July 2011
There is an obvious connection between today’s epistle and gospel readings summed up by the first verse of the gospel reading which comes in the middle of Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount: ‘Jesus said unto his disciples, Except your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter the kingdom of heaven’. Remember that the Pharisees were considered by Jesus’ listeners to be good, morally upright, people –not the hypocrites we have come to think of them as being.
This verse from the Sermon on the Mount is mirrored in Paul’s instruction/advice to the Romans: ‘Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin.’ In other words we Christians are to lead lives that are exemplary, even though, or even because, our lives have been transformed by Jesus dying on the cross and rising again. As Paul says in the verses immediately before our epistle reading: ‘What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound. By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?’
The problem here is that what Jesus and Paul are saying here doesn’t seem to be borne out by what we observe. Christians do not appear to be any better people than non-Christians. They do not appear to be more righteous than the Pharisees or dead to sin. But I am not going to go into this conundrum today – or at least not tackle it directly – instead I want to say a little about what Paul is saying in this passage about death and dying.
You could say that Paul is not really talking about death as humans experience it in today’s passage from Romans at all. That Paul is explaining how the death of Jesus should change the way we lead our lives; that when he is talking about seeing ourselves as ‘dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus’ he is using death as a metaphor for some sort of altered state prior to our actual death.
Well this may be true but nevertheless Paul does, I think, say some useful things about our actual deaths along the way – because he clearly does not regard death as a wholly negative thing: or rather that now Christ being raised from the dead – death is, no longer, a wholly negative thing
Now death is a subject that we don’t often talk about - perhaps because we do tend to think of it as a wholly negative thing and therefore something we would rather not think about let alone talk about it with other people. And this is slightly odd because we know that if we think and talk about something then we can see it in a clearer light and it become easier to think and talk about. This in particular applies to things we are afraid of. And death is something we are often afraid of.
There is perhaps more discussion about the process of dying these days: with the increasing concern that modern medicine sometimes seems to prolong the suffering that sometimes precedes death – but there is still not a lot of discussion about death itself: the outcome of the process of dying.
But death itself is perhaps something worth thinking about before we get there. Someone recently told me that she thought it was harder to think about death the closer one came to it so perhaps on this basis we should think more about it.
One thing I have learnt recently is that death and what happens after death are not the same thing. Some people seem to fear the former and not the latter and some to fear the latter and not the former. Some people fear both, some neither. My father I think, really did, whilst claiming to be an agnostic, fear what was going to happen to him after death. I don’t think I ever said anything to him which allayed those fears. Nor perhaps could I ever have done so. For myself I am not afraid at all of what will happen to me after I die –but like many of us I suspect – I am afraid of the process of dying and I am not at all sure about death itself.
As Christians we should – of course - not be afraid of what is going to happen to us after we die. This is because we have assurance of salvation. How can we be assured of salvation? This is of course a big topic –perhaps for another sermon. I do not think we can know for certain what will happen to us after we die but I do know we should not be afraid of what is going to happen. Paul says later in Romans [8: 14] ‘you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear’
Whilst we should not be afraid of the consequences of death I do not think we can know what those consequences will be. Will there be life after death? If so will that life be anything like life as we now experience it? Billy Graham said this week that he was looking forward to meeting his friend John Stott in heaven – John Stott having died on Wednesday. Now I am not at all sure we will meet our friends after we die: possibly we will, possibly we won’t. The Bible, unlike Billy Graham, is remarkably ambivalent on the subject.
But, as I said, the Bible is clear that we should not be afraid of what will happen to us after death. Paul sort of says this here – at least by implication -when he says here: ‘But if we have died with Christ, we believe we shall also live with him’ but he says this even more succinctly in his first letter to the Corinthians: ‘O death where is thy victory, O death where is thy sting’.
But not being afraid of the consequences of death is not, of course, the same thing as not being afraid of dying. We might be assured that there is nothing to fear from the consequences of death but this does not mean that we are any the more likely to come to terms with dying. The suffering that some people experience during the process of dying is something that is natural to fear: just as we fear suffering that doesn’t lead to death. Not all deaths are accompanied by suffering but many are. Since I know I am going to die (unless Christ comes again in my lifetime) then it is natural for me to hope that my death will not be accompanied by suffering.
But what of death itself? When the process of dying is complete and life as we currently experience it is extinguished. Are we supposed to fear that? Or are we supposed to come terms with it. Death is after all something that is inevitable. If something is inevitable then what is there to fear?
It is worth pointing out at this point that prior to Christ’s death and resurrection death was a totally bad thing. Jesus came, in part, to conquer death.
But Jesus’ death and resurrection clearly didn’t lead to everyone living for ever so when Paul and others talk of Jesus conquering death they clearly mean that Jesus’ death and resurrection transformed the way death affects us, changed its consequences. But does this mean that death was turned it into a good thing? I don’t think I can fully answer that question.
It says in our epistle reading today, ‘Christ being raised from the dead will never die again, death no longer has dominion over him.’ But through his resurrection Jesus not only overcame his own death he transformed the effects of death in general. In our epistle reading Paul says that ‘We were buried with him by baptism into his death’. That is when Christ was buried in the tomb we were buried with him. In a sense our death and burial – like that of Jesus - is transformed into a thing of the past. Perhaps this is easier to grasp if we think of death as losing its finality. For that to happen, says Paul, we must be baptised and then we may come to believe death has thereby been conquered, death has lost its sting.
So death has been transformed by Jesus’ death and resurrection but does that mean it is now a good thing. Why I think Paul is saying or implying death is not a totally bad thing is that, he says that we too must, in various senses die, if we are to be united with Christ. Death is, if you like, a final surrender, a final giving up, and we must in the end surrender everything to gain everything. Paul says: ‘For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall be united with him in a resurrection like his.’ That is to live the new life which Christ’s resurrection promises we must in some way share his death - a paradoxically victorious death.
Is this to all minimise the horror of death? Paul hasn’t forgotten the loss of everything, the abandonment by everyone including God himself - as Jesus’ death entailed and we are somehow to participate in. But Paul insists that because of the resurrection this loss, this abandonment is not final as it was but in fact the prelude to new life because ‘Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might walk in newness of life’.
What, then, shall we say in response to this? It seems easiest to repeat what Paul says a few chapters later in Romans, ‘If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? … Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: "For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’