Eric Barreto: The Death of Death (Romans 6:1-11)

“So you also must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 6:11)

Dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus? There are days when that confession seems easier to voice than others.

When death is not stalking our communities in the twin forms of pandemic and racism, police violence and anti-black prejudice, it may be possible to confess confidently with Paul that I am dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. But when sin entangles every aspect of our everyday lives, when racism and sexism and homophobia worm their way into every corner of this world, it may prove that much more difficult to proclaim along with Paul that I am, that we are dead to sin.

Is Paul right? Are we dead to sin? Really, are we? How can we say that?

Perhaps we have to move carefully here so that we can connect this ancient confession and the realities of the world today. I wonder if Paul is describing not the world as it was, the world he saw with his own eyes. After all, he lived in a world where empires reigned and spilled blood, a world of hunger and want, a world of disease and plague. I don’t think that Paul was simply being naive or optimistic here.

Even more, I wonder if Paul is describing not even the world as it could be, some placid dream, some intoxicating promise that lets us float on the high of a heavenly destiny while we suffer in the moment.

No, I wonder if Paul is describing the world as God is making it, the world God is crafting right here and right now and forever.

I wonder if Paul’s declaration that we are dead to sin is a way to collapse the future of God’s promises and the present of our realities, a way to know and feel and be the resurrection people Jesus has already made us to be.

But Paul does not start here. He starts earlier. And we should too.

With Paul, we have to start at the beginning. Not just the beginning of Paul’s letter to the Romans but to the beginning of the story he weaves in this letter, the narrative into which he invites us, the divine tale Paul hopes we see as our own story.

You see, I worry that too many Christians see the letters of Paul as a pile of confessions, a litany of doctrine, a list of things we believe on a check-list. In the church where I grew up, Paul was often a favorite source for all our deepest convictions. Paul’s letters leapt out from a distant culture and time and place with the freshness of the moment because they were letters written directly to us, to address every question of doctrine, every inquiry about dogma. The letters were distillations of what we believed. The letters were carriers of Paul’s thinking, injected directly into my mind so that I too might know the mind of Christ.

But what if we realized that Paul’s letters were not the careful, organized thoughts of the theologian as much as the anguished, desperate story-telling of a preacher at the cusp of a world being turned upside down? What if Paul was writing theology not for the calm of everyday life? What if Paul was telling a story for the end of days, a story to make sense of a world seeming to be crumbling that much more with every unjust day that passed?

When the world seems to be falling apart, when communities are frayed, when nations shake, that is when we most need Paul’s letters, not as an escape into some ethereal imagination about doctrine and thinking the right things, but as a pathway into the soil of everyday life, the cries of the harmed, the lament of the dying.

Why? Because Paul’s letters invite us into a story, a story whose beginning Paul narrates right before our passage.

You see, Paul recalls, there was once a person whose transgressions, whose trespass caused us all to fall under the shadow of condemnation. All this hurt. All this brokenness. All this death. It had a start. It started when one person’s disobedience created a crack between us and God, a crack through which Sin and Death found a way to make of that crack a wedge of separation. A wedge that separates you and me and God from one another.

But this one person was not the end of the story for there was another, another who would not precipitate our imprisonment but our deliverance, one who would deliver us into the bounties of resurrection through obedience to God, even obedience that led to a cross. With Jesus, we are no longer bound to Sin and Death, no longer captured by these destructive forces. We are free. We are alive in Christ.

To understand this story fully, however, we have to understand that when Paul writes about Sin and Death in Romans, he is not just referring to lower-case s sin, the things I do wrong in my everyday life, the missteps and mistakes that haunt me and not just to lower-case d death, the moment when my lungs will cease and my heart will stop beating and my thoughts will draw to a close. As Katherine Grieb has explained, Paul refers here to capital-S Sin and capital-D Death, to forces that invade, to personified realities in our lives that wreak havoc wherever they tread. Capital-S Sin is not just that which I do wrong but the forces of destruction that separate us from our neighbors and our God. Capital-D Death is a usurper who takes lives that do not belong to capital-D Death.

Sin and Death once ruled over us, but no more, Paul declares, for when we are baptized in Christ, we die and the dead can no longer die to capital-D Death. Sin and Death lose their hold on us through Christ.

Death is dead. Sin is dead. This what Paul urges us to confess not because Paul is naive, not because Paul is closing his eyes and stopping his ears to the pain of his neighbors, to the realities of his own life in an empire that would take his life.

Death is dead. Sin is dead. This, my friends, is a radical proposition in this moment in history. We declare that Death is dead not because we will pretend that all lives matters. Not because we will refuse to face squarely an upside-down world. Not because we will neglect the nearly 120,000 of our neighbors who died, too many of them alone. And let me just say that I’ve updated that last sentence several times in the last weeks. Each time was more devastating than the last.

No, we will confess that Death is dead and Sin is dead when we live “Black Lives Matter.” We will confess that Death is dead and Sin is dead when we confess that the systemic, sinful tentacles of racism and colonialism and homophobia are coursing through our veins, but that those logics have died at the cross of Christ, those ways of structuring have no power over us because Death is dead and so is Sin.

But notice that the death of Death comes at a high cost. It’s not some easy and magical exchange. That “in Christ” at the end of v. 11 carries a great deal of weight. That “in Christ” is the sacrificial love of Christ. It is Jesus’ death that makes Death die. It is Jesus’ death at the hands of the empire that crumbles the throne room of Caesar. Jesus dies as we roar approvingly at the foot of the cross that empire is keeping us safe by terrorizing someone else. It is Jesus’ death that liberates us from the false promise of prosperity on the backs of those who suffer.

The death of Jesus clarifies who we are but also whom God has made us to be.

Death it turns out is clarifying.

When we see into the eyes of those dying under the weight of empire and fear, when we hear someone breathing their last. When we are witnesses as someone calls out to their mother, we run directly into the clarifying power of death, the way death exposes our frailty and brokenness and injustice.

My friends, hear the good news of Jesus. You are dead to Sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. You have been baptized with Christ. Sin no longer holds you captive. Death is no longer your enemy, for Death has been defeated.

But there’s more. Verse 10: “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” Death had one shot and missed. Death came for the king, and Death missed. But Jesus’ life is so much more than the empire’s failed attempt to kill him. His life is abundant and free, full of grace and love and transformation and, yes, the judgement that sets the world right.

And his life is now ours. Verse 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.” My friends, that is our life now. A life liberated from the sting of Death, the shackles of Sin.

But it’s one thing to say it aloud; it’s a whole other matter to live as if what we confess is actually true.

If Death is dead, then a pandemic that deals death in ways that show us how deeply imbedded racist structures are in every aspect of life is a call to action towards life. If Death is dead, then the death of people of color whether because of pandemic or racism is not just an accident of history but a call to a different world. If Death is dead, then the cries of our Black neighbors are not just another protest, but a holy demand that Death stay dead. If Death is dead, then protest is not just a way to signal our holiness but a way to align our hopes and our lives with those who cannot breathe.

“So you also must consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus? There are days when that confession seems easier to voice than others.

But there are no days when that confession is no less true. There are no days when that confession does not bear upon us as we leave this place to enter a world God has already made new.

Dr. Eric D. Barreto originally preached this sermon as part of the Montreat Summer Worship Series on June 21, 2020. Church Anew is honored to share the text with our blog readers.

Used with permission.


Eric D. Barreto

Eric D. Barreto is the Weyerhaeuser Associate Professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary. His passion is to pursue scholarship for the sake of the church, and he regularly writes for and teaches in faith communities around the country.

Twitter | @ericbarreto


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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