Walk Not to the Left or the Right

In his book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman recounts a story of an American soldier in Vietnam. His platoon was hunkered down in the rice paddies locked into the heat of a firefight with the Vietcong.


Buddhist MonksThe rice fields in Vietnam are often separated by an earthen beam, like the ones we see in the Sacramento Valley. On one particular day, a line of six Buddhist monks started walking along the elevated beam separating the field where the American soldiers lay hugging the ground and the field where the Vietcong were also crouched in battle.


The monks walked directly toward the line of fire, calmly and steadily. They did not look to the left or to the right, they just kept walking. This soldier said, “It was really strange because nobody shot at ‘em. And after they walked over the beam, suddenly all the fight was out of me. It just didn’t feel like I wanted to do this anymore, at least not that day. It must have been that way for everybody, because everybody quit. We just stopped fighting.”


Roger Ray adds, “Of course, I cannot say what any of us are called to do right now. I can only say that anyone who chooses to walk with God may well be completely out of step with the expectations of the office, the neighborhood or the family. Sometimes, it seems, God’s people are called to walk right through the field of fire, faithfully, sacrificially, loyally, doing what we have been called to do.”[1]


In my first semester of seminary the first of two semesters of Old Testament was a required course. In the Old Testament when someone is faithfully following God, the phrase is that the person walks neither to the left or the right. In other words, this is a person who always walks straight toward God. Of course the implication is that when we walk to the left or the right, we sin because we don’t walk in God’s ways.


As the monks were walking neither to the right or the left, I wonder what they were thinking. Maybe, “I hope I don’t die here?” Or maybe they had the faith that their witness for peace by placing themselves in harm’s way would keep them safe. I really think that they were willing to sacrifice themselves to keep anyone on either side of the fire fight from dying that day. Of course another possibility is that they just wanted to get to the other side.


We admire self-sacrifice. We really admire self-sacrifice that is done to save someone or many. One particular act of self-sacrifice is why we are here in this place. Jesus went to the cross to die for our sins and not only our sins but for the sins of the whole world.


It doesn’t seem like much of a sacrifice, but we make a sacrifice when we are baptized. In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul addresses our dying to sin through baptism.


First, a brief introduction to Paul’s Letter to the Romans: In general, Paul’s other letters were written in response to issues at a particular church he founded. Paul finds conflict about what it is to be church and/or to be Christians. Paul writes to straighten things out. In his letter to the Romans, Paul is writing to Christians he has not visited and to a church he did not begin. In a sense, this letter is a letter of introduction to the Roman church.


This letter was one of or very likely the last letter Paul wrote, that we know of. So what we find in this letter is the greatest development of Paul’s theology. It is also the longest letter, which is why it is first in the New Testament section of Paul’s letters.


In Romans, Paul lays the groundwork for what he sees is his vision for the church. Above all, Paul always thinks he is right and everyone else is wrong. Because his letters were accepted as canon in the New Testament, the church ended up agreeing with Paul.


In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul takes on the issue of grace. Paul previously dealt with this issue with the Corinthian church. In the Corinthian church, people did whatever they pleased because Paul told them that they were saved through Jesus’ death to sin once and for all. Paul told them that they were abusing their freedom and casting shame on the church.


I don’t know if Paul knew or not whether this was an issue in Rome, regardless Paul takes it on for them. For Paul, this issue was one of those foundational issues for Christianity. How we behave as a grace filled people is important.


If we need do nothing to receive God’s grace, then why can’t we do and act as we please? Paul answers his own question. In other words, no way Jack! Paul’s question challenges the Romans by considering the idea that if we have been released from sin, then why would we continue in the thing we are freed from?


It is quite likely that slaves were members of the Roman church. Would such a slave continue his or her servitude after they were given freedom from their owner? Everyone in Rome would understand the question would be a resounding no.


Paul then elaborates on this concept with Christian ritual, specifically baptism.


baptism fist pumpWhat happens to us, spiritually, when we are baptized? When we are baptized, we die with Christ. We do not die alone. Just as Jesus died, we die with him. We are buried with him. The water of baptism becomes our tomb. This image is more powerful when we remember that all baptisms were by immersion. Our bodies go into the water. We are removed from the world around us. Life and breath are in the world above us. We are in a watery grave.


When we are lifted out of the water, we are alive again. We are back into a world of life and breath. Our old life of sin died in our watery grave. Our bodies were cleansed by the water. We rise out of the water clean and new. Jesus rose from the grave in a newness of life. We rise from the waters of baptism in a newness of life.


Paul is saying that baptism gives us a resurrection life. Our old life of whatever it was is gone. We become a new people. We are grace-filled. We are no longer slaves to our old life. We are free. And being free, we don’t need to go back to a life of sin that we once lived.


Having Christ with us makes us new. That is how Paul makes the connection of death and life. We die with Christ. After baptism, we live with Christ. If Christ dies with us, Christ will live with us forever.


When we die in the baptismal waters, we are crucified with Christ. Just as Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, we die to our sins in the waters of baptism. We are free from all the sin we had before. We need not return to sin. Christ takes away our chains.


Christ is alive! Since we died with Christ, we live with Christ. Christ lives eternally. We live eternally.


Jesus’ resurrection destroyed death. Jesus’ death was a one-time event. Jesus will never die again. Jesus killed death.


Jesus’ death was also a death for sin. It was also a one-time event. The death of sin was for everyone. Jesus’ life after the resurrection is where Christ’s life is to God. Our post-baptismal life is also to God.


Paul sums this up by reminding the Romans and us that we are to remember we are dead to sin. And since we are dead to sin, we are alive in Christ. After this explanation, Paul answers his question at the beginning. If we are free from sin and we live with Christ in God, why would we return to a life of sin? It makes no sense to do so.


After baptism, will we sin? You betcha. But what is sin? Sin, technically, is not our actions but our attitudes. Sin is when we walk to the right or to the left. Perhaps the best way to think about sin is to see sin as the opposite of love. When we act or think in a way that does not love, we sin.


This is where grace comes in. In spite of our less than loving ways, we are still forgiven. Our sins died on Jesus’ cross. Paul is making the point that we need to lead lives that reflect God’s love. Will we do that perfectly? Of course not. But we can be better people living a life of love rather than living a life of hate or indifference. What is important is our intent. What is important is to forgive and be forgiven.


Text: Romans 6:1b–11

[1] Roger Ray, “When God Won’t Be Nice”

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