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Sunday, July 2, 2017

Romans Series #2 - Fear of Death

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This week is the second in our series on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and before I go any further, I would like to give a fuller context of the letter.  It’s probably around the year 60-62.  After 3 missionary journeys that filled up the majority of the 40’s and 50’s AD, Paul went to Jerusalem around 58 to try to show his support for the Jewish church (he was taking up a collection of financial support for them since they were marginalized and indigent).  Jews seize Paul and demand a trial, which doesn’t immediately happen.  Paul is held in custody for a couple years until a new governor takes the position and addresses the situation.  Paul appeals to Rome as a Roman citizen and makes the journey by boat under arrest.
Rome at the time has around 50,000 Jews probably.  Not sure the size of the Christian community.  In 49 Jews were exiled “because of debates about a man called ‘Chrestus’.” (aka Jesus Christ).  Paul met some of these Jewish Christian exiles in Corinth years earlier.  Eventually they find their way back after things settle down, so Rome is a great hodge-podge of the hub of pagan religion, with a strong Jewish community, as well as the smaller new group of Christians of both Jewish and pagan backgrounds.
There are many unique things about Paul’s letter to the Romans.  First, it’s his longest letter.  Second, it’s to a community he has never visited yet.  Thirdly, because he has had lots of time to think during his imprisonment and most likely isn’t writing in one rushed sitting as is probable with the other letters, Romans is more like a thesis than an e­-mail, which is the form all the other letters take.  Any current or former college students might sympathize with the connection between the word thesis and imprisonment, but unfortunately for Paul writing this masterpiece did not mean freedom.
So Paul’s main message, as we discussed last week, is the “Gospel” as he calls it, based off the secular use of the term: it is the Good News that Jesus is this king who has conquered his enemies in battle and has established the order and peace that provide for human flourishing.
One of the main parts of that Gospel is that God has done something completely new in Jesus, above and beyond the law of the covenant with the Hebrew people. He has always been close to humanity from Adam through Abraham and Moses, etc. But now in Jesus God has offered the greatest gift of salvation, justification, redemption, and a host of other words that Paul uses interchangeably.  As we heard last week, the offer is greater than the sin. Paul used the contrast of Adam and Jesus to drive this point home.  In Adam all die, but in Christ all are raised to eternal life.
Now today in chapter 6, we look at how that happens more concretely for the Christian, namely, through our Baptism. 
Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?... Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.
Death is not a pleasant thing for us to face.  Fear of death is quietly one of the greatest false gods we can worship.  It is very similar to any false worship of this or other things: wealth, pleasure, power, fame.  Think of how when we let our lives be controlled (enslaved) by these things, how we end up suffering so much, and harming ourselves and those around us.  Now of all the false gods to put at the center of our lives, avoiding death is one of the most appealing.  Death is the greatest evil, and thus the greatest source of fear, and it would seem that you must avoid it in order to have any of the other natural goods.  And besides that, death is (in Hamlet’s words) “the undiscovered country from which no traveler returns.”  So it has lots of pull on our hearts.  So Paul is right to stress our need to face it.
Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.  Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Christianity is not for wimps.  We have to face our fears, including life’s greatest fear.
Have you ever conquered a serious fear in your life?  I remember riding roller coasters, or jumping into a lake, or giving my first homily.  I may have been terrified, but after I faced them, it no longer had any power over me.  Paul wants Rome (and all of us) to know that with the Gospel he preaches, we don’t need to have fear of the greatest evil in our world anymore.  We can face death in Jesus and conquer.

The holy water we bless ourselves with is a reminder of this death.  It is a facing of our fears.  It is a sign that we are dead to the world and death no longer has power over us.

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