Today’s author is Prince of Peace member, Paul Sponheim.

Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I think that in Romans Paul is talking about something that is hard for a European-North American culture to hear and hold. I’m thinking, for example, of the deeply relational character of Paul’s understanding of things. That may find uphill going in a culture affected by a strong dose of individualism. For example, notice that he consistently speaks of sin in the singular. My quick count finds about a dozen singulars in these fourteen verses. He is not talking about sinS pleural, specific acts of wrongdoing, though there is something of that perhaps in his exhortations about our “mortal bodies“ and their passions (vv12-14). But the focus is on continuity. Thus the question can arise about “continuing”  in sin. Or on “living”  in it. Sin is a power that can hold people captive; in Paul’s vivid language sin can “have dominion” (vv 12-14).

Now to follow Paul’s argument about death we probably need to remember that strand of thought which posits that it is sin that is the cause of death. Quite literally, then, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:21). So, to fight against sin (the point of this passage and our focus tomorrow) Paul will lead us back through death. Jesus did verily die on the cross. That is not up for argument.  But here we get a sense of God tricking the power of evil. It has a kind of “Been there, Done that” feel to it. You could say he took over sin’s big weapon, death, and the fear of it. After all, the cross is a prime weapon for sin. And God beat it. Jesus is risen, indeed. What good would it do Evil to crucify him again. Jesus himself put the matter in three words: “It is finished.” Or, in Paul’s language, Jesus died “once for all “( v.10)

There’s one more crucial step in the argument. In faith, Jesus’ disciple is united with him. What is the nature of that union? Keep in mind here the nature of the union of the divine and the human in Jesus.  We could speak of it as “moral”, if we mean we stand on the same ethical grounds Jesus did and we follow the direction(s) discerned by New Testament research. The emphasis here is on the true humanity of Jesus. This moral union is a strong union and it has consequences. Thus we say that, though he did not sin, he was truly tempted. Surely the devil is too smart to tempt someone who cannot sin. But the biblical calls us to say something more about Jesus.  That witness abounds in saying things like God was IN Jesus. We could call this a metaphysical union for it testifies to the divinity of the very being of Jesus. John began his gospel asserting that the Word–the all-creative Word, one with the Creator,–became flesh (1:14). Does a Christian mystic experience a comparable becoming? In any case, it seems that we need both the moral and the metaphysical.

We are in over our heads here. The Christian movement has struggled to hold the moral and the metaphysical together in speaking of Jesus. There’s a hint a half-century earlier, in the Christ hymn in Philippians chapter two. What does it mean to say that in the incarnation the divine “emptied” himself? Systematic theologians will continue to puzzle over that. But it is clear that one thing the divine did NOT give up was his courage. One could even say his confidence, for the hymn sings of how “every knee” will bend and “every tongue” will confess that Jesus is Lord (Phil. 2; 10-11). These early disciples were confident because they believed they were speaking of the action of God.  If you are talking about a relationship with God, you are playing on the “A squad. Is there nothing for us to do then? Yes, plenty. That’s our topic tomorrow.                      

There is much of this deeply relational language in the bible when it speaks of our calling. Thus we find scripture speaking both of our calling to be IN Christ AND oF the fact that Christ IN us is our hope for glory. There is a strong streak of individualism in Euro-American culture, There’s value in that but it may make it harder for us to grasp the deeply relational character of the union with Christ. We will talk tomorrow about guidelines that can help us stay on the right track.