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.
Romans 6:3-4 (NRSV)
Because of our traditional heritage, it can be very easy to turn Paul’s letter to the Romans into a very abstract theological essay and overlook the actual circumstances on the ground that made Paul write the letter, and chapter 6 is no exception. Terms like life, death, sin, righteousness, justification, and eternal are huge, towering words, and we fill them with our Greco-Roman theological heritage and the discussions the church has had about these things over the centuries, which is a dialogue we should always pay attention to.
But let us think back to a very early time in the church where Jesus’ execution by Rome is still something we think of as recent history. Some of his people – the Jews – are following his path in the hopes of fleeing the wrath to come and emerging safely on the other side. Many who are not his people – the Gentiles – have come into the synagogues believing Jesus’ message and wanting to follow his path worshiping a God who is new to them. The people of Jesus and the people of Empire have come together in an arrangement that is not comfortable for either group.
Paul, interpreting this experience in light of past Scriptures, takes us to Abraham who followed God as first a Gentile, then a Jew. But he also takes us back to Adam, the father of us all. Adam who died a death of infidelity. Adam who turned aside from God’s dream for the world to pursue his own ends. Adam who is dust. This is a path that is not only available to humanity, but it is the default. Broad is the way that leads to destruction, and anyone can be united to Adam in his death by simply being born, pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, and dying. In Adam, there is no Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, slave nor free. All distinctions are eliminated in a broad highway of mankind that builds kingdoms, seeks prosperity, and lives out their own lives. All is Babel. The Empire comes from Adam, and his trajectory is like a current that sweeps all into it – a life of turning aside from the promise of new creation to build a life for yourself, and the end of this journey is Sheol, even for those whose unfaithfulness is not like Adam’s.
But then we have Jesus.
Jesus walks a path of faithfulness to God that seeks after the promises of new creation. Healing, forgiveness, righteousness, liberation, worship, love – all the good things that God wanted His image to fill the world with, Jesus is about the work of bringing those things back into the world, starting with Israel.
But this is not a fresh start. This new creation Israel springs up in the midst of the Empires of Adam. Rome, surely, but even some of the lineage of Israel himself have joined with Adam’s kingdoms, creating the aberration that not all are truly Israel who are descended from Israel. Because of this, the new creation Israel will not go about her work and identity unmolested, and in the face of the nations, she raises up a new king – Jesus. Jesus who will lead her and defend her. Jesus who will recommit the people to God. Jesus who will defy the hostile powers around her. Jesus whose faithfulness will dictate her fortunes, just as her kings of old.
This path will lead to Adam’s descendants snuffing out the new Israel’s great king. For the church in Rome in Paul’s day, this just happened.
But what do we see? Jesus’ faithful death wakes God up, so to speak. His faithful suffering pleads with God for mercy on his people, and the resurrection is the seal that his sacrificial prayer has been heard and will be answered. God will not leave His people to be destroyed, but will deliver them. The false Israel’s power will be broken. The Empire will bow the knee to the Jesus they have crucified. And not even death itself will stop the life of the age to come and the onset of new creation pressed forth by the power of the true God Himself.
Baptism, Paul tells us, unites us to the death of Jesus, and the death of Jesus is a martyr’s death. The death of Jesus is an apparent victory for the Empire, but instead puts him out of their reach and into the presence of God who is not unmoved. Each baptism in the early church puts another person on the martyr’s path. Every baptism marks them for death by the hands of Adam’s descendants.
It is important that we remember that we are not united to Jesus’ death merely in the sense that Jesus died and so will we, but that Jesus died a very specific sort of death that meant a very specific thing, and we have now entered that, ourselves. Baptism is the beginning of the end for us. In Paul’s day, he is actually being very concrete. Following Jesus into martyrdom was a reality in the church’s experience, and virtually everyone who was baptized could count on that being a likely end.
And for those united with Jesus in his death also comes the promise of resurrection – the life of the age to come. Waking up in a new world. Since baptism was the entry point into the early church (they did not distinguish between converting and being baptized – you converted by being baptized), Paul very concretely expects that they will follow Jesus’ road, meet his end, and share in his resurrection. It is a specific life that leads to a specific death with a specific outcome – all of it in the hands of a faithful God.
And yet, Paul writes to those who have not yet died. Baptism does not actually kill anyone (unless you are a particularly overenthusiastic sort of Baptist who is bad at counting breaths). It marks you for death. You are a living sacrifice – a dead man walking. And this is why you cannot sin so that grace may abound. You are on the road of the truly faithful martyr. Narrow is the way that leads to the life of the age to come. Dying in infidelity is for children of Adam. Dying in faithfulness is for brothers and sisters of Christ. One road ends with the creation that is passing away. The other road leads to the reward for faithful martyrs – a resurrected reign with Christ that will give way to all the faithful being raised and all creation made new.
If you choose the second road, in baptism, it means your death, and your new life, starts now. We may not share in Paul’s reward as a martyr, but we will walk out the new creation while we yet live, and experience in its full glory in our flesh.
- If we think of ourselves as “living martyrs,” what implications does that have for our lives, especially our priorities? What things are important to someone who could be killed for the cause of Christ at any time?
- Knowing that our suffering may be the means through which God accomplishes His goals, how does this affect the things you pray for and work towards? What are you willing to suffer for?
- How can a Christian suffer in a way that is a faithful testimony to the world around them? How should it be different than the way others might suffer?