A sermon on Romans 6:1-11, on the day of ocean baptisms.
I’ve always been a little suspicious of Before and After photos. It’s as if Before photos are bad on purpose, and After photos do everything they can to try to enhance the actual improvements that have taken place, whether the subject is a human body or a newly improved, re-stained back deck.
I just found an article about a Before and After set of photos of an Australian fitness trainer. On first glance the After photo looks like about three months worth of exercise and nutritional improvement, compared to the Before.
But, in fact, one scrolls down past the Before and After to see a note: “Check out my transformation! It took me 15 minutes.” Meaning, the Before and After photos were 15 minutes apart.
A paragraph accompanying the photos goes on, in part:
Wanna know my secret? I…. smothered on some fake tan, clipped in my hair extensions, stood up a bit taller, sucked in my guts, popped my hip, threw in a skinny arm, stood a bit wider…pulled my shoulders back…Zoomed in on the before pic, zoomed out on the after and added a filter. Cause filters make everything awesome.
It seems that actual transformation–whether it’s of our bodies or of our inner selves–is elusive. We often try to short-change the process, or make things look better than they really are. And yet it’s a burning human desire to be different, to look better, to grow, to change.
Paul’s Before and After
The apostle Paul understands that. He speaks in Romans 6 of true transformation, a fundamental shift in the selfhood of the one who believes in Jesus. There is no doctoring of Before or After photos needed, because the picture of transformation that Paul paints is the most real kind of personal change there is.
For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
When we give ourselves to Jesus, we understand that sin does not rule over us. We are free from having to sin. We are free from the inevitability of it.
In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Even as we are being sanctified, we’re far from sinless–and the next chapter in Romans will emphasize this frustrating reality. But we are to consider ourselves dead to sin, or, we might say, that sin is dead to us, because we are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
This is “Before and After” for the child of God:
Before: living in a body of sin, slaves to sin, an old, listless, aimless self.
After: dead to sin, alive to God, united with Jesus in his death, and so united also with him–and other Christians–in his resurrection glory, in new life.
This true transformation, the Christian’s inward change, Paul points out, is marked by baptism:
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
The old self walks to the edge of the water, wades in, is dipped under–washed in the ocean of God’s love and forgiveness–and the new self comes up, freed to live a new life in Jesus.
Or as God’s prophet Ezekiel so eloquently put it:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
What Baptism Is
Baptism is a physical, visible, experiential sign of this inward transformation that takes place when a person says, “Yes,” to the gift of God’s grace.
In just a few moments I will ask our candidates, “Do you renounce the powers of evil and desire the freedom of new life in Christ?” They will say, “I do.” Before: we were slaves to sin, afraid to even try to cast off the “powers of evil.” Or maybe we didn’t want to. After: we have renounced those powers. We celebrate our freedom. We have new life in Christ.
Also in just a few moments, all of us, as a congregation, will say: “Out of the waters of baptism, we rise with new life, forgiven of sin, and one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.” We affirm this “Before and After” that baptism represents, and we do it in a larger, communal context. We are “one in Christ, members of Christ’s body.”
As we’ve gone through our high school confirmation class last month and this month, we’ve been talking about baptism and confirmation as a multi-faceted commitment. On the one hand, baptismal candidates and confirmands are themselves making a public commitment to God in the presence of us, the church. And on the other hand, we promise our commitment to them as they seek to carry out their baptismal vows. Ultimately, the waters of baptism signify God’s commitment to us to continue and one day complete his work in us.
So please do support these young people who are about to be baptized, as best you are able. When they go out of state for college and then come back on breaks to worship here, ask them how they’re doing–not just in school, but in their relationship to God. Seek them out during coffee hours in future Sundays. Commit to pray for them. You might even pick one or two of the folks you see being baptized today and decide that you will pray for them by name, for the next month, six months, two years.
We began our confirmation class with a short teaching video and discussion centered around the question, “Who Am I?” How do I understand my identity as a person? We watched and discussed a short video by a teacher from Grand Rapids, Michigan named Rob Bell.
Bell talked about our tendencies to compare ourselves with others, to measure ourselves against those around us. As he talked, the camera followed a cast of actors who had t-shirts with a single word printed on the back: baker, consultant, double degree, Southern, apathetic, ashamed, listener… single words that can define how we think about ourselves, especially in relation to others.
But Bell says:
We need to be saved from all the times we haven’t been our true selves. All the times we’ve tried to be someone else.
All of the lies we’ve believed about who God made when God made us. All the times we’ve asked the wrong questions:
‘What about him? What about her? What about them?’
And we’ve missed the voice of Jesus saying, ‘You, follow me.’
To those who are about to be baptized, I want to say, this is who you are: one who is loved dearly by God, one who is saying “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to follow him. You are choosing to not miss that voice. You are saying, “Yes, I will follow.”
Your decision to be baptized means that you are affirming your identity in Jesus–as one who is “forgiven of sin, and one in Christ with the members of Christ’s body, the church.” “The old has gone, the new has come,” as Scripture says. Baptism is a physical sign of the ultimate “Before and After” transformation.
Remember Your Baptism
This Baptism Sunday is also a chance us who have already been baptized to remember our baptism. We know that we at times wander away from God, but we can never be un-baptized. We always come back to our fundamental identity as ones forgiven by God’s grace, and given new life.
So, whether your baptism was years ago or is about to happen today: remember your baptism.
Whenever you look at the ocean, may God remind you of the cleansing, washing power of his forgiveness.
May the vast waters call to mind the immensity and intensity of Christ’s love for you.
Remember who you were before you said “yes” to following Jesus, but especially remember the new life to which you are now called.
Just as Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again, “In the same way, Paul says, “count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Scripture quotations above are from the 1984 NIV. See my other sermons gathered here.