Be Dead To Sin
Change is very, very difficult. As I get older, I find that I am becoming much more set in my ways, more and more unwilling to change from my comfortable routines, as my wife and son can no doubt attest to. Even when it involves bad habits or sin that we know we should not do, it is difficult. A man worked with me when I lived in Alabama, and he received a chest X-ray which showed a shadow in one of his lungs. They did a biopsy on it, and he waited for several weeks, eventually finding out that it was not cancerous, but during the entire time he never quit, or even reduced, his smoking habit. Humans become masters at providing justification for doing what they want to do, believing what they want to believe. And it has become more difficult in the last quarter century because we can now get on the internet and find a web site or forum or watch a cable TV channel with like-minded individuals on any subject who will all mutually reinforce one another in whatever habits or convictions that we currently have.
Saint Paul, in the second reading from his letter to the Romans, is dealing with a situation where people are reading into his teachings what they want to hear. The reading starts on the third verse of chapter six, and leaves off the first two verses which set up the reason that Paul is telling this to the Christian congregation in Rome. The second verse reads, “How can we who died to sin yet live in it?” Now most of Paul's letters are to churches that he helped establish; however, Paul has never been to Rome at this point in his life and therefore he is dealing with people who have heard second-hand, or probably in many cases misheard fourth- or fifth-hand, what he was teaching.
One of those teachings is a major tenet of our faith: that it is solely by the grace of God that we are saved. Adam and Eve could not merit the rewards of God by their own, and neither can any of us, their descendants. This is why the Son of God came into the world, to be the new Adam: though sinless he was made sin so that, by dying on the cross, we could be saved. Christ, because he was God, can merit the grace of salvation, and because he was also man can earn it for us.
Theologians believe that Paul is writing this passage to the Romans because Paul believes that they have misinterpreted this mystery and his teachings on it. Christ has done this for us, a sinful people, and so He had defeated sin. Some may have turned this on its head – we need not avoid sin because Christ has overcome it. Some people might have actually justified sinning, that we might therefore gain even more of God's grace. This, of course, is not what Paul means, and he therefore spells it out explicitly today: “Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as [being] dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus” [v. 11].
Paul tells us that, “we were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,” that this is what gives us “newness of live” [v. 4]. The belief that baptism is an act which guarantees salvation regardless of what happens afterward, or that what is important is that one is baptized and then must only profess a belief in Jesus, reduces baptism to a magic trick or an initiation into a club. It becomes a vaccine, an inoculation against eternal damnation. But Paul denies this – he then goes on to state that when we, through baptism, join the body of Christ, His Church, it then fundamentally changes us, that we ourselves must be dead to sin and therefore what we say and do must be Christ-like, conforming to His teachings. We must willfully cooperate with the grace of baptism to make it efficacious.
Baptism is a sacrament of initiation, and in becoming baptized we become His disciples. Just before his ascension, He commissioned his disciples to go and make more disciples by baptizing them and bringing them into the Church. This is the mission of our parish at Saint James, because it was first Christ's mission to us: go and make disciples. If we successfully carry out our mission, we then will realize our vision: we become a community of joyful disciples. This then is what Paul is calling, “living for God in Christ Jesus” [v. 11].
The Gospel reading, although more practical in its teachings than the more lofty and theological words of Saint Paul, arrives at the same point: “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” [v. 39]. He talks about love in very human terms, declaring that we must love God at an even higher level than people have for their parents or their children. This is what He means when He asks us to take up our cross: at baptism, we agree to take it up, and then spend a lifetime learning our role in the body of Christ which enables the Church to perform its mission: to bring all things unto Christ.
Jesus goes on to name some of the works that one must do in order to be a good disciple, and in this passage he particularly emphasizes the importance of hospitality, a theme matched in the selection of the first reading. God's mandate of hospitality is a timely message to us in this troubled time. A good host or hostess graciously welcomes people that he or she invites, but also those that show up into their lives uninvited. Christ specifically discusses prophets, who in the Old Testament were sent by God to Israel and were generally not welcome – decidedly not welcome. Their messages were often found unpleasant to the Israelite people and especially their kings. The news today is full of people yelling at one another. How well do we, all professed Christians, welcome different viewpoints? How well do we listen, in a hospitable manner, to those with views that run counter to our own? The proof of our love is not how well we love those that are easy to love, like our mother and father, or our children, but those that are difficult to love. Loving our friends is not taking up our cross, but loving those who disagree with us is. We are not dead to sin if we despise or denigrate those who hold different opinions than our own.
I am indebted to Monsignor Pellegrino, who wrote a reflection on today's Gospel, for pointing out that today is the day set aside on the Church calendar to recognize Saint Irenaeus. This saint, among his many writings, said: “The Glory of God is man fully alive.” What a great way to summarize today's readings. We are fully alive when we put God first, we carry our cross, we die to sin and don't excuse it. As we continue our liturgy with the Eucharist, let us participate in the grace that it bestows, becoming one with God. We do this by becoming the glory of God, becoming fully alive, becoming joyful disciples.