12.27.15 Christmas and the Baptismal Life Romans 1:1-7 Sermon Summary
Christmas makes us think of stories of Jesus’ birth. And yet the earliest writings of the New Testament make no mention of Jesus’ birth. Still, the opening verses of Paul’s letter to the Romans sound a Christmas theme worthy of inclusion in the Christmas season.
As the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke give us a preview of those gospels, so the opening verses of Romans summarize the gospel according to Paul. Here are four themes previewed in the opening verses, and why baptism at Christmas is most appropriate.
- Paul writes that Jesus is part of the good news, the “gospel” of God according to the prophets. The Older Testament prophets were concerned primarily with social justice and peace. Paul presents Jesus as one aligned with these prophetic concerns. Jesus is a continuation of the prophetic witness and ministry. With Matthew and Luke, Paul regards Jesus as a fulfillment of the prophetic literature.
- With Matthew and Luke, Paul identifies Jesus as a descendant of David. Whereas Matthew and Luke have Jesus “born in Bethlehem, the city of David,” Paul just says Jesus is “descended from David according to the flesh.” Jesus is like David: he is an unlikely choice and a deliverer of God’s people. But Jesus is also a new David: he delivers not through war, but as shepherd. The peace and well-being Jesus brings is not political first, but spiritual. And out of this spiritual peace comes the hope for a transformed world—a hope for which we will work, even politically.
- Paul says Jesus is “declared” the Son of God. He was declared to be so, because he was discovered to be so. Matthew and Luke imply Jesus’ divinity through his miraculous conception. For Paul, it is based on his resurrection from the dead. His resurrection proved his holiness—his being “chosen.” And it was a demonstration of God’s power—power at work in Christ. For Paul, because Jesus is God’s Son, he is also Lord, which is in direct contrast to Caesar Augustus who also claimed to be God’s son and Lord.
- In Christ, Paul says, we have received grace and apostleship. By “grace” Paul refers to forgiveness for sins, rebirth, newness of life—in sum, to a life liberated from sin and repurposed accordingly. And by “apostleship” he means we have received a commission—we are ones “sent out” (the meaning of “apostle”) with the same mission of Jesus, namely, to “bring about the obedience of faith among Gentiles.” This means that the grace we receive in Christ sends us all out as missionaries to invite all people to orient their lives around Jesus as new David and true Lord.
If we were to point to a ritual, rather than the introduction to a letter, for a summary of Paul’s gospel, it would be baptism. Here we would need to read Romans 6 (and chapters 7-8 as well). For Paul, just as Jesus’ birth represents a new hope, so our rebirth represents the endurance of that hope. Just as Jesus’ full identity wasn’t known until resurrection, so our rebirth requires a dying of the former self. And for Paul, it is baptism that unites us to Christ’s death so that we can live according to Christ’s resurrection.
And so it is perfectly appropriate to celebrate baptism during Christmas. For as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also celebrate our own being born again, born anew, born from above in him.