Homily for Proper 12, Year A
Sunday, June 22nd, 2008
Preached at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Reverend Daniel F. Graves
Text: Romans 6:1b-11
In my homily, last week, I noted that it is often in the crisis moments of our lives that we meet God. And while it is surely true that for many of us our relationship with God has been a loving encounter that has stretched gently through the many years of our lives, it is also true that, like any long-term relationship, its growth is often punctuated by moments of crisis. To some extent, all crises by which we are confronted are rooted in fear. Most fear is really the fear of loss – losing our loved ones, losing a way of life, losing a relationship, losing ourselves. And at the heart of our fear of loss, we encounter our deepest fear: The fear of death. All loss is, in some way or another, a death in our lives. Death is something that, as human beings, we all inevitably share in. Thus, every little death in our lives touches, in some way, that deeper death to be faced by us all, sooner or later. This is why the losses faced by others around us may be so poignant to each of us; the fear felt by another might be so easily understood and shared, and the death even of a stranger touches us profoundly.
This fear of loss and fear of death reaches across the centuries and as such, we can certainly understand what the people of Rome, to whom St. Paul wrote, felt about death. They were just as afraid of death as you and me. They had heard of the wonderful news of new life in Christ Jesus, but some had clearly not understood what this meant. Someone posed the following question: If God’s grace is offered to us because we are sinners, should we not continue to sin in order that grace may abound? One wonders if this was even a serious question at all, or one simply posed to demonstrate the absurdity of the concept of God’s free grace in Christ. Be that as it may, I wonder if what they really feared was reckoning with their own angst about their own human finality. The message of God’s grace is a message that offers hope not only for this life, but also for the next. But when we begin to consider the ramifications of God in our lives, we are necessarily led to consider the impact of risk and fear and loss. And ultimately, we must consider the reality of our own death. I suggest that the critique of the gospel to which St. Paul is responding is a critique that seeks to make light not only of the gospel, but to also make light of the human angst we all share. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
When confronted with life and death we have two choices. The first is seek to cling to life, by ignoring the reality of death. It is not a clinging to life because life is something wonderful, but a clinging to life because we are afraid of what it means to lose our life. It is to choose a life filled with extraneous distractions; things that distract us from the reality of death; that instill in us the false hope death will somehow miss us and pass us by because we are hidden by the clutter of all the wonderful distractions that fill our lives. However, we have another way; we can make another choice. We can choose to face the reality of our own death and in spite of it, in the shadow of it, and because of it, choose life. At funerals, we often focus on the words of the psalmist, “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” but we must never forget the companion verse: “I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me.” Death remains a reality for each of us, but as Christian people, we choose to believe that it means something very different than the passing away and destruction of all that is good in life.
St. Paul reminds the Romans that all who are baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. But I would suggest that baptism is not as much about our participation in Christ’s death, but God’s participation in our death. For in Christ God takes our human frailty, our human finality, and makes it his own; and in doing so conquers and destroys it. Death no more has dominion over him – the death he died, he died to sin once for all. Likewise, reckon ye also yourselves dead to sin and alive to God, in Christ Jesus. Death no longer has dominion over us.
In Baptism we have changed masters, we are no longer enslaved either to sin or to death. By being released from death as our master, we are also released from sin -- for is it not the fear of death that leads us into such selfish ways in which we cling to life not because it is beautiful but because we are selfishly afraid to imagine a world in which we do not exist? But in staring death in the face, Christ uses death to destroy death and vanquish its claim to victory. In this victory we walk in newness of life.
One of St. Paul’s favourite ways of describing a Christian is by using the phrase “in Christ.” You are “in Christ.” That is, we participate in his triumph over death, we walk in newness of life.
What does newness of life mean to us? In the academic discussion of Paul’s letters there is a debate that rages (is this not always the case when studying Paul?). The question is this: Is “newness of life” about a future hope or present reality. In academic terms we speak of the future or realized eschatology, i.e., is Paul’s theology of new life about a reality that God will one day bring about, or a new reality in which we are now participating. There are many passages in Paul that can be corralled to support either claim, but I would suggest that neither claim needs to be exclusive, and in fact are not polarities to be contrasted but should be considered complementary claims. On one level, Paul speaks about our death in the past tense and our new life in the future tense: “If we have died with him, we shall live with him.” This places us somewhere “between the times.” It suggests that our hope for new life is a future hope. And indeed it is. This is what allows us to believe that although these mortal bodies turn to dust, death is not the final story for any of us, but the door to new life. Although death has been defeated, we know that it only exists as the ending of this part of our journey and as the doorway to a yet more glorious journey. We have a future hope, and as Paul said in chapter 5 of Romans, hope does not disappoint.
However, Paul also says that through our death to sin that we are alive to God in Christ. Thus, as we have “put on Christ” in our baptism, we have also put on new life in the present age. In addition to the claim of future life, Paul makes the claim for new life in the here and now. In fact, he makes the claim that in our baptism we have already died. We have died to hopelessness, we have died to captivity, we have died to sin, we have died to separation from God, and now, nothing can separate us from the love of God. Although we continue to face the reality of the death of this mortal body, the words of Job ring true to us: “In my flesh I shall see God.” For while it is true that God calls us home after our earthly pilgrimage is done, we are not left comfortless in these latter days. God walks with us in Christ through the power of the Spirit throughout this earthly pilgrimage.
No matter the crisis that confronts us, no matter the fear that threatens to overtake us, no matter that our bodies shall one day give out, death is not our final story, nor is it or can it ever be our master. To be sure, we will continue to have our moments of doubt and fear. My own moments of angst often come in the darkness of the night, when the darkness threatens to overcome the light. I sometimes wonder if my passing out of this world will indeed be followed by my passage into another, or resurrection on some final day. Yet, sleeps encroaches and I find that I must finally submit to it. The next thing I know, the dawn has arrived and my fear has subsided. In the light of day I find hope not only for the future but also in the present moment. In the light of the day, I find abundant life, not only as something that will blossom when the harvest comes to fruition but also in the unfolding and flowering of my life in the present. It is in these moments in the light that I find the strength to face the darkness that will inevitably come again, and the courage to believe that the darkness always gives way to light. I come to recognize what St. Paul means when he says that we are “alive to God.” From our experience of being alive to God we begin to learn to believe that even when it seems like death has won the day, we can continue to believe that, even in the face of death, the promise of new life endures and is our reality.
Whether it be the experience of new life in the midst of the changes and chances of this fleeting world, or whether it be our hope for life beyond the grave, as Christian people we are convinced of one thing, that death no longer has dominion over us. In both the gentle unfolding of our lives, and also when faced with a litany of faith-challenging crises, we take comfort in the fact that we have chosen life, and indeed that life itself, in the person of Christ Jesus, has chosen us. Let us go forward then, eagerly to meet him in the midst of the worst the world can throw at us, because in those moments of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, when fear threatens to overcome us, we shall fear no evil; in the moments when we seem most alone we shall remember that, “thou art with me”; and when we come face to face with the reality of death in our lives, we shall remember that death has been swallowed up in victory and we shall believe that goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our life, a life that is lived not only in the present, but eternally, in the heart of a loving God.
Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This homily may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.