BEFORE AND AFTER
But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the return you get is sanctification and its end, eternal life. Romans 6:22
We all have “before and after” experiences, happenings that divide our lives so sharply that we speak of them as then and now; events such as marriage, divorce, having children or the death of a loved one. We fondly remember life before the cancer, before addiction or before the economy went sour, but there is an even more important “before and after” event, one so significant that it dwarfs all others. That is our life before and after Holy Baptism, so it is not by accident that St. Paul spends such a long section of his letter instructing us about it. He wants to make sure that we understand it very well. Why?
First because baptism is one of the Christian mysteries. As such it has little to commend it and appears for all the world to be nothing more than a nice religious ceremony; a way to welcome a child into the world and wish him God’s speed along the way. We are as likely to discount it as we are a penny on the sidewalk, but that is how mysteries work. They look like nothing, but once you pick this penny up you see the date is 1909 with a tiny letter S below it. When you flip it over you notice the letters VDB on the reverse. Next you get on the internet and in a very short time you discover that what appeared to be nothing is worth more than you ever dreamed possible. From that day forward you are hooked, and no coin will ever pass through your fingers un-noticed again. That’s how it is with baptism. In this unassuming sacrament those who are born of the flesh are born again of water and the Spirit. It pardons all of our sins, gives us amnesty with God and writes our names in the Book of Life. It frees us from the slavery that sin imposes, and liberates us from the orbit of the devil who wants nothing more than to sift us like wheat. It empowers us to know true goodness, live holy lives and it culminates in heavenly life, the likes of which no eye has ever seen or ear ever heard.
Secondly, the apostle gives baptism great emphasis so that we might begin to understand what we were without it and the beloved children of God that it makes us. Nothing is more important, nothing more joyful and nothing bestows greater benefits on us than the gifts we receive at the font. Paul teaches us today to draw a sharp spiritual dividing line between our lives before and after baptism. Before it we were slaves of the cruel master sin, a merciless demagogue who demands greater and greater wickedness from us, causes us pain, loss, misery and tears and then pays us for our trouble in the currency of death. Death is an ugly thing. It is everything opposite of what God is and what He created us for. There is nothing sadder than to see things that were once alive now dead: a once busy factory now closed, a windmill still as a statue on a windless day, a beloved pet cold and stiff on the kitchen floor, or a person who gave meaning to your existence now lying in a casket. That is the wage sin pays, and we want nothing to do with it, and yet it is all around us. Life before baptism is dreary but our existence after is very different! In this sacrament God makes us His children, promises to be our loving Father and fills us with life and hope. By it He liberates us from sin’s slavery and makes us what the apostle terms slaves of God, but rest assured that nothing could be more pleasant. Before the new birth we do not know what holiness is. We might know what it means to be nice, good or even noble as man defines those things, but they are as different from holiness as T-ball is from the major league. Only when we are washed clean from our sins and are given the mind of Christ can we understand the beauty of holiness. We can only begin, because holiness is like the sun. If we look at it directly it will blind us. However when we see it reflected in the love of Christ then it becomes a thing of endless fascination and beauty.
Notice how Jesus loved the people He came to save. They were so hungry for heavenly light that they would give Him no rest. For three endlessly glorious days He fed them with divine and soul-satisfying truth, but His loving-kindness did stop there. When it was time to go home He would not send them away without daily bread lest they should faint on the way, and rest assured, dear Christians, that as He cared for them He will care for us, and teach us how to live sanctified lives of service to others, how to break free from the narcissism of sin by daily repentance and faith in His dying and rising again, so that we who were crucified and buried with Christ in baptism can rise up as new men and serve Him in righteousness and purity forever.
Not only is there a sharp line of demarcation between our life before and after baptism, but an even sharper one between our present earthly existence, and the one that is to come, so the New Testament consistently refers to death as sleep, not as a euphemism because it is afraid to talk about it, but because in Christ that is what death is -- sleep. Because Jesus died for us and was raised again on the third day, and because we have received all the life-giving benefits of that death and resurrection in this Sacrament, we who close our eyelids in death, will open them in heaven, to a life of splendor in a world without end.
Yes it is true that the wages of sin is death, as St. Paul states, but always remember that the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. With this faith firmly in place do not let sin or death or any other enemy disturb your peace. Amen.
-- Rev. Dean Kavouras