A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Trinity
July 16, 2023 at Holy Communion
Jonah 2, Romans 6:3–11, Luke 6:27–36
“Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Although they are familiar, I wonder whether we really hear the final words of our Gospel reading: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27–36). We understand, “Be merciful.” It’s a command to live in the way that we learned about in Sunday school: kindness, goodness, gentleness. But the second half of the sentence is harder to hear: “even as your Father is merciful.” We are told to be as merciful as God. And suddenly what seemed like meaningful but perhaps quaint moral advise now seems like something far beyond us. We suddenly remember how unrealistic the Sermon on the Mount seems. For example, when someone steals from us, should we really give them additional gifts as a reward?
The key to the Sermon on the Mount is that it describes the life of Jesus, and this life which is ours if we are Christians, so that Christ lives in us and we in him. It is neither quaint moral advise for children, nor an impossible standard for making oneself godlike. It is the life we acquire if we are in Christ, which means that, if you want to practice the life described in the Sermon on the Mount, the way is to cultivate closeness to Jesus.
Our Epistle reading from Romans describes theologically what is going on in the Gospel.
Before I dive into that, though, here’s a tip about how to listen to the readings from now until the end of the year. Starting in Trinity 6—that is, this Sunday—the second reading will be in biblical order from Sunday to Sunday. We’re starting with Romans now, then it will be 1 and 2 Corinthians, and so on. During this part of the year, the second reading is the essential one, not the Gospel. The Epistle will speak theologically on topics like our identity in Christ, the gifts of the Spirit, legalism versus grace, and brotherly love in the church. The Gospel and the Old Testament will take some aspect of this teaching and demonstrate it by telling a story, or getting at the same point in a different way, often showing in action how we live out what the Epistle has taught. So as you are listening to the readings, hear what the Epistle has to say, and reflect on how the Gospel is showing you how to live that out.
The final words of today’s Epistle state its central point: “You must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11). “In Christ Jesus” are the key words. This is what it is to be a Christian: to participate in Christ, in his death and resurrection.
Paul argues that, because we have used our bodies for sin, and the reward of sin is death (Romans 6:23), we are enslaved to sin, held prisoner by sin until we die and fully realize its consequence. That’s us. But Christ, although he was sinless himself, submits to death as if he had sinned and rises again to live with God. If we are “in Christ,” that is, that is, if we understand that we are included in Jesus’ story of death to sin and life to God, we can experience freedom from the sin and death which enslave us. As Paul says today, our “old self was crucified with Christ in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:7). And further, “if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (v 8). And we live with him in the life the life of communion with God and victory over sin. Practically speaking, this means we “walk in newness of life” (v 4). Baptism is the mystery which brings this about in us (v 3–4), and we continue to participate in that mystery by an act of the heart and mind: “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (v 11).
Quickly, this is what we get from our Old Testament reading from the Prophet Jonah as well. Jonah, because of his disobedience to God’s call, descends, in the belly of the fish, into the watery depths of death. (As it happens, this week Katy and I were in a thrift store and considered buying a picture book for Theodora. It was “Jonah and the Whale.” But it got something wrong: it said that God sent the fish to keep Jonah safe, so that he wouldn’t drown. But that misses the point. Jonah dies. Our reading says that he descends into “Sheol,” the place of the dead, also called “the Pit.”) In death Jonah experiences communion with God and unexpected spiritual renewal, and then the fish vomits him up to live again. Jonah dies to sin and lives to God, more ready (although he will continue to struggle) to undertake the vocation of loving his enemies.
We should read the Gospel as a description of the “newness of life” which is ours if we are “in Christ.” Can a sinful man love his enemies? No. Can an earthly-minded person give voluntarily to someone who steals from him? Certainly not. These commandments are for people whose mind has been renewed in Christ, for whom the “old self” with its rights and its worldly hopes means nothing at all anymore. This is the way that Christ lived; if we are not in Christ, the Sermon on the Mount will be beyond us. And Jesus even says this: if you do these things, “you will be sons of the Most High” (Luke 6:35). To live out the Sermon on the Mount is to be included in Christ’s sonship to the Father.
So of course we should strive to perform the acts of patience and mercy that Jesus commands, but the key to embracing this life is what Paul says: “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
We are told to change the way we “consider ourselves.” That is an act of the mind: we should change the story that we tell about ourselves, reminding ourselves in the face of temptation that we have been made new in Christ. But more profoundly the attitude of our hearts, not our minds, needs to change. Our hearts need to acquire the simplicity of resting with Jesus in our inmost being, finding in him a wellspring of renewal.
That comes by embracing spiritual practices which cultivate intimacy with Christ. You know many of them, and we have discussed many of them: prayer, holy communion, meditation on scripture, acts of service.
But, as we conclude, I would recommend one you are less likely to have heard of. It’s called the “Jesus Prayer.” It is an ancient practice, better known today in the Christian East than in the West. The prayer itself is simple, and says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The goal is to say the Jesus Prayer continually, to literally never cease saying it inwardly. As we go about our business, we pray, over and over again, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Or, more simply, we just repeat the name of Jesus: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” And it goes along with our breathing. The idea is to feel that you are breathing in the name of Jesus, and as your breath draws in air you draw the name of Jesus into your heart, and keep it there so that the centre of your body and soul rests with the risen Christ and experiences the joy of new life.
May we have the blessing of communion with Jesus which renews us to live after his example. Now “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1:5–6).