Paul, baptism, and that death thing

No one knows whether he’s always been our enemy. I like to think that in the beginning, he wasn’t. I like to think that at first he was a mysterious presence, but not a threatening one; that he would arrive unbidden, but not necessarily unwelcome. Probably sometimes his arrival was even embraced, as it is on occasion today. I like to think that, for a time, we knew him to be part of the natural order and accepted him as such, even if that acceptance didn’t mean we loved him.

            But somewhere along the way he tasted our fear, and that’s when things turned south. That fear, for whatever reason, intoxicated him. He became addicted to it. He worked to increase our fear, so that he might lick up every delicious drop. Allying himself with those who, like suffering and violence, have always sought our ill, he strengthened his grip on our imaginations. Now he’s almost always hovering at the back of our minds, infecting us with anxiety over the frozen nothingness we fear will greet us on the other side of the door he opens.

            And no, even though April 15 came and went recently, I’m not talking about the IRS agent; I’m talking about death. It’s an ugly word, isn’t it? Death It hardly seems appropriate to use that word on a beautiful spring morning like this, when the world itself is being reborn and we gather to talk about resurrection. More to the point, we’d like to think of Easter as the one day out of the year when we can forget about death, and focus on something else for awhile. Heaven knows, death gets his due the other 364 days out of the year.

            It seems, in fact, that no matter how hard we try death is always the uninvited guest in the room, the unnamed but not unknown watcher peering over our shoulder. In spite of our best efforts to compartmentalize death he’s always there, mocking our fascination with youth and our futile hope that if we somehow surround ourselves with enough stuff we will anchor ourselves to life and resist death’s inevitable call. Even our secret attempts to worship him, to create a culture that glamorizes death and violence have done nothing to appease his ravenous hunger to consume us.

            You’d think that death would be sitting fat and happy, but you’d be wrong. In fact, he hasn’t known a moment’s peace for a couple thousand years now. The trouble started one day when the Evil One, being the Prince of Lies that he is, started spreading a bunch of lies about this guy Jesus of Nazareth. To the scribes and Pharisees he said, “Kill him and everyone will forget his teaching.” To the priestly families he said, “Kill him and your power and influence will be secure.” To the Romans he said, “Kill him and the world will know that there is no king but Caesar.” And to death he told the biggest lie of all: “Take him, swallow him, and you’ll be more powerful than God himself.” So death teamed up with his old buddy violence and together they took Jesus’ life. When Jesus uttered the words, “it is finished,” the biggest celebration the world has ever seen got cranked up, with death, chaos, suffering, violence, and all the other Powers that from of old have sought to oppress God’s creation partying like no one’s business.

            Until, that is, Sunday morning and a very startling realization dawned on the Powers at exactly the same moment. The sun came up, the stone rolled away from the door of that tomb, and a lot of conventional wisdom got dumped on its head. Chaos doesn’t rule this world; justice does. Violence isn’t the final solution; love is. Death doesn’t get to speak the last word; that privilege belongs to resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is God’s final, irrevocable “NO!” to the all the Powers who thought they were in charge. The Resurrection is the sign that, to put it simply, God’s love wins.

            And here is the good news, brothers and sisters, for this fine Easter morning: death might still be our enemy, but because of the Resurrection, he is also our servant. Romans 6 tells us that as followers of Jesus Christ we share in his death. That is, of course, a daunting and liberating idea. Daunting because to follow Jesus, you have to die. He said it himself: If you want to follow me, take up your cross. Now, unless you know of some other purpose for which the Romans built those big heavy crosses, I’m pretty sure he’s telling us to die. That seems like a harsh word, doesn’t it? “Gee, Lord, do I have to, you know, die?” Couldn’t I, I don’t know, eat something I don’t like or come down with a cold, or something?” And here, by the way, is why everyone is always looking for one of those mythical lost gospels, because they’re hoping to find the one that says “If you would come after me, take up your broccoli and eat it.” No such luck, I’m afraid; it’s die or nothing. Die to our old life, our old habits, our prejudices, our plans, our pride; just die.

            And yet Paul’s assurance that we’ve been baptized into Jesus’ death is liberating because this is the death, the death that changed the rules of the game forever. This is the death that broke the power of death itself; this death is the sentence that ends in the word “resurrection.” In baptism, we die; it’s that simple. Why else would there have to be water? Without water baptism would just be a cute baby trying to yank off the pastor’s glasses as the pastor parades that baby around the sanctuary. But add water into the equation and baptism suddenly becomes something a lot more powerful. Water is about life because we can’t live without it, but it’s also about death, because put us in water and leave us there and sooner or later, we’re going to die. But that death in baptism isn’t just our death; it’s Jesus’ death as well. And that means that on the other side of the waters of baptism lies resurrection and new life. Getting there is simple: All we have to do is die.

            This is where it helps to read the whole Bible. I’m willing to bet that you’ve heard before that stuff that Jesus says about taking up your cross and dying. But it’s possible you haven’t heard Paul’s promise in Romans 6 that, if you’ve passed through the waters of baptism, you’ve already died and been raised to new life. This is why preachers like Rev. Carol are forever saying that thing about remembering your baptism when they talk about being a disciple. If you hear Christ calling you to follow him, step outside your comfort zone, and die to yourself (stick around this church long enough and I’m pretty sure that’s going to happen), then the reminder to remember your baptism can be pretty comforting for a couple of reasons. First, because it tells us that we’ve already had to die once, in the waters of baptism. And second, because it brings to mind what we all learned in summer camp as we stood trembling on the edge of the high dive: it’s always hardest the first time. Having been through that death already means that all our other deaths, even the daily ones, need not be so fearsome.

            Our fear of death doesn’t have to hold sway over our imagination, the way it rules the imagination of the world. Death is our enemy, to be sure, but not our conqueror. The death of those we love brings real grief because the grace of their presence in our life is now gone. The death of anyone, especially an innocent, is a sign that God’s kingdom has not yet arrived in its fullness. Because we live by faith and not sight our own death is a mystery we won’t fully solve until we experience it, and that causes us fear. Yet I think that for the baptized death is at least as afraid of us as we are of him. He knows that we’ve been marked by the waters of baptism; he knows that our death is Christ’s; and he remembers how well that death turned out for him the first time.

            Maybe in the end death won’t be our enemy after all. Revelation chapter 20 says that, at the end of all things when God creates a new heaven and a new earth, death will be cast into a lake of fire. That fire could be destructive, of course, but I wonder if instead it won’t be redemptive. I wonder if death won’t emerge from it cleansed of his lust for power and his addiction to fear. I hope that he’ll walk up out of that cleansing fire, lay down his ancient enmity with God’s children, and stand bathed, as we stand this morning, in the healing light of resurrection. Amen.

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