“There is therefore now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” Romans 8: 1 & 2
The problems of the world are beyond the scope of human beings to solve in a sustained manner. Even if what we perceive as problems may be reduced to the result of nature’s ebb and flow, the products of the complexity as well as the sheer power of what we call the forces of nature – powers so awesome that next to them we feel, like the Psalmist, puny and insignificant:
“When I consider the heavens… the moon and stars, what is man that thou art mindful of him…” Psalm 8
Even if the problems were all only of nature, we would manifestly not be up to the task. But that is a very big and flawed “Even if” – because in addition to the vast and untamable natural world, there has been a supernatural infusion of evil into human life and through humanity evil has become systemic to world order and world process. This infusion of evil has brought about a human condition that has given birth to misshaped, warped patterns of recurrence. What are patterns of recurrence? Patterns of recurrence are regularly repetitive events in the universe that are the result of what we call “laws of science” and conditions. One event will always lead to another predictable event if the conditions are right and the process is circular so, everything else being equal, it will occur and reoccur indefinitely. Patterns of recurrence are good and part of creation and Paul probably has something like that in mind when he says that God has revealed his existence and his power in the visible, created order for all to see.
“Because that which may be known of God is manifest… For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead…” Romans 1:19,20
As I have said, patterns of recurrence are good, dependable and meant to sustain creation and promote growth, complexity and development. So here are some examples of patterns of recurrence: the planetary system held in balance and order as it revolves around the sun and the seasons of the solar year – spring, summer, fall and winter. And we can see how patterns of recurrence in nature made it possible for humanity to fashion its own cultural patterns of recurrence as in the development of farming that requires seasons for sowing, watering, reaping, and preserving. Another example from nature is convection, the process by which moist air rises and then cools thus condensing into rain that drop to the earth, watering, spreading nutrition as well as new life to plants and animals. The way babies are made with a mother and a father is another pattern of recurrence that I believe Paul had in mind when he pointed out that the misuse of sexuality interrupts that pattern of recurrence and produces nothing but emptiness.
The problem is that humanity has turned from the God who is God and embraced the illusion of atheism and that has lead humanity away from the truth and reality. Furthermore the illusion of atheism has brought about its own patterns of recurrence, begetting illusions of greater complexity, but inevitably leading to decline, disintegration and finally death. Think of these warped patterns of recurrence as examples of what Paul calls the “law of sin and death.” So when man turned from the God who is God he turned to the creature and worshipped idols in the creature’s image: man, birds, mammals and reptiles. That very image, in the order Paul gave it, illustrates how the misappropriation of a pattern of recurrence brings about a decline. What is true is that we are created to love and worship the God who is God and even if we turn from God, we will never escape the vocation to love and worship. What was true for the city of Rome was true for the nations yesterday and today and it is also true of families and for us individually. As Christians, in our own lives and in our families we may be aware of patterns of recurrence that enable growth, progress and development – empowering and authenticating us as we grow closer to Christ and closer to one another. As Christians we are responsible to appropriate those patterns since know we can expect a wholesome outcome. But we also know from personal experience that there are destructive patterns of recurrence that lead to regression, decline, and disintegration for ourselves individually and for our families – and we also know that we are personally responsible align ourselves against such lies. If we are not attentive, intelligent and responsible Christians then that which we love most, our most precious relations, will fall apart. But even such great loss does not touch the depth and reach of sin.
It is a hard lesson, sometimes never learned, a remorseful day when one realizes that the destructiveness of sin one had all along thought to be all about one’s self turns out to have come to rest upon others. In chapter 1 Paul tells the story of our willful turning from the God who is God and our willing worship of man, birds, beasts and reptiles, – surely a decline – and then in chapter 8 we hear the horror that man has been brought upon creation:
“For the creature was made subject to emptiness, meaninglessness, unreality… (Creatures) enslaved to decay, to rottenness because of man’s sin… the whole creation groaning and travailing in pain…”
Romans 8:20 & 22
Right in the middle of the narrative Paul sums up our story as a history of pain made manifest in the bleating, bellowing and groaning of God’s creatures who have gone from being worshipped to being dinner, or entertainment, or garbage – a means to any end man the atheist desires. And he bleeds the world dry:
Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.
To the bellowing of creation Paul specifically adds the groan of humanity who has turn upon itself in violence. The same blood lust, the same horrible schemes of recurrence that excited people in gladiatorial games and spectacles of human shame and debasement in Rome flourish today in the abortion industry, human trafficking, motherless children wandering with no one to care for them as well as the utter destruction of eco systems. And sadly a remorseful day is the best we can hope for because mankind will never achieve sustained meaningfulness or blessedness or peace for himself and the creation because he lives and dies to the illusion of atheism. St. Paul is crystal clear about this:
“And since they did not see fit to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.” Romans 1:28
The root problem in the world was and still is the illusion of atheism and the patterns of recurrence that atheism generates that militate against aletheia – that do not correspond to reality. This goes for the city of Rome, for nations yesterday and today, for national churches, for parishes, for families and for individual persons. So one can see how thick the problem of evil is, how layered, how habitually enmeshed persons may be with other persons, institutions, families, and nations; and it doesn’t take long to see that if it is up to us to sustain wholesome change and development, much less blessedness and peace, the situation is hopeless.
There is only one way out of this miserable situation and that is to return to the God who is God and that means that only a supernatural intervention into our lives personally and collectively will sustain a commitment to aletheia, to reality and thus enable growth, development, creativity, blessedness and peace.
This is the place the narrative where God intervened and called Abraham to fight back against sin and death not by giving him more commandments, but by making a promise. God promised Abraham that He, God, would somehow use his family to redeem all of creation from futility and that would begin with a son. Even though Abraham was well beyond fathering a child he believed the God who is God and it was “counted unto him for righteousness,” but it was not just reckoned to him as an individual person, it was reckoned to everyone who was “participating in” Abraham and that includes potentially everyone in this world of systemic evil. This is called the Abrahamic Covenant but Paul always refers to as the Promise. Thus the Promise God made to Abraham was a Promise made to his seed and by this Promise God enlisted Abraham and his family to begin reversing the disaster that Adam’s sin had brought upon creation. Jesus is the Seed of the Promise and thus the perfect fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant. Through his own faith in God the Father Jesus established the New Covenant.
God the Father established the New Covenant with is Son, his incarnate Word Jesus Christ. The promises of the New Covenant are in John 17, our Lord’s high priestly prayer where Jesus prays for all those who are in him and for all those who were not in him at that moment but would be in him. Jesus prays that all the love he knows his Father has for him, his Father also has for all those who are in Jesus Christ.
“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me.” John 17
There are two points I want you to notice: First is Jesus’ intention that the world we have been talking about would return to the God who is God and believe that God the Father had sent God the Son into the world. And secondly, it is clear how powerful it is to participate in someone and now the question for us is how exactly does one participate in Jesus Christ, and thus participate in the New Covenant and thus participate in Abraham’s God-given project to fight on behalf of the world against sin and death? How are we made to be in the Messiah of Israel and by virtue of that only become joint-heirs of the promises that God the Father made to him? How do we get in? The answer is, holy baptism.
“Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death…”
“Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death…”
There are two chief functions of baptism: First of all Paul assumes the Romans already understand that water baptism is the very instrument by which we were incorporated into Jesus Christ himself. Through baptism the God of the New Covenant seizes our life and our mutual destinies are bound to the destiny of Jesus Christ.
“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise…”
The second function of baptism, and the one that Paul means to make crystal clear is that sin is a direct contradiction of the state of being that baptism brings about, that is, our union in Christ. Simply put, incorporation into Christ conforms one to the moral life Christ and we are supernaturally equipped to manfully fight and conquer atheism in our lives, to sabotage the illusion of atheism and the complex patterns of recurrence that have brought disintegration and death into God’s world.