The following is an edited version of the homily I preached at the Lutheran – Catholic Covenant Celebration at the Kent State University Newman Center on Sunday, October 26, 2014. With the Festival of All Saints approaching, I thought the baptismal themes expressed would be fitting for this day. The texts for the homily were Romans 6:4-11, and John 3:13-17. There are additional comments in the postscript.
When we were baptized into Christ Jesus, we were baptized into his death. We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
With these words, we begin a Lutheran funeral liturgy. You will note immediately that they are the exact words of the Apostle Paul which we heard in our epistolary reading [Romans 6:4-11].
Each and every one of us, regardless of our economic or social status, our political leanings, our race, our religion, each and every one of us share two things in common – we were born, and we will all die.
I am reminded of this every time I turn on the news, especially in these last several weeks since the outbreak of Ebola in several West African countries. The stories have dominated the headlines. The relatively few incidents here in the United States have created a panic the likes of which this country hasn’t witnessed in years, despite the fact that only one person has died.
What it points out to me is the tremendous grip that the fear of death has on our lives. When someone dies in a foreign country, as thousands have in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone and elsewhere, it doesn’t seem to matter to many of us. But when it happens in our back yard, it becomes a crisis.
So we do everything possible to avoid death. Yet every attempt to avoid or to defeat death, is ultimately self-defeating. To underscore this, I would point out that 50,000 people die annually in these United States from the flu, and there are an estimated 32,000 gun violence deaths each year. What we do in life has consequences, some good and some bad.
In the first five chapters of Romans, Paul describes why all men and women are equal before God. He states that sin entered the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Guilty by association, all of their descendants must suffer the punishment of a broken relationship with God, with one another, with Creation and finally the ultimate punishment-a physical death. We die because of sin. We are children of a fallen humanity. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
Paul explains that both the Jew and the non-Jew are guilty of disobedience. The Jewish people have broken the law given through the prophet Moses and the Gentiles, the non-Jews, have broken the law that God had written on their hearts. The Gentiles have also, according to Paul, chosen to worship the creation rather than the Creator. Both groups stand guilty before God and deserve punishment but God offers his grace through faith. Salvation is a gift not the reward for religious works.
While this argument may seem obvious to us, it was not obvious or logical to many. Paul’s opponents argued that if God forgive so easily what is going to keep people from continuing to disobey the law. Why would anyone want to go to the trouble, effort and inconvenience of obeying the moral code? His rivals also contended that if God likes to forgive and men and women like to sin, why not keep on sinning so God will keep on forgiving. To which the apostle responded with horrific outrage.
Paul’s vehement reaction was based in his understanding of the connection between the resurrection of Jesus Christ and Christian baptism. Death need not be the final end for us. We need not fear death. And the greatest defense that we have against death is our baptism. It is through baptism that we die to sin and live a new life in Christ.
The Christian life is a new life. We are committed to a different kind of life. We have died to one kind of life, and been born into another. Eugene Peterson paraphrases it this way in The Message: “we left the old country of sin behind…we entered into the new country of grace- a new life in a new land!”
Someone pointed out to me some time ago that your baptismal certificate is both a death certificate and a birth certificate! Death to the sinner! New life in Christ! I must admit I never thought of it that way. But that does present an interesting image. The first act of living the Christian life is to die to your past.
Somewhere in my preparation for this homily I read that in the early days of church history it was a common baptismal practice for those entering the water to lay aside their old clothes, depicting their surrender of the former life of sin and death. They emerged from the water like newborn babes – naked and innocent.
Once we have died to ourselves, we can then live to God. So Paul tells the Romans to consider themselves dead to all the things from their past; to treat every desire, every temptation, every old habit as if they were lifeless. Paul insists that the cross must be seen as more than Christ’s last breath, it is also sin’s last breath.
Of course, we are still tempted. We are still tempted to worship the gods of success, prestige, and money. We are still tempted to take what doesn’t belong to us. We are still tempted to cheat or to spread rumors. We are still tempted to lie to save face. We are still tempted but we don’t have to give in. We are not bound to a certain behavior.
Our Lord graciously invites is to live our Baptism each and every day. In our Gospel reading from John we hear Jesus give us those words of assurance in verses sixteen and seventeen have the “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
We have Christ’s word that we are, by baptism, dead to sin. And we have Christ’s promise that we shall be raised from the dead with him into life eternal. Our true identity lies as close to us as our own experience of baptism. Those who are baptized have been incorporated into Christ and share his destiny. What is left is for the baptized to become what they are, living out the meaning of baptism in daily life. Amen.
I write this with a heavy heart. On Tuesday evening, October 28, 2014, a dear friend, Abelino (Al) López died peacefully at Cleveland Clinic with his family at his side.
I have known Al for nearly 40 years. We first met as members of the board of the Spanish-American Committee for a Better Community in Cleveland back in 1977. We cut our teeth on community service back then. Those were turbulent times and the meetings were often contentious. But the discord served to galvanize our friendship.
We played basketball, and shared an occasional lunch. And at the heart of our conversations was first and foremost, the betterment of the Hispanic community of Cleveland. It was his passion.
Al went on to help found Esperanza, an educational agency committed to providing scholarship for deserving Hispanic/Latino students in the Cleveland Public School System. Always an advocate for education, he served many years as a counselor at Cuyahoga Community College and was a mentor to many.
I am convinced that as he entered God’s heavenly embrace, the first words he heard were, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Rest eternal grant him, O Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him. Amen.