Each of the three cycles of the Lectionary for Sunday Mass includes a number of Sundays during which we turn to St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The reading that we hear today is also read at every Easter Vigil which tells us a little about the importance of these particular words. The Letter to the Romans holds primacy of place in the writings of St. Paul as it systematically unfolds his theology and understanding of our relationship as a justified people in the eyes of God.
In today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul tells us that we have been baptized into Jesus’ death. Because of that fact, when he rose from the dead, our baptism also bestowed the gift of newness of life. I am sure that you have heard people say that there can be no Easter without Good Friday. Our baptism into Jesus’ death on Good Friday also assures us that we will, like Jesus, one day experience the resurrection of Easter Sunday.
If you are thinking to yourself that you have heard St. Paul say this before, you are not wrong. St. Paul makes this same statement in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, the Letter to the Galatians, the Letter to the Colossians, the Letter to the Philippians, and in his First Letter to the Corinthians. St. Luke puts these actual words into St. Paul’s mouth in the Acts of the Apostles. We would not be incorrect if we came to the conclusion that this must be one of the central ideas of St. Paul’s theology. He repeats it so many times because it is crucial to understanding what it means to be baptized, what it means to be a member of Christ’s body.
St. Paul says this as a statement of fact that then becomes a point of inspiration for our lives. Another way to read this passage is to understand that St. Paul is telling us the why and the how of our life as Christians. He maintains that by our baptism we were so completely bonded to Jesus that it now only remains for us to demonstrate the fact to the world through our Christian actions. In St. Paul’s mind, once we have been baptized we can never be completely torn away from him. Because we have been baptized, when we fall into sin, we simply need to say to ourselves, “I have been baptized.” In other words, nothing I do can destroy the bond that we have with Jesus. In effect, we are dead to sin even though it sometimes does enter into our lives.
One of the first things that any sacramental theologian will tell you is that all of the sacraments are dependent on baptism. Baptism is called the Sacrament of Initiation because it begins our relationship with Jesus. Baptism comes first; everything else follows. Because of that relationship we can claim that he forgives us when we tell him that we are sorry. We can claim that he lives within us especially when we participate in the Eucharist. We can be assured that the Holy Spirit that he sent upon the Apostles on Pentecost has also been sent upon us. We can be assured that when we become ill and die, he will raise us up.
As consecrated religious, we have strengthened our baptismal bond with Jesus through the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, following a particular way to live them out. However, all Christians are called to live these counsels according to one’s vocation in life. We are all called to be poor, realizing that the things of this world are nothing compared to the riches we possess in Jesus. We are all called to be chaste, realizing that our relationships with one another are dependent upon our relationship with Jesus. We are all called to be obedient just as Jesus was obedient and fulfilled the will of His Father.
St. Matthew builds his statement about discipleship on this essentially Pauline principle. We are all called to pick up our cross and to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Death has no claim upon us. Our baptismal relationship is our priority. All other relationships must be ordered in such a way that our baptism shines forth as the relationship which comes before all others. We have died with him and shall rise with him, possessing a newness of life that only the baptized can experience.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator