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Lent 3: Baptized in Terror, Rising in Courage

March 19, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Third Sunday Lent, March 19, 2017. This is the third in a series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans called “Justice, Generosity and Joy.”

Romans 6:1-10

How can we who died to sin still live in it? Or don’t you know that all we who have been baptized into messiah Joshua were baptized into his death? We were buried with him therefore by baptism into death, so that as [the] messiah was raised from the dead for the sake of [on account of] the shining forth of the father, so also we might walk in newness of life.

For if we have been united in the likeness of his death, we shall certainly be united in the resurrection. We know that our old human[ity] was jointly crucified in order that the body of sin might be rendered inoperative, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

For the one who has died has been made just from sin. But if we have died with messiah, we are confident that we shall also live with him. For we know that messiah, having been raised from the dead, no longer dies; death no longer rules over him. Having died into sin, he died once and for all, but living, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in messiah Joshua.

Translation by Theodore Jennings[1]

Death makes all things equal. Omnia mors aequat.

We often think about Jesus’ death as conquering death, and Jesus’ resurrection as promising life after death, for those who believe. Certainly, our Easter hymns are full of such language.

In this equation, no matter how powerful or weak we are, no matter how much or how little money we have, no matter how influential or insignificant we may be viewed by society – belief is the great equalizer, ensuring to all who believe in Jesus, life after death.

The egalitarian nature of death – met by the egalitarian nature of belief in Jesus is often the way we read Paul’s letters. We are reassured that all of us are important and that all of us can be saved, can access eternal life.

While this idea of dying to death and rising to new life brings comfort and can have an equalizing effect, ensuring everyone in the faith community knows that he or she is equally valuable in God’s eyes – a reassuring thing especially when our society says otherwise — in this Letter to the Romans Paul is doing something more.

It’s important for us to remember that when Paul wrote this letter to the Romans, the cross wasn’t yet a symbol of faith. It wasn’t something that people wore around their necks or got tattooed onto the inside of their wrist. It was an instrument of dehumanization and death. And there wasn’t just one cross that Jesus carried and upon which he was crucified. Crosses were ubiquitous. Crucifixion was used as “the ‘supreme penalty’ in notorious cases of high treason,” and was frequently used “as a means of suppressing rebellious subjects in the provinces.” This often resulted in hundreds, sometimes thousands, of crosses being erected at a time at ‘cross-roads’ where rebellious subjects, including children, were crucified.[2]

But the cross was also regularly employed as a punishment for slaves in cities throughout the Roman Empire.

Paul wrote to the Romans during the reign of Nero, what one scholar has called “the ‘midnight’ of the first century.” The consolidation of political and cultural power around the figure of the emperor created on ongoing crisis in which “politics perished.” Power was maintained by imposing various degrees of dependence on the population and, in the last instance, by terror. “The wealth of the emperor and his syndicate depended upon the vigorous exploitation of the resources of the provinces and upon the enslavement of a significant portion of the population – the latter institution maintained by the cruelty of crucifixion.”[3]

The cross was a punishment meted out to the poor who stood up to Rome through outright rebellion, through banditry, or who simply refused to be enslaved. According to Larry Welborn, professor of New Testament just down the road at Fordham University, just “how deeply slaves lived in the shadow of the cross is illustrated by episodes from satires and novels [of the time.]”

Horace criticizes a master who crucified his slave for finishing off a half-eaten plate of fish which he had been told to remove from the table. In his novel, Petronius tells how one of Trimalchio’s slaves was crucified for having cursed the soul of Caligula; the notice of his death is read out by a clerk from a long list of things that happened that day on Trimalchio’s estate, such as the harvesting of wheat, and the breaking-in of oxen. The novelist Chariton, who was probably writing in the middle of the first century CE, gives a grim depiction of the crucifixion of sixteen slaves who were working on a chain gang in Caria. Shut up in a dark hut, under miserable conditions, the slaves broke their chains in the night and tried to escape, but failed because the dogs’ barking gave them away. Chariton relates the outcome: ‘Without even seeing them or hearing their defense, the master at once ordered the crucifixion of the sixteen men. They were brought out of the hut chained together at foot and neck, each carrying his cross’. Juvenal describes a Roman matron blithely sending a slave to the cross, merely because she is of a humor to do so; when her husband asks what offense the slave has committed worthy of death, the lady replies that she has no reason, but, after all, a slave is not really a man.[4]

So crucifixion played an ordering role in the Roman Empire – the terror of being crucified was always present and it kept people compliant. And if your neighbor was hauled off wrongly for crucifixion, if you were smart, you kept your head down, lest you be crucified next.

In fact, crucifixion was so common, it was even outsourced.

“Just outside the Esquiline Gate at Rome, on the road to Tibur, was a horrific place where crosses were routinely set up for the punishment of slaves. There a torture and execution service was operated by a group of funeral contractors who were open to business from private citizens and public authorities alike. Their slaves were flogged and crucified at a charge to their masters of sesterces per person.”[5]

So the cross was not only about death, it was a form of terrorism in the hands of the state and powerful individuals.

Spartacus3x10_1042

Let’s go back now and think about what it might mean to hear these words of Paul imagining not that he was simply talking about Jesus putting an end to “death” but Jesus death putting an end to state sponsored terror.

First, any poor person or slave who heard these words — anyone who had been subjugated by Rome, anyone whose family had been terrorized from the time when the Romans raped and burned and slaughtered their way through Galilee to subdue that province and then did the same to Judea to bring them under Roman rule – any poor person, any slave who heard Jesus was crucified, would have understood one thing: he’s one of us. Jesus knew the terror, the threat of crucifixion as they did and he was brutally killed on a cross like so many thousands of others had been. When poor people, conquered people, and slaves heard Jesus was crucified, they knew: he’s one of us. They also knew that this meant that he and his teachings ran counter to Roman expectation and obedience. And as followers of him, that was what they too would have to confront.

Jesus’ death on the cross meant for them, that God, understood and shared their experience of terror and death AND that the cross — this instrument that inspired such terror, such fear — no longer had that same power over them.

For in dying with Christ believers die to individual terror and rise to new life as one courageous community, capable of facing real and present dangers with confidence, together. While it is an individual who is baptized, that individual is incorporated through baptism into the faith community. While one dies alone, one rises into community. Now this was not a starry-eyed vision. There were plenty of crucifixions after Jesus’. The Roman Empire held sway for a very long time. The reality on the ground – the daily terror unleashed on the people — continued.

But what did change was their sense that they could face this terror square on and that they did not face it alone. Jesus faced it with them and so did every member of the community of faith.

Through baptism, followers of Jesus died to the terror-filled life they had been leading. They no longer allowed fear to be used to control them. And so they lived with freedom; they lived new life here and now. It still meant many went to their deaths. We should not try and paper that over. And baptism doesn’t somehow rescue those deaths at the hands of Rome from being horrible, wrong, grievous losses. The crucifixions continued – but they no longer had the power to terrify the followers of Jesus in the same way they had before.

Right now many people are living in terror because of executive orders and policies of the Trump Administration; from transgender teens who fear to use the public bathroom to refugees in a state of limbo, uncertain if they’ll be returned to their hostile countries. From undocumented workers and their children who recede further into the shadows – afraid to send their children to school, to go to the doctors, to go to work, to even go out – to people whose very survival is dependent on the Affordable Care Act, or Meals on Wheels, or school lunches.

This message of being baptized into Christ’s death and the promise of rising with him into new life, is especially meant for you. It is not “nice words” that are really “cold comfort.” For with it comes a promise. You are not alone. Jesus is with you. And so is the community of baptized Christians in this place. It doesn’t mean we can change all of those realities – we will work hard to do that of course – but we must also be honest for real lives are at stake. We can’t and shouldn’t promise things that we can’t deliver. We can’t make everybody safe. We just can’t. But what we can do, what being baptized means we’re called to do as followers of Christ, is to be sure that no one walks alone. That no one has to face this current terror alone. That we as a community will face it with you. We will walk with you even should it risk our own well-being. For just as we have all been baptized into Christ’s death, we have all risen with him to new life together.

Paul’s letter to the Romans is a letter for our time and for our place.[6] It does not provide cheap comfort. In fact in invites every believer to be ready to risk all that we have for one another as faithful followers of Christ. Several weeks ago I came across a desperate line that Bonhoeffer wrote as he watched even his colleagues in the Confessing Church pledge themselves to the Third Reich, “the perseverance of the few is overwhelmed by the acquiescence of the many.”[7]

Baptism involves both God’s call to us to persevere and our responding pledge to persevere. In each age, in each generation, God’s call comes. We must decide how we will respond. After we sing our hymn, I am going to invite any who wish to renew their baptismal vows to come forward. And together let us profess our faith:

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.

By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.

Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.

James Russell Lowell
Abolitionist Poet, Prophet, and Critic

[1] Theodore W. Jennings, Jr. Outlaw Justice: The Messianic Politics of Paul. (Stanford, 2013).

[2] L.L. Welborn, Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life: Political Theology and the Coming Awakening. (Columbia, 2015) p. xii

[3] All citations, ibid. p. xii

[4] Welborn, “’Extraction form the Mortal Site’: Badiou on the Resurrection in Paul.” NTS 55, pp.295-314.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “In contrast to the method of historicism, which seeks, by forgetting the subsequent course of history, to lay hold of the eternal meaning of a work, and in contrast to the popular, liberal assumption that a work is susceptible of a variety of legitimate interpretations, depending upon the interpreter’s perspective, [Walter] Benjamin proposes that a work – a text such as Romans – contains a temporal index that connects it to a specific epoch, and that it comes forth to full legibility only for a person who is singled out by history at a moment of danger, a perilous moment like the one in which the work was composed.” Welborn, Paul’s Summons. p. xiii.

[7] As related in Charles Marsh, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Vintage, 2015). See my earlier sermon, “The Perseverance of the Few” January 1, 2017.

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