• Steven Marsh

Joy–Relevance is a Great Tempter: a Reflection on Romans 6:1b-11

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, writes, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”[1] Even today, some still believe that people of color are inferior. Growing up in a segregated city where blacks lived on the west side, Asians in north central, and Latinos downtown, it was clear to me that white people, like me, had privilege that non-whites didn’t. As I reflect on the Civil Rights movement, Dr. King was correct. What is good for one is good for all, in that humanity is engaged in a common destiny.

Conflict between races, not just black and white, indicates an ignorance of the universal message of the gospel that all people are created equal and can benefit from the person and purpose of Jesus. God’s plan for redemption is colorblind. All can benefit. Racism is sin. God’s grace overcomes sin. Yet, because God is so loving does that mean we have license to do whatever we want?

I became a Christian in the 8th grade. I placed my faith in Jesus Christ and then began repenting of 8th grade sins. Looking at Playboy magazine with my buddies or making out with girls, and in both instances my thoughts wandering to sexual encounters, was not healthy. Oh, I didn’t have sex before marriage, but my mind and heart did. My middle school through college years was a time of acknowledging the tension between a faith rooted in legalism and license. Growing up, the Church I knew motivated from the shame and guilt of breaking God’s law. Unfortunately, much of the Church still operates that way. Churches either lead from law or license…both being a distortion of God’s grace.

The conundrum of law or license must be dealt with for the Church to be more effective. Being relevant is not the answer. Being authentic is. Paul, in Romans 6:1-11, makes three points for our consideration. First, it is impossible to overcome sin through our own efforts. Trying to “kick the habit,” if you will, only leads to weak resignation or defeat. It renders our walk with Jesus anything but dynamic. We need God and overcoming sin is a lifelong process. Second, what was impossible outside of Christ is possible in Christ. The total Christ event is actualized at baptism. This is true for an infant whose parent’s present her in full confidence that at the age of responsibility she will claim God’s promises as her own or an adult who professes faith with the sign of water sealing the reality of salvation. Baptism demonstrates up front or as response that we participate with, are united to, and have identity in Christ. There is new life in Jesus. And third, we have responsibility to acknowledge the “already, but not yet” of our salvation. We must appropriate and enact our new identity. This is where believing God’s promises about who we are and to whom we belong comes into play. We discover God’s perspective about who we are in our worshipping, learning, connecting, serving, and giving. We integrate our new identity with behavior. Harold Masback, pastor of The Congregational Church in New Canaan, Connecticut writes, “Since being precedes doing, better being may now naturally issue forth in better doing.”[2]

When we ponder our baptism there is much for which to be grateful. It is from a place of gratitude that we authentically experience joy. Joy is a feeling of great pleasure and happiness. Joy is an outcome of gratitude. And it is our baptism, whether as infants or adults, we claim God’s promises of salvation with the outcome of its requisite joy. We affirm the refrain of our most recently commissioned hymn as our own this season of Pentecost, “Spirit, grow your fruit within me, pruning me of selfish strife. May your virtues so define me that those watching see but Christ.”[3] The Holy Spirit elicits faith in each one of us and from there gratitude, that is joy, exudes from our very beings. By faith in Jesus Christ, we are reconciled to God and one another.

To understand this, affirm your union with Jesus Christ and enter that mystery. Jesus is alive in us and lives his life in and through us for the sake of others. Brenda Salter McNeil, the author of Roadmap to Reconciliation, writes, “Reconciliation is an ongoing spiritual process involving forgiveness, repentance and justice that restores broken relationships and systems to reflect God’s original intention for all creation to flourish.”[4] In Christ, all of us, regardless of color, are accepted. Yes, make the story of “the other” a part of your story and yours theirs. Journey together, in reconciliation, to fully experience your baptism. Baptism overflows with joy. It is sin and our reluctance to take sin seriously that cheapens grace.

How do Christians live liberated from law and resist license? Jesus reached into the brokenness of humanity to give us hope, peace, and joy. Jesus invited us into the universal story of God’s redemptive unconditional love, acceptance, and grace. As Christians, red and yellow, black and white, we must do the same…reach into the brokenness of humanity. For the brokenness of others is ours. Let’s pitch in “…to solve the problems of racial injustice, gender disparity and social inequality in our world.”[5] We need each other. We share a common destiny. Salvation in Jesus Christ is a gift for all.

What does Jesus’ voice sound like? Jesus cries out for our attention. Every story of human trafficking; every act of terrorism; every person asking for food; every homeless encampment; and every one of the 85 families living at the Tijuana dump…is Jesus crying out, “If you love me be my presence. If you love me, be my life. If you love me, be my power.” God lives within us.

[1] Cited in Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 4.

[2]Harold E. Masback III in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 3 (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 163.

[3]Chris Anderson, May They See Christ. The refrain in the hymn commissioned by Geneva Presbyterian Church, May 2017.

[4]Brenda Salter McNeil, Roadmap to Reconciliation, 22.

[5]Ibid., 14.

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