Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
I ended up preaching a different sermon last week than the one I had planned to preach. I had planned to preach the second sermon in this series called “When in Romans.” I was going to tell you that Romans 5 begins with the word therefore in the same way some resolutions end with that word. Have you heard them? “Whereas John has been employed by our firm for forty years, and whereas he always showed up for work, and whereas he is now retiring, therefore be it resolved that he is a jolly good fellow”? The first four chapters of Romans read sort of like that—like the whereases in one of those resolutions. Paul might say, “Whereas we are a bunch of miserable sinners who deserve nothing better than death, and whereas we needed someone to die for us in order to make us right with God, and whereas Jesus was willing to do that for us and save us from our sins, therefore (and this is what it actually says in Romans 5:1), “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the sermon I didn’t preach last week I said this is what Paul may have been working toward his entire life—peace with God—and the good news is that he finally found a way to get there: by being justified by grace through faith. I said, “This was Paul’s gospel, and he preached it wherever he went, but please notice that it’s Paul’s Gospel, and not Matthew’s, Mark’s, or Luke’s” And that reminded me of a sermon I shared with a group of Baptist pastors shortly after I came to Richmond. It was called, “Which Gospel Shall I Preach?” and it started like this:
In my study at church there is a framed certificate dated August 5th, 1984. It’s a license to preach the Gospel, and I remember how excited I was when I got it. I could just picture myself standing to preach on street corners, in shopping malls, even on the front steps of public schools, daring anybody to stop me. If they did I was going to hold up that certificate and say, “You can’t stop me. I’ve got a license!” All these years later they still haven’t stopped me, but in those years I’ve done some thinking about what it means to preach “the gospel” and lately I’ve been asking myself which gospel I should preach.
According to the late Tim Keller, evangelicals agreed on “the simple gospel” a generation ago, and this was it: 1) God made you and wants to have a relationship with you, but 2) your sin separates you from God. 3) Jesus took the punishment your sins deserved, so that 4) if you repent from your sins and trust in him for your salvation, you will be forgiven, justified, and accepted freely by grace, and indwelt with his Spirit until you die and go to heaven. I would guess that, in one form or another, that’s the gospel you received and the gospel you believed. But Keller, who was the pastor of the largest Protestant church in Manhattan, had at least two criticisms of this simple formulation. One was that it is too individualistic, “that Christ’s salvation is not so much to bring individual happiness as to bring peace, justice, and a new creation.” The second was that “there is no one ‘simple gospel’ because ‘everything is contextual’ and the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations.”[i]
It’s that second thing I want to talk about (I said), the idea that “the Bible itself contains many gospel presentations.”
Even before someone pointed me toward that article by Tim Keller called “The Gospel in All Its Forms” I had been thinking about how the good news that John preaches seems fundamentally different from the good news that Matthew, Mark, and Luke preach. In John’s Gospel there is a lot of talk about believing in Jesus. The miracles he does are called “signs” and they are meant to point people toward faith. We call John 3:16 the “gospel in a nutshell” and this is what it says: that “God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (KJV). Right at the end of the Gospel John tells us that “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples which are not written in this book, but these things are written so that you might come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you might have life in his name” (John 20:30-31, NRSV).
It’s good news, isn’t it?
But if you turn back a few pages to the Gospel of Mark you find a different emphasis. Mark’s Jesus, after he has been baptized and tempted in the wilderness, makes his way to Galilee where he begins to say, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the gospel!” He uses that word in its generic sense. The gospel is “good news,” and the good news he wants to share is that God’s Kingdom has come near. But in this Gospel (and also in Matthew and Luke) it becomes clear that for Jesus the Kingdom is not meant to be “pie in the sky, by and by, but something sound, on the ground, while we’re still around.”[ii] When he teaches his disciples to pray he teaches them to pray that God’s Kingdom will come, and God’s will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. It is the focus of his mission. I think that’s why you have all those healing stories in these gospels, and those scenes where people who were formerly deaf, dumb, blind and lame are now hearing, talking, seeing, walking. This is how it will be when the Kingdom comes on earth. And the message of the coming Kingdom is the “good news” of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which are sometimes called the “Synoptic Gospels”—syn as in synonym and optic as in optical—because they can be “seen together,” because their message is so much the same.
But turn forward a few pages to Paul’s letter to the Romans and you will find a different gospel altogether. Paul seldom refers to the Kingdom of God. He rarely mentions heaven or everlasting life. The good news for him is about being set free from the Law, about being saved by grace through our faith in Jesus Christ. It was good news for Martin Luther, who became a monk as a way of trying to earn his salvation before learning that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone. It was good news for John Wesley, who after years of wondering if he was really a Christian found his heart “strangely warmed” when he heard someone preach God’s grace from the book of Romans. It’s good news for any of us who have tried to be good enough to get into heaven because that just won’t work. We can never be good enough. But thanks be to God, Paul would say, that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” That’s good news, isn’t it? It’s Paul’s version of the good news.
But as I asked those Baptist pastors fifteen years ago, when I step up to the pulpit on Sunday morning which of these three Gospels shall I preach? The Johannine Gospel, which is all about believing in Jesus so that you might have everlasting life? The Synoptic Gospel, which is all about the good news of God’s coming Kingdom? Or the Pauline Gospel, which is all about being saved by grace through faith, and not by keeping the law? These are three very different messages, with three very different audiences, but sometimes—just sometimes—they overlap.
For example: let’s imagine that you’ve been trying to find peace with God your entire life. You hear Paul’s message of justification by grace through faith. You believe it, you come down the aisle to profess your faith and present yourself as a candidate for baptism and on a Sunday morning a few weeks later, in front of God and everybody, you go down under the water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and come up clean, with your sins forgiven. For the rest of that day you enjoy a kind of peace you have never felt before. But that night, when you’re home alone, the old temptations return, and before you know it you’ve done it again, you’ve sinned! And now what? If you’re like some people you enter into a lifelong struggle with sin, that often leaves you feeling like a miserable failure, but if you’re like some of the people Paul was writing to you believe that God’s grace is greater than all your sin, and begin to sin with abandon.
In Romans 6, Paul writes to both kinds of people, beginning with that second group. “What then,” he says, “should we continue in sin that grace may abound?” And then he uses a Greek expression that means, almost literally, “Hell, no! How can we who died to sin go on living in it?” But then, picking up on that same line of reasoning, he turns to the second group and says, “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.” And Paul is just getting started. Ten times in this passage he uses the word Thanatos, meaning “death.” Two more times he uses the word nekros, meaning “dead.” He wants us to understand that our old sin-loving self was drowned in the waters of baptism and therefore no longer has any power over us. If he could sum it up he might say, “The secret of life—this new life in Christ—is death!”
And this is where the Pauline gospel begins to overlap with the Synoptic gospel, this is where Paul begins to sound like Jesus, which almost never happens. Paul and Jesus come from two different places, they have two different agendas, but right at the end of today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” It almost sounds as if he’s saying, “The secret of life…is death.” But before you start tweeting that out to your friends or posting it on Facebook let me give you some backstory. Jesus was walking with his disciples on the road near Caesarea Philippi, way up on the slopes of Mount Hermon. He asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” and they told him, “John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the other prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” And from that moment Jesus began to tell them that he was going to suffer and die. Peter couldn’t believe it. He said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” But Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan, for you are not thinking the things of God, but of men.”
I was talking with a trauma nurse last week who told me that in her experience anxiety about death is one of the biggest problems we humans face. She put me onto a book called Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, by a psychotherapist named Irvin Yalom. He begins by writing, “Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. This is what makes us human. But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom, and, inevitably, diminish and die.” Yalom appeals to Epicurus, the ancient Greek philosopher, who practiced “medical philosophy” and insisted that just as the doctor treats the body, the philosopher must treat the soul. “In his view there was only one proper goal of philosophy,” Yalom writes: “to alleviate human misery. And the root cause of misery? Epicurus believed it to be our omnipresent fear of death.”[iii]
Which is why what Jesus says to his disciples is so brilliant. Up there on the road near Caesarea Philippi, with all its statues and shrines to the Greek gods, he said, “If any of you want to come after me you need to deny the self, take up the cross, and follow me.” In other words, you need to volunteer to die, because once you do that, once you confront your fear of death head on—once you accept it and even embrace it—death will no longer have any power over you, the fear of death will no longer make you miserable. You can stop thinking the things of men, as Peter was, and start thinking the things of God.
In his own way that’s what Paul says. He’s not talking about the fear of death so much as the love of sin but in both cases something needs to be confronted, something needs to be denied. Jesus told his disciples to deny the self, Paul might tell us to deny our sin-loving selves, but each of them would agree that there is something in us—some trembling, anxious, greedy, needy thing—that has to die. I remember talking to Buddy Hamilton years ago, Buddy, who even then had lived more years than I ever will. He said, “Don’t you think our biggest problem is inordinate self-concern?” Yes. Yes I do, Buddy. And I think Jesus, and Paul, and Epicurus would agree with you. We walk around carrying our fragile egos as if they were soap bubbles, afraid that someone might pop them. “Well,” Jesus might say. “Why don’t you do that? Why don’t you pop that silly soap bubble so you can stop worrying about it?” “Yes,” Paul might say, “why don’t you come down the aisle of the church and ask the preacher to baptize you. Why don’t you drown that sinful self once and for all?” “Yes,” Epicurus might say, “why don’t you confront your fear of death head on? Why don’t you learn to accept it and embrace it?”
There are at least three different presentations of the gospel in the New Testament. They are each very different, with different messages. But on this day Paul and Jesus and maybe even Epicurus would agree that the way to find your life is to lose it.
The sooner the better.
—Jim Somerville © 2023
[i] Tim Keller, “The Gospel in All Its Forms,” Leadership (Spring 2008).
[ii] I’ve heard this in an African American worship service, and it seemed to be something everyone had heard before, and often.
[iii] From chapter 1 of the Kindle edition of Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death, by Irvin D. Yalom (Jossey-Bass, 2008, 2009).