The church in Rome is trying to find its identity. What might get lost in Paul’s deep theological conversations in his letter to the Romans is an underlying narrative of two groups of people that had different perspectives and backgrounds from one another who are trying to navigate what it means to be one church and community that follows Christ. In the church in Rome there were Roman Christians, those who were gentile with no connection to jewish tradition, and there were also those who considered themselves Jewish Christians. This group grew up in the synagogues and then at a point in their life came to faith in Christ.
A few years before Paul wrote this letter, the emperor Claudius saw the Jewish people as a threat to Rome and forced them to leave the city, this included those who considered themselves Jewish Christians. In the time they were away the Roman Christians continue being the church and their non jewish perspective became a part of the identity of the church in the way they worshiped, met, and even ate meals. Around the time of Paul’s letter Jewish people were allowed back into Rome and they come back to find a church identity that was very different than the practices of Jewish Christians, and it seems there is an identity struggle with what it means to be Christian.
I imagine as the two groups gathered there was much debate and eye rolling in the ways one were to worship, meet, and even eat. Paul having grown up Jewish, now Christian, and who sees his calling to bring the Good News to the gentiles decides to write a letter to a church he never founded or yet visited to lift up an encouraging word that God is the God of all, no matter our difference, no matter our perspective. In his letter he tells them that the church in Rome is called to be a place for all believers, whether they grew up jewish or grew up gentile. We might have our differences and even great debates on little details but we must not forget we all have a common identity through Jesus Christ.
In the verses before today’s reading Paul makes known that the Roman church’s common identity that they can find among themselves, and our common identity as Christians is that in Christ we all have found justification and life for all. God’s grace and love is the foundation of our identity as being a part of the body of Christ.
As Paul makes this claim about God’s amazing and abundant grace that is for all, he is quick to lift up how grace relates to sin that is in the world. It seems by the way Paul is writing in our letter today there are people who think that if God gives abundant grace because humans sin, then we are given permission to follow a life that is defined by sin. In response to this idea Paul opens up today’s text with a powerful rhetorical question “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? A quick and clear answer follows…By no means!
I am sure we all would agree that we are sinful people surrounded by temptations of this world. Paul would not disagree. Paul is lifting up to the Romans as they seek to claim a common identity which of these two do you want to define us…sin or grace? Sin is the human choice that causes pain, sorrow, and brokenness. Sin leads to injustice, fear, and hatred. Sin is our choice. Paul is proclaiming to the Romans that God has chosen to freely give us life and grace through Christ, to overcome the dominion of sin in our life. The good news is because of Christ’s death and resurrection our true identity is defined not by sin but our identity as people of God is defined by God’s grace that claims us and shapes us.
Paul uses the imagery of baptism to proclaim how God’s grace defines our identity as one of God’s own. Paul writes “We have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Paul’s words paint a great picture of the deep theological proclamations that are made about how the baptismal waters are an outward sign of an amazing grace that shapes our identity in Christ. The waters of baptism wash over us it tell us our identity as God’s children is an identity defined by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Jesus Christ died for all us sinners and descended into the tomb so we might no longer be enslaved to sin, and on the third day his resurrection proclaimed to the world that God’s grace and love has dominion over all things. It seems Paul was a fan of baptism by immersion like many in the early church were. He was drawn to the imagery that as one descends into the baptismal waters, the waters baptizes us with Christ’s death and those waters washes over the old self, and as one rises out of baptismal waters we find ourselves immersed in newness of life that shapes how we live out our faith and live out our life.
In the Presbyterian church we baptize those who are infants or adults, we sprinkle water, we can pour water, or we baptize by immersion (or dunk), even though we all have different baptism experiences they all hold the same meaning that Paul is proclaiming today. The baptismal waters tell us that our identity as children of God will always be one that is defined by grace and newness of life through Jesus Christ.
Because God so loved the world through Jesus Christ we are able to live out our faith letting grace define us, not sin. We are able to let God’s grace shape us into faithful people who love God and love God’s creation or as Paul said people who walk in newness of life.
Walking in newness of life that is shaped by grace sometimes feels easier on paper than in real life. Paul knew the reality of sin that looms around us, which is one of reasons he preaches that we should let God’s grace and love define our identity and not sin and fear. It is also the reason Paul preaches to the Romans to not let God’s abundant grace lead us to a life that sins freely, a life that picks and chooses when we want to be obedient and make God’s abundant grace, cheap grace.
A faithful response to God’s free gift of grace is to give our loyalty and love to God and serving God’s creation. Yet as sinners, we might veer and compartmentalize our loyalties. Maybe even compartmentalize so much that what we believe about our faith might not line up with how we live our life, or as one of my professors at Columbia Theological Seminary Dr. David Bartlett said, “we think that because our hearts belong to Jesus, our bodies, our check books, our votes, and our property belong to us.”
This is a struggle that faces 21st century Christians, especially as the world grapples and struggles with many systemic issues and in a time when so many cultural identities are grabbing our attention. Maybe we feel like we are facing our own identity crisis as a church and as followers of Christ. There are lots of worldly things that consume our thoughts or grab our loyalty or even make us uncomfortable that we might easily begin to compartmentalize our loyalty to God to protect our loyalty to our own self interest. In the news we read about churches and leaders in our community and in our nation having to navigate how their faith intersects with their social and political ideologies. As Christians in 2020 we can choose to compartmentalize our faith and identity as Christians and make it separate from the world around us to stay loyal to our self interests or we can discern where our identity grounded in God’s grace through Christ intersects with the latest social justice matter that surrounds us, the political issues that consumes the airwaves, the health crisis that hovers in our community, and the poverty that our neighbors are dealing with.
In those moments of discernment may we remember whose we are and that our true identity is one defined by grace and love through Jesus Christ. In those moments of discernment we are able to stand tall in God’s grace and love, and let God’s inclusive actions to love the world through Christ shape our own life of inclusion and love.
This is the reason that Paul used the words walk in newness of life and not think in newsness of life. Our actions are a great response to live out our identity and calling as Christ’s own.
In another letter to another church he never visited Paul lays out to the Colossians what walking the newness of life that Christ has given the world looks like… “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience…Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful…And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
These are powerful words that can be lived out anytime and any place. Let us rejoice and give thanks that God’s grace abounds and that our identity with Christ is one that full of grace and love. In response to a grace that so powerfully claims and shapes our identity as children of God may we give to God our loyalty, our love, and our devotion. As we navigate the complex matters of this world may we remember that God’s grace will always be present to shape how we lovingly walk in this world, God’s grace will always be present to shape how we speak truth in this world, God’s grace will always be present to shape our actions of thanks and praise, and God’s grace will always be present to shape how we love God and love God’s creation. Alleluia Amen!