Bob Dylan, in his brief Christian phase, wrote a song entitled, “You gotta serve somebody.” One line said, “It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” St. Paul is expressing something like this thought in the epistle, where he describes the change that takes place in baptism in terms of slavery:
As ye have yielded your members servants to uncleanness and to iniquity unto iniquity; even so now yield your members servants to righteousness unto holiness” (Rom 6:19 KJV).
In other words, before you were baptized into the death of Jesus Christ, you were a slave of sin. You surrendered the parts of your body to your sinful desires. You “served” sin. In baptism, the sinful part of you died and the life of Christ was planted in you through the Holy Spirit. Now you are to surrender the parts of your body to the Spirit. You are to serve God.
There is a difficulty in the language St. Paul uses about baptism. In last week’s epistle, he wrote, “We are buried with [Jesus Christ] by baptism into death” (Romans 6:4). St. Paul presents this death as an accomplished fact. However, the astute observer of the Christian life will ask, “If the old man, the sinful self, was buried in baptism, why does he seem to be all too alive and active in my life?” Is the old, sinful man kind of like a zombie in a cheesy horror movie? You kill him, but he just gets up and starts following you again.
The cross and resurrection of Jesus impact our lives in three time periods: past, present and future. On the cross Jesus said, “It is finished.” Nothing more needed to be done. Yet, the finished work of the cross must be applied to human history and particular human lives in the present moment. And the work of Christ in the world in the present moment looks forward to a future consummation when the implications of the cross will be applied to the creation in a full and final way.
We were baptized into Christ at a past moment in time. We died and rose with Christ. In a sense, it is finished. Yet this finished work must then be lived out in the present moment. We must actually put the deeds of the old man to death and bring forth the fruits of the Spirit now. As we fight the good fight now, we look forward to the future resurrection, when the old man will be truly dead and buried and all things will be completely new.
Baptism, then, restores to us the ability to live in communion with God. Our sins are forgiven so that we are freed from the burden of guilt. We have the gift of the Spirit, which gives us the power we need to resist temptation do what is right. However, we must still, by acts of the will, say no to sin, surrender our selves, our souls and our bodies to God and live in a new way. We must live in the present moment according to the new identity that we were given in baptism.
In this section of Romans, St. Paul is responding the disobedient Christian who says, “Since God forgives me, it doesn’t matter how I behave.” The logic of St. Paul’s response is not what we might expect. St. Paul does not say, “You are a bad boy and ought to be ashamed of yourself.” Rather, to the disobedient Christian, St. Paul says, “You have forgotten who you are.” “You were baptized into Christ’s death. You participated in Christ’s resurrection–and you’re acting like that didn’t happen.”
Coming to Christ through baptism and faith effects a change of identity. In baptism, we pray, “Give thy Holy Spirit to this child (or this thy servant) that he may be born again.” In baptism we become a child of God, a member of the body of Christ and an heir of the kingdom of God. Our new identity leads us to behave in new ways. Who we are determines what we do. Thieves steal, liars lie and sinners sin, but children of God, members of Christ and heirs of the kingdom serve God.
It follows from this logic that if we are not doing what we should do, we have forgotten, or rejected, our baptism. Or it may be that we have not yet experienced that conversion of the heart that makes the baptismal gift effective in our lives. In any event, the problem is forgetfulness. If we are unfaithful, we have forgotten who we are. The answer is to remember.
It is not a surprise, then, that the word “remembrance” is central to Christian worship. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Why do we need to remember? Why do we need recall the presence of Christ and enter back into the experience death and resurrection that began in baptism? Because we forget. Because we drift away from union communion with God and drift back into unfaithfulness. We need to remember, to experience again who we are before we can live as we ought.
Remembrance is the foundation for the life of prayer. Sometimes it is called “recollection.” We live a life of prayer so that we will continually remember who God is, what God has done for us and who we are as a result. We live a life of prayer so that we will experience again our union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit and, as a result, bear the fruits of holy behavior that grow out of that communion.
This is why it is wrong to think of Christianity primarily in terms of behavior. There are many non-Christians whose behavior is better than some Christians. That does not make them Christians. We cannot be good enough to be accepted by God on the basis of our behavior. Holy behavior is the result, not the cause, of our Christian identity. If we examine closely, we will see that faithful Christians are known by their prayerfulness. This prayerfulness leads to new behavior, but the behavior is the fruit and not the foundation of Christian identify. There are other things that will cause people to do what is right, or not do what is wrong. Guilt, shame and fear each produce a kind of morality. Vainglory, the desire to be thought well-of by others, will also lead to people to “be good.” However, only the experience of God’s love in Christ through the Spirit will lead us to obey God from the heart, to do what is right because it is right, to love because we have been loved.
To be a Christian, then, is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. To be a faithful Christian is to live in the light of that experience and identity. To be a faithful Christian is to remember that we were buried with Christ through baptism and raised with Christ through faith. To be a faithful Christian is to live according to our new identity in the present moment, in the hope of resurrection and life in the world to come.
For, “now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness and the end everlasting life”