Summit Presbyterian Church
June 25, 2017
Walking in Newness of Life
This lectionary reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans may seem like the perfect reading for a day when we’ve had two baptisms. It’s one of the most extensive discussions of baptism in scripture. But it’s hard to make sense of it on first reading, or on third reading or eighth reading for that matter. And it’s 90 degrees in the sanctuary. So I’m not going to try and outline Paul’s argument or unpack what he might mean when he talks about being buried with Christ in baptism. Those are sermons for a cooler day. I’m going to talk about no longer being enslaved to sin and walking in newness of life. I’ll begin with a story from my childhood, a very small event in the big scheme of things. But we baptized two children today and this scripture is for them, too.
Growing up, our family vacation every year was to spend a week on a dairy farm in Vermont. We stayed with a large and lovely family who opened their home to guests every year while they went about the business of milking cows and tending horses and baking pies. The guests had rooms of their own that were on one side of the house and the family was on the other. There were no physical barriers or separate entrances, but our parents told us not to go into the bedrooms of our hosts. Guests tended to hang out in the large dining room rather than the living room. At the top of the stairway that led to the room where my parents stayed, there was another door that was always closed; it was a small landing, the doors close to one another. I never gave much thought to that door, but one day, when I was about seven, I was going to my parents’ room when I absent-mindedly walked through it. I realized my mistake immediately. This was not a guest room; it was a small apartment with a sitting area and a bed and a kitchenette and someone clearly lived there. I was horrified. I had trespassed. I didn’t know whose room it was, but I knew it was off limits. I quickly went out and quietly shut the door behind me.
Now if I had been a normal child, that would have been the end of the story. But for some reason I was haunted by that misstep. I wasn’t usually that sensitive - it was a fluke — but I was wracked by guilt. Frightened - not of punishment, but of what I had done. I could think of nothing else but my transgression for two days. I no longer took joy in riding the ponies or watching the milking or climbing the hills. I don’t remember acting out but I’m sure I was meaner than usual to my sister. I do remember asking my parents if next year we could please go somewhere else for our vacation. And also asking — as innocently as I could — what was behind the door next to their room? My parents must have figured out something was wrong and the next day my father asked if I would like to go into the room with him. We stepped inside and looked around from just inside the doorway. He explained that it was the apartment for the family’s grandmother, who lived there part of the year. We stood there for a few minutes and although I still felt some worry — did my father have permission to be here? — I soon felt the burden lift. It was OK. I was free again to be myself, to run up the hills, to eat pie and to ride the ponies. I count it as God’s grace, working through loving and perceptive parents, that liberated me from that terrible, if short- lived - prison of fear and guilt.
Now, you may be thinking, Cheryl must have paid a lot of money out to therapists over the years — although it’s not unusual for children to have a distorted perception of their power or responsibility, one of the reasons they’re so vulnerable in the face of abuse or other traumas. But I’m making an illustration from the lesser to the greater. For I trust guilt, fear and shame are not unfamiliar to you — whether they arise from wrongs you’ve done, wrongs done to you, or for reasons you can’t even fathom. Those feelings, and not just feelings but the reality of guilt and sin can enslave us. Keeping us from joy, from action, from love and from doing right. But the good news we receive and remember in baptism is that in Christ the power of sin is broken. It need not enslave us, no matter what we have done or not done. We only need to trust in the forgiveness and acceptance, the love and grace of Christ. It’s not always easy to trust, but that grace reaches into the deepest, darkest places of this world and of our hearts. It doesn’t mean we have license to do whatever we want because Christ loves us. It doesn’t mean we should sin harder for the purpose of feeling more grace —by no means, says Paul. It means that resurrection awaits us, too, as Jesus invites us to walk in newness of life. A life where we can love our neighbors and ourselves.
And this is what we’re called to teach our children, as we promise to guide and nurture them, by word and deed, encouraging them to know and follow Christ. Teaching them the stories of Jesus and telling them of God’s love. But also showing the grace, the love, the acceptance that Christ shows us. Beginning with the children in our families and our Sunday School, but also beyond — in the church universal and indeed the world. For Christ invites all to walk with him in newness of life.