Who was it said that “an Englishman is someone who, in the lottery of life, has drawn the winning ticket”? The early Paul was like a football fan who managed to secure a seat for the FA cup final. In the meantime, he strikes up a friendship with the manager of Wembley stadium who tells him to just to turn up on the day and meet him at such and such a place for a great spot. A dilemma: rely on the ticket or trust this new friend? As a Jew Paul was convinced that he had a front-row ticket in the Kingdom of God. But having met Christ he faced a decision: To insist on taking the place represented by the ticket would be tantamount to trusting more in a ticket than in Christ's word.
Paul expresses this most clearly in Philippians. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel…..But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ (Phil 3:4-8).
The public way in which one declares this change of loyalties, this taking one’s stand on Christ is Baptism. In Romans 6:11 Paul tries to get his readers to think through and act out the consequences of their baptism, of their having declared allegiance to another Lord. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
What really makes a person tick, what makes him the person he is, what’s the driving force in his life? When someone has a consuming passion for something – music, football, food – we says it brings them to life. The psalmist claims that for some people sin is like that. Psalm 36 begins: Sin speaks to the sinner in the depth of his heart; there is no fear of God before his eyes. (I met some Mafiosi when working as a prison chaplain in Rome. That’s precisely how they defined their passion for crime.) Paul says that for the baptized, Christ is the one who brings them to life in this way, whereas sin leaves them cold—they are dead to sin. This dying to sin involves the gradual re-education or re-alignment of our desires. Just as a person can be educated to appreciate wine or classical music, so we can allow ourselves to “acquire a taste” for the things of Christ.
Once a person begins to move towards Christ they cannot give themselves wholly to sin. Sin increasingly leaves the Christian cold. Even though it may seem very attractive and they may fall into it, they don't enjoy it as much, and in that sense they simply are dead to sin. Paul wants to alert his readers to this and so detect the action of Christ in their lives. Someone who has had a sweet tooth, but gradually grows out of it may continue to eat sweet things out of habit. But if they make themselves aware of what pleases them and what doesn’t, their eating habits will gradually change. If Christians make themselves aware of the fact that sin loses some of its flavour, they will be able to allow what really satisfies them to dictate their behaviour. To be dead to sin means being alert to what is going on in the depth of their being.
St Ignatius Loyola in his spiritual exercises constantly talks of becoming aware of our deepest desires and how these both show us the will of God and help us to do it. Once we are aware of what makes us truly, deeply content, we can orient our lives towards that, but this process is by no means obvious. Let’s say a person in their teens loves to go clubbing and spending nights out. That is how they enjoy themselves. Usually by their thirties and certainly their forties that becomes rather tiring and difficult to sustain, but the person still has in the back of their mind the idea that a night spent clubbing is the ideal night out. In fact an evening in with some friends and a home-cooked meal is much more pleasing, but it takes people some time to consciously avert to that. Once they do they can be a lot more content and waste a lot less time doing what doesn’t give deep joy. Paul is asking people here to do precisely that kind of awareness exercise with their lives. There is a sense in which belonging to Christ gradually “spoils” our enjoyment of things sinful, just as a person whose tastes have been educated can no longer enjoy McDonalds as they did before. (It may well be that sin seems even more attractive than before conversion, but at the same time it doesn’t produce the satisfaction that it used to. The smell from McDonalds may still be very alluring to the gourmet, but he knows that it will not really satisfy him any more.) Once we taste decent wine we can still drink cheap wine but it will never be as enjoyable. The more we open ourselves to Christ the less we enjoy things that don’t really build up our spiritual selves.
It’s not a sense of guilt that prevents total enjoyment, but the realisation that the horizons of life have become so much more vast, that this former delight has become insipid. It is with all this in mind that Paul says in Rms. 5:12: Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal bodies, in other words, “take the consequences of your baptism.”
© Fr. John Hemer, used with permission.