Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

As a young person—either with my family or some friends—I remember

us driving through the community of Ravenna, Ohio, when we pulled

into a large parking area in front of a lake. From the car we watched a large crowd

that had gathered there. Several of the people, wearing white robes, waded

into the water until it came up to their waists. Then, one by one, they let

a man, who had accompanied them, lower them backwards into the water—

three times for each person. Something was being said. But we were too far away

to hear it.

 

Although our denomination—like many others—uses fonts inside of churches,

with which we usually baptize by sprinkling water on infants or young children,

I have to admit there is something very dramatic about baptismby immersion—

and in a place with naturally flowing water, even if it is cold!

 

Immersion illustrates so well not only the new life of the Xn, but, preceding it

the old life that must first be done away with. As St. Paul puts it so well

in his Letter to the Romans:

Do you not know…all of us who have been baptized into CJ were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him…

 

When we think about it, that’s a really vivid image, isn’t it? Now Paul uses

a metaphor having to do w/what happens in a cemetery: “…we have been buried

with [Christ]…” But, in my opinion, since he is talking about baptism,

the more accurate way to describe it would be, “…we have been drowned

with him…” To me, that has a more immediate, physical, and violent sound to it,

don’t you think? Putting an end to the old self in each of us—the self that goes

 

its own way—is a struggle. It is, in fact, a life-and-death struggle.

Only when the heart of that struggle has come to an end---the old life deprived

of the oxygen of sin and so, in a manner of speaking, suffocated to death—

can the new life emerge from the waters of that death.

 

It reminds me of an older woman I once met when on a research trip.

 

It was a week spent in Philadelphia—at the Presbyterian History Center

up on Society Hill. Lodging, of course, is usually expensive in a large city

and, at the time, I was a semi-impoverished graduate student.

However, a friend told me about a very reasonably priced hotel of sorts.

It was owned and operated by the International Peace Mission,

a religious movement founded by a man who called himself Father Divine.

 

It was a kind of self-help church in which people at the bottom of society joined

in order to be pulled up to a new way of living. E.g., members were not allowed

to drink, smoke, or gamble. Both men and women had to dress modestly.

The previously down-and-out folks worked at a number of establishments owned

by the church, especially hotels and restaurants.

 

One morning, as I was about to head out for the day, I saw an older woman

who was cleaning the floor in the lobby. We struck up a brief conversation,

and as I often do, asked her about herself—where she came from, her family,

and so on. Her reply surprised me: “Oh, we’re not supposed to talk

about those things. They belong to our past. We have a new life here.”

Then it dawned on me: Why, of course, those who have left behind a life

of abuse, drugs, crime, have been rescued by the mission.

To dwell on their former lives, to possibly return to relationships

that had been destructive, could once again put them back on a path leading

to certain death.

But leaving behind a sinful life is easier said than done—at least to do it

with anything even remotely close to perfection.

 

In other words, although in baptism we fundamentally become new creatures,

redeemed creatures, we nevertheless struggle with wrongs that we continue

to think & say & do. As M. Luther, in his commentary on Romans, puts it so well

and so simply: “We are in sin until the end of our lives”—that is, our lives

in this world.

 

And so the new life we live in Christ is always, in our time on earth,

a work in progress. But, thankfully, it is a work begun and sustained by God.

 

It can be a tricky thing. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus,

God blesses us with salvation. God does it all. We can’t take any credit for it.

Yet that view can actually lead to a cynical attitude, as in this saying:

“I love to sin. God loves to forgive. What a wonderful arrangement!”

 

The other problem, the other extreme is, we can become so overly conscientious

about living out our Christian life, in doing so we may fall back into relying

on our own goodness. In other words, thinking we must first win God’s love

in order to deserve eternal life. That obviously is no good, either,

as Luther found out by torturing himself through too much fasting,

too much work, and too much time spent in confession.

 

Fortunately, various places in scripture point us to a third way.

And that is made known to us by two words having to do with how we use verbs.

That’s right—verbs. Now, right off that may not sound encouraging to those

of you who have never been too keen on grammar. But, really, what I am about

to share makes perfectly good sense.

So, 1 mood of a verb is known as the indicative. A second mood, the imperative.

 

This is what one person—his name is Bill Muehlenberg—says about them:

            The indicative mood…expresses a…fact or [a] reality. It is the mood

            of certainty. As to the New Testament, the indicative refers to what

            God has done [and continues to do] for believers in Christ.

           

In contrast, the imperative mood…expresses a command, an order,

[or] a request…the imperative calls on believers to live in a certain way,

for example, in a godly manner.

 

In faith and obedience we follow our Lord, becoming more like him

& less like our old selves. But all this is based on what God has already done on our behalf.

In other words, G.simply says: “Become who you already are!” As in these verses

 in another letter by Paul:

 Philippians 2:12b-13: “…my beloved, [continue] to work out your…salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

    So, again, living a new life in Christ is a work in progress. In any number of ways,

God reminds us “to be who we already are,” as imperfect as that may be.

 

To some, that might be a message of discouragement, of self-defeat.

Some might ask, “What’s the point in trying to be who we’re supposed to be

if inevitably we’re going to fail somewhere along the line? And fail over

and over again?”

 

Some might compare themselves to one of the characters in Greek mythology.

His name was Sisyphus, a king of the region that later became known as Corinth.

Although gifted in promoting the local economy, he was greedy, deceitful,

and cruel. Having gotten on the wrong side of Zeus, Sisyphus was condemned

to Hades &, for eternal punishment, was forced to roll a boulder towards the top

of a steep hill, only—just before finishing—to have it roll all the way down again.

And so it was—an endless exercise in futility.

 

We may be tempted to see the Xn life that way---that our efforts to leave behind

our old, sinful selves and become truly new creations in Christ—is doomed to fail.

At best, we may think whatever progress is made to be so small as to count

for nothing.

 

But a much better way to see things is knowing that each and every day

we have another opportunity to become more the persons God has intended us

to be. Each day we start fresh again. We don’t necessarily make much progress.

And sometimes we may fall into the routine of “1 step forward, and 2 steps back.”

Yes, that is what I meant to say: “One step forward, and 2 steps back.”

Reading scripture—such as today’s passage of P’s Letter to the Romans—can be  

a great help. And sometimes Martin Luther also has a good thing to say.

As in these words in The Small Catechism:

[Baptism] signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be

drowned through daily sorrow for sin and repentance, and that daily a new person

is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Let us indeed become who we already are.