Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Romans 6:3-11)
In these verses from his masterpiece, the Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul reveals the essence of his gospel. It is, in a word, a matter of living a new life, of passing from one mode of being to another. And this passing does not occur because of our efforts, but in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Using Jewish and biblical categories, Paul describes these modes of being as two “worlds”. The first is under the sway of two intimately connected realities—sin and death. Those who belong to this world do not live fully: motivated by fear and ignorance of their true happiness, they do not do what they really would like to (see Romans 7:19). In short, they are slaves (v. 6; see 8:15,21). Jesus himself became part of this world out of solidarity with us and to show us a way out; this way out is love. By accepting to give his life for love, he made a breach in this world doomed to death and opened a road to life.
The other way of being is characterized by life to the full—joy, freedom, love. Jesus entered this world definitively by his resurrection, and so henceforth he is no longer subject to death. Paul tells his readers that, when they became Christians by trusting in Christ and saying yes to him, they were plunged, immersed (that is the meaning of the word “baptized”) into his death. It is as if their former life had disappeared with him on the cross so that they could enter with him into this new life.
For the first Christians, there was nothing theoretical about this. By accepting Christ, they had generally left behind a whole way of life—friends, family, values—to begin anew by living for God and therefore for others, as members of a community. Certainly these women and men remained part of this world with all its difficulties and uncertainties (Paul does not say that they are already “risen”), but their way of being was completely transformed. The same power that had brought Jesus out of the kingdom of death (Paul calls it “the glory of the Father”, in other words the radiant energy of his love) was already at work in them, a source of inexpressible joy and freedom.
Even if those who were baptized as little children have not experienced this dramatic change in their lives, with a “before” and an “after”, nonetheless the same dynamic is present in them. Baptism, received once and for all, is lived out daily in all the little and big steps taken by believers by which they “die” to a self-centered existence and live at the service of God and of their fellows. And this death and resurrection does not happen by our own human endeavors; it is the work of the Breath of God in us: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you” (Romans 8:11).
What must I “die” to in order to be a disciple of Christ? What gives me the strength to do this?
What choices, small or large, do I make to live out my baptism as a dying and rising with Christ?
Where do I sense the power of God’s Spirit in my life despite my human weaknesses?