Romans 6:1-15 “Alive in the Spirit”
Twice in my life I have been down into the catacombs of the ancient city of Rome. The catacombs are where the early Christians buried those who died. They were tunnels, caves, underground, where in the end of the persecutions the believers were forced to worship because they could no longer worship above ground without fear of arrest and torture. They were long tunnels lit with oil lamps. On both sides of the tunnels were crypts where dead bodies lay stacked behind brick and mortar.
I do not want to be morbid, but imagine for a moment that our entire church was just the center aisle. There were no windows. And, the walls were just all the graves that we see outside in that grassy lawn. The only light is from a few flickering flames. Someone stands up and begins to talk. That person was actually in Jerusalem when Jesus was crucified and remembers seeing his dead body hanging on the Cross. The next person talks about his family members who have just been caught be the Roman guard and will most likely become part of the entertainment in the Coliseum, perhaps being thrown to the lions.
Then, one of people there brings out a copy of a letter that was just written by the Apostle Paul. He reads the exact same words that we read this morning. In our culture today, we do not like to talk about death. We are a death-denying people. Yet, in those days, the early Christians were very closely surrounded by it. They lived in a culture of death—the early Roman religion was not much more than a death cult. Death was like a sport to the Romans.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul talks about sin. Down through the millennia theologians and scholars have made arguments that the sins of the Roman church were such as adultery, drunkenness, and anger. Yet, I think what Paul was really addressing was the tacit acceptance of the prevailing cult of death. Paul reassures the early church that even though they are worshiping as if they have already died and been buried underground, they are indeed alive in Christ. Even those buried around them are alive in Christ. Wow!
You know, today in our struggle with terrorism, I have noticed that we have begun to keep scores. Today, once again, death has become like a sport. When an attack takes place, the first thing we do is tune in to see how many deaths were involved. We tune into television news channels and see the score at the bottom of the screen not unlike how a football game would be announced. We send cruise missiles in response and immediately want to know how many are dead on the ground. We keep score.
I believe that the main sin in Rome and perhaps even still today is the unwitting acceptance of a culture of death. The bible states clearly that death is the “enemy.” Check out 1 Corinthians 15:26: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Okay, death is the adversary. Death is the other team.
To be alive in Christ, to be alive in the Spirit, means that we accept that Jesus has already won the victory over death. Game over. WE won. No reason to keep score anymore. That is the victory of the Cross. So, our sin is that we should focus death more than we focus on the life that has been given to us by God. Game over! Life wins!
In his letter, Paul goes on in verse 3 of today’s scripture to talk about baptism. I will share with you that when I was in seminary I was told that when a pastor baptizes by full immersion, that one should hold the person being baptized a little while under water before bringing him or her back up. The idea was to make the person actually feel what it might be like to really not be able to breathe. Give just a little bit of a fright before raising them back up in a moment of rebirth.
One time I baptized a woman in a river close to some rapids. When I lowered her down with her hands pinching her nose shut, I realized that in that position she was really hard to hold onto. Actually almost did have to let her go down the rapids. I was just able with all of my strength to fight the current and bring her back up again. It was really almost a real near-death experience.
Twice in the ocean just out here I have had to grab and hold onto people I have baptized just as a rogue wave has tried to take them out to sea. Both of those people really were scared to death of being carried away. They were just about literally carried away in their faith!
The idea of baptism is that we die unto ourselves and are reborn to God in that very moment when we are raised up out of the water again. It is a spiritual rebirth. David Hanashiro told us in bible study about his experience in training to be a Navy Seal. They put him under water until in fact he passed out. One minute he was doing fine, the next thing he remembers the commander slapping his face and asking him how many fingers he was holding up.
The idea is very simple really if you have faced death already in your life, then you tend to live each day thereafter with new zeal. I believe that all of us have those moments when we say to ourselves afterwards, “Wow, I could have died.” Then afterwards we hold every day just that more precious. We live more fully and appreciate every breath God gives us.
This is like the heavenly “do-over”! How ever your life was before, when you accept the new life in Jesus Christ, you are reborn, and you have the chance to do things right again. Your sins are forgiven. The past is passed. As they say in Spanish, “Que es pasado, pasar.” The past is spent. Today you are alive in the Spirit of God.
Now, there is a question that should be running through your minds about now: Pastor, are you saying that I will never die? ‘Cause, I know I am gonna die one day. As they say, “there are only two sure things, death and taxes.” Of course, unless Jesus returns before my natural death, I will die. Paul knows this. He himself will be martyred in Rome.
We have to focus on verse 9 of today’s text. The Apostle Paul tells us that death will no longer have “dominion” over us. To have dominion means of course to have power over us. We no longer think of death as that powerful person in a long black robe that is always chasing after us with a long-handled sickle.
I think that it is actually helpful for us to think of death as being like a person—the grim reaper if you will. Why would you give that particular man any power over your life? Let Jesus be Lord of your life. It is your choice, death or life. Death will always be with us, just do not let him have dominion over your life.
In verse 13 we read “. . .Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.” The term “present” here from the Greek literally means to stand up before someone. As one would stand up before a king or queen, you are not to stand up and present yourselves to this guy death at all. You are to stand up and make yourself known to Life. “Don’t take life lying down!”
The word for life that is used here is “Zontas,” from the base noun “Zoe.” This is not simply biological life. That is “bios” in the Greek. This is not just the heart beating. No, this is to live with gusto, or to live with meaning. If you ever wondered where the “Zonta Clubs International” got their name from? It is this simple idea that life is more than just the physical body processing bio-mass to sustain movement.
When I talk about being alive in the Spirit, I am referring to the idea of a dynamic spiritual existence that is exciting and fulfilling. It is a life that is not afraid of death because it has really no dominion since Christ’s resurrection.
You know, I do not know how many times I have been close to death. None of us can really know. Sometimes we see that which has just missed us, and sometimes we do not. What I do know is that I once fell off a cliff while hiking and probably should have died then. I have crash-landed in jets twice. I was able to walk away from both. I have had a crazy woman with a knife come after me. I have been shot at on the LA Freeways, with a bullet hole in the car just six inches away from me. I once drove through a town in Thailand that was about an hour later blown off the map by the Burmese military.
God, why do you keep on sparing my life? Is it that I should be ever all the more afraid of death? Or, is it, as I suspect, that I can now live more fully and devote my life to serving your will? This is what it really means to be saved! God is saving me again and again to live for God!
God is not saving us just to live through more of the misery of our days. God is saving us to live fully in the Spirit. God is saving us to do miracles of faith like the apostles did. God is saving us to come up out of the catacombs of fear into the light of God’s glory and grace.
That is exactly what Paul is writing the Romans about. “Stop living as if you have already died. That is the greatest sin. God has saved you to live fully in the Spirit of Life as God created it to be.” We are now alive in the Spirit, fully infused with the power of Christ’s resurrection in our members.