Following a Dying Leader into Life

The Voyage Home  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  21:01
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When we are baptized, we pledge our allegiance to a leader who died before all the powers of the world. We align ourselves to a Risen Lord, who has overcome death. We are to sacrfice as well, put to death our sin, enslave ourselves to Christ so as to no longer be enslaved to the ways of the Empire. "The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God." So it is with those who follow him.


Sermon Scripture

The New Revised Standard Version Dying and Rising with Christ

Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.


Remember last week, we began our study of the book of Romans, which will take us through the summer. As we read, we’re challenged by what it means to find our home in God’s Reign, amidst all the demands for our allegiance by the Empire. It is a difficult proposal — to set out in search of a home when there are actually a lot of great comforts and privileges with belonging to the Pax Romana, the Peace of the Roman Empire.
And today’s text confronts us directly with this challenge: is it better to stay put and enjoy the life of the Empire, or are we willing to sacrifice and become a member of a different kind of family, a participant in a voyage home into the heart of Christ? Make sure you hear it from the outset — the journey home into the family of God requires us to relinquish power and privileges that we enjoy and may even take for granted.
In the way of Jesus, we are given grace and liberated to step outside of the systems of the Empire and belong to a whole new kind of community of loving welcome. Christ’s death, for us, sets us free.
But…and there’s always a but…we wonder: can we have the best of both worlds? Can we accept this grace and forgiveness and the faithfulness of Christ…but can we also retain the benefits of living in the way of Rome? Can we have our cake and eat it too? Can we be good Roman Christians? Or Christian Romans?
Put a bit more directly, the question is: Will we make a deal with the Empire to remain in sin, in the ways of destructive life, because they sure feel good and we enjoy the fruits of their power? Or is our allegiance truly to the Reign of God, belonging to another home?


As we enter into this study of Romans this Summer, one important question we are going to have to wrestle with is what kind of leader do we serve? We are led by many different people in the spheres of our life. We have national, state, and local political leaders. We have pastoral leaders. We have leaders in our workplace, leaders on the board of the nonprofit we volunteer for, leaders in our condo association, leaders in our schools. We need leaders, good leaders who will help chart a course and take us all into the next steps of our journey.
Living in the Empire, we know the Roman citizens had a strong leader who they were meant to serve and follow — Caesar. As well, they had military leaders who they honored for their valor in battle. They had religious leaders, priests of the temples of the Roman pantheon of gods. They had Paul and his fellow apostles. Leaders were and are everywhere.
Since there are people in leadership all around (mind you, I didn’t say they are all good at the task of leading…), we have to wrestle in ourselves with who we will serve. Who does our allegiance belong to?
Many leaders promise to make progress and make the world better through their plans and policies. They promise a better life, more prosperity, greater things to come. If we make our pact with them, then the best is yet to come. Truly convincing leaders promise us that by aligning with them, we will get to have access to the good life in that brighter day, which only they can bring about.
They will lead us into prosperity so that we can all enjoy the benefits of their reign. Unfortunately, in many cases, they will also entice us to follow them into ways of compromise, destruction, greed, and ultimately enslavement to a way of life that supports their interest and power.
Contrast this with the leadership of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we see a humble servant leader. One who talks about love and care for neighbor and even enemy. The one who in our text today has offered us a way to become “slaves of righteousness.” There is not “get ahead” philosophy in the leadership of Jesus. Jesus actually leads us in a different direction — toward less, toward sacrifice, toward emptying ourselves of all that would otherwise feel good but ultimately hurts and destroys. The leadership of Jesus is calling us to give up our privilege, to sacrifice our position, and to find life by being liberated from the need to get ahead and stay on top.

American Christianity

While we’re working through this study on Romans, we are going to find that the true Voyage Home is going to cause us some discomfort along the way. Working for and traveling toward the place we truly belong is going to push us to shed some of the privileges and power of our old ways.
And so it is with today’s text: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may about? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
Under the surface here is this question: can we experience the life of Christ, fully receiving the grace and restoration of God, while also retaining the practices of the Empire?
Put in Roman terms: Can we claim allegiance to Jesus’ way, while also paying homage to Caesar as lord? Can we live in the way of righteousness, while also supporting an empire which enslaves and subjugates people as a process of takeover and assimilation? Can we claim to be beloved and belong to Christ, while we also enjoy the benefits of sexual bondage in patronage to the rich elites of the city?
Or how about this, put in our modern American terms: Is the way of liberation found in Jesus compatible with the predatory practices of “get ahead” capitalism? Or can we just keep up our addictions to pleasure and indulgence because we receive grace for every time we stumble or miss the mark? Can we claim God and Country, both with capital letters and interchangeably prioritized: Country and God, God and Country, Christ and Party, Flag and Spirit?
We might not immediately consider these connections to the way of the American Empire as sin, and why would we — they are simply a part of what it means to be citizens of a nationstate in the modern world…right?
Right…and…when we take a step back…or when we acknowledge how it was for these first Christians in Rome, we realize that the question is not so much about whether we can be a good member of society while being a Christian: the question is to which do we give ultimate authority?
Rome wanted nothing less than the full allegiance of ones heart, mind, body, and strength.
For that allegiance, the leaders of Rome promised prosperity, security, growth, wealth, and privilege. Seems like a good bargain, right?
But what we’re seeing here is that if we truly want to come home and journey into Christ, to find our true belonging in the loving arms of God, we are going to have to sacrifice some of those benefits.

Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ

Let’s bring this home, let’s continue our voyage home.
Following Jesus requires us to let go of so much that the Empire wants us to cling to. Our power, our status, our wealth, the deals we’ve made to get ahead. We let go of it because we realize that it is mostly hot air, dead space, empty promises that leave us cold and alone in the shadow of Caesar.
Rather…in Christ, we are set free from that kind of enslavement to power. We become bound up in another way: bondage to righteousness. That is what it means for us to be dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Today we are invited to remember our baptism as the marker of this death and resurrection. In baptism, we are claimed by the promises of God’s love and the life of Christ. We enter the waters (or are sprinkled by the waters at least) and we die. As Christ entered death. We relinquish those allegiances to the way of destruction, the allegiances to leaders who promise success if we bow before them, the allegiances to Rome over and above Christ.
And then we rise from the waters. We rise in new life. We are resurrected as Christ is, new life in us and a belonging to the way of God’s love and grace.
So, again, as we hear the opening words of today’s text: the question becomes — do you want to keep going back to the way of death so that you know grace? No way!
Instead, we receive life by turning to Christ and being aligned with him in all that we are.

A couple final words

In closing, a couple final words about how this might look for us as followers of Jesus in Bellingham, WA in 2020 amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, in an election year, with the rising tide of calls for racial justice. We live in a complex time.
Will we continue to participate in racist systems that oppress and hold down black and brown bodies, because so many of us benefit from the power and privilege of such systems?
Will we practice the way of life in how we protect all people from the spread of virus? Will we wear our masks and keep our distance and sacrifice our comfort so that others might live and have a chance to experience the lovingkindness of God in the days ahead? Will we renounce fear and live in confidence as people who trust science and deliberate actions that can save lives?
And will we ask questions of our leaders and consider who they are really inviting us to serve and call lord of our lives? Will we challenge ourselves to expect fewer blue sky promises and expect, instead, more compassion and sacrifice for the needs of the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner? Will we make decisions for our future as people expectant of big promises or, rather, as people expectant of the promise of Shalom, peace, well-being, found in the way of righteousness?
Will we follow a leader who dies…dies so that we and all people who call upon Christ’s name might know the liberating way of life? Will we follow this dying leader into life?
Friends, you know the answers. You have been called by God…awakened to hear Christ’s voice…you’ve met the presence of the Spirit in your daily life. Let’s set aside all the other stuff, all the noise. Let us no longer be enslaved to sin, but rather let us rise in the resurrection life of Christ, the baptized life, the life of allegiance to God’s good reign, on earth as it is in heaven.

Prayers of the People

Loving God, we come to you now more afraid than we would like to admit. The fear of contagion surrounds us. The fear of economic hardship abounds. The fear that justice and reconciliation are impossible creeps into our consciousness even when we want to be a people of hope. As we continue to navigate the unfamiliar waters of a pandemic and the all too familiar storms of long entrenched inequity, we admit we are afraid. We name our deepest anxieties before you, knowing that you know them before we speak them. You tell us that even the hairs on our heads are counted and therefore we pour out our hearts before you, trusting not only that you will hear our cries, but that you will answer them. Hear our cries on behalf of the oppressed and the exploited...let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Hear our cries of lament on behalf of those whose losses are too many to name and too heavy to continue to carry... give to them your easy yoke and your light burden. Hear our cries of grief as we join with our siblings who mourn... comfort them until they see you face-to-face and crying and death are no more.
Hear our cries for the sick and suffering, the lonely and the shunned... heal them, restore them, help us to seek them out and bring them home in your name.
Hear our cries for those we love, those we are called to love, those we find it difficult to love... grant us your Spirit of strength and wisdom so that we can live the commandment we know, the greatest commandment to love you with all we have and love our neighbor as ourselves.
Gracious God, you come to us now, assuring us of your presence with us and your power working through us. In confidence that perfect love casts out fear, we commit to seeking to live with unafraid faith, proclaiming boldly the good news of Jesus Christ that will set us all free. We make our prayer in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, who taught us to say when we pray... Our Father...

Prayer of dedication

Generous God, your love and attentiveness to us astounds us. Fathoming your grace stretches the lengths of our greatest imagination. We rest in the glorious truth that you created us, called us good and love us still. Accept, we pray, a portion of resources you have entrusted to us. Bless and use these gifts to care for your creation and show your children that they are beloved. In Christ’s name we pray, amen.
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