There’s an interesting discussion on one of the Christianity websites I regularly visit about the role of scripture in Progressive Christianity. Now, to be honest, I’m not comfortable with the term. Too often, those who identify themselves as “progressive” Christians have more to say about national and international politics than about the good news of Jesus Christ. In addition, I find progressives defining themselves over against what they oppose than offering a positive vision and message of what it might mean to be disciples of Jesus Christ in community. Still, if I’m honest with myself, for the most part the theological positions staked out by most in the progressive camp are closer to my own positions than those of the conservative evangelical camp.
In this conversation about scripture, various authors try to explain the role of scripture for progressive Christians. It’s an interesting conversation because it reveals a great deal about how these writers think about scripture and what they think scripture might have to say in the twenty-first century. Most of them stress that we bring our interpretative frameworks and questions to the biblical texts. Most of them also argue that there’s an underlying theme or perspective that one can discern if one reads carefully (and for some of these authors, prayerfully). All of that has some truth but over the years, I’ve also come to understand that part of reading scripture is allowing (expecting) scripture to challenge us, to raise questions about our interpretative frameworks and questions, to challenge us to rethink the way we look at scripture, our faith, and the world.
One of the biggest impediments to allowing scripture to challenge us is that we only read, or closely examine, certain parts of it. For example, by now most of you have figured out that week to week, it’s my usual practice to focus on the gospel reading, and that rarely do I preach on the text from the Hebrew bible, and even more rarely from the day’s epistle reading. There’s one very good reason for this—in the gospels, we encounter Jesus Christ, his actions and his teaching.
On the other hand, the other texts we hear each Sunday are important. Often they are challenging. Take the reading from the Hebrew Bible today—the story of Abraham casting his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael into the wilderness. It raises questions about divine judgment, election, and choice and deserves our close attention. It also addresses themes of rape and sexual violence, immigration, and the other that are bubbling up in our own political conversations. I’m sure many of my colleagues across the country are preaching on this rich and troubling text.
Then there’s the epistle reading. One of the biggest problems with preaching on the epistle is that usually the passage that’s read is extracted from a larger argument and to do it justice requires extensive explanation. Still, this summer, we will hear from the letter to the Romans for 13 consecutive weeks and as I reflected on the arc of the lectionary in the coming months, I thought it might be appropriate to pay close attention to this important letter. I doubt very much that I will preach each week on Romans; rather my intent is to focus on it in such a way that over the course of the summer, you and I will get some sense of what Paul is trying to say here, and also to see how his argument and concerns might help us understand our faith and to explore more deeply what it means to follow Jesus Christ.
Now Romans is a difficult and complicated text and there’s a lot about it that I simply don’t have time to say in a sermon, so I encourage you if you’re interested in learning more to visit my blog where I’m posting some reflections and links to other sources. I can’t even say much about its context except this. It’s written in the late 50s as Paul is hoping to visit Rome on his way west to Spain. Unlike Paul’s other letters, he is not writing to a community he has founded or visited, so the letter serves as something of an introduction. In addition, because he doesn’t have to address known issues or conflicts within the community or between him and Roman Christians, the letter was an opportunity to lay it with some care, some of his key theological arguments. First and foremost among these was the relationship between Jew and Gentile, between Jews who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah and Gentiles who did.
As he writes, he has to explain why the law, the Torah was central to Judaism but also why, even though Jesus Christ is the Messiah, the one who fulfils the law and offers salvation and righteousness to both Jew and Gentile, Gentiles who profess Jesus to be the Messiah do not need to keep the law. In the section just before today’s reading, he has made the point that the grace abounding in Jesus Christ offers eternal life and justification for all those, Jew and Gentile, who would have been condemned for their sins. The first few sentences of today’s reading are his attempt to deal with one possible misunderstanding of what he has written: that by sinning more, there is more need for grace, and more grace.
Our reading is a crucial one for Christian theology and faith. It is one of the key passages in which Paul talks about baptism. Now notice, he’s not making arbitrary claims about the sacrament, or laying out his theology of baptism. Rather, he’s using it to remind his readers of the importance of leaving a life of sin behind. Baptism has done more than brought them into the church (a concept that would be alien to Paul, anyway). Baptism has united us with Jesus Christ: “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead … so we too might walk in newness of life.” Baptism, through the crucifixion of Christ has made us dead to sin, and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Let me unpack this for a moment. Hang in there with me. Paul is trying to do a couple of things. He begins with an analysis of the human condition and the world. The world, and human beings, as God created us were good. But something happened. We rebelled against God and sin and death came in. God decided to make things right, beginning with Abraham, whom God promised would be a blessing to the whole world through his progeny (the Hagar/Ishmael story is part of that narrative). Eventually, God gave Abraham’s descendants the Torah, the Law, which was intended to act as a blessing, through the people’s obedience to it, for all the nations of the world. But that didn’t work out. The people rebelled again and again. Now, “in these last days” God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, to make things right. For Paul, that means that the “making things right in the world” comes through Jesus Christ, the Messiah. He sees Jesus Christ as the fulfillment, the end of the law, and also the beginning of a new age. When people believe that Jesus is the Messiah, they begin to participate in Jesus Christ and in the new age that the Messiah is initiating.
What does all this mean? For Paul, it means that through baptism, not only do we enter into Jesus’ suffering and death we become something quite new—a “new creation.” This is where things become quite difficult for us in the twenty-first century. We don’t see the world quite like Paul does. Even if most of us experience the world’s brokenness as well as our own, we tend to view baptism as little more than a cute rite that babies undergo and are opportunities for family celebrations.
For Paul, there’s nothing cute about baptism. It’s about death and resurrection. It’s about fundamental change (and by the way that doesn’t mean it washes away original sin). Baptism makes us new people, new beings and makes us part of Jesus Christ. That’s why he insists in this passage that sin and death have been conquered; they no longer matter. But it’s not that we can no longer sin; it’s that we no longer should sin. If we are in some sense participating in Jesus Christ through our baptism, then our life should reflect the holy life of Jesus Christ.
Paul wants his readers (and us) to claim that new life brought into existence through Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection and through our own baptisms. Think about it a moment—how might understand yourself differently, how might you act differently, if you really believed, and truly experienced yourself as participating in the life of Jesus Christ? Paul says on occasion, “it’s no longer me, but Christ living in me.” We are comfortable, thanks to Evangelicalism, with the notion of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, but that’s not what Paul is talking about. He means Christ indwelling in us, the barrier or distinction between ourselves and Christ being broken down.
For Paul, all of that is what “claiming one’s baptism” means. There are really two sides of it—one is experiencing the joy and power of Jesus Christ indwelling in us, experiencing that sense that our brokenness, our sinful nature has been mended through Jesus Christ. The other side is living like that, in “newness of life.” If we experience the one, the joy and the healing, we also live the other, living in such a way that we show to the world the joy and love of Jesus Christ. That’s what Paul means by baptism. That’s how he understands the Christian life.