United With Christ
As Paul continues his discussion of sin and grace, a theme begins to emerge. That theme is our unification with Christ through baptism. We can and should not continue sinning because we have been united with Christ through our baptism. At this point, it would have been unthinkable for any of Paul’s readers to have identified as Christian and yet remain unbaptized, except, that is, for those who were catechumens actively preparing for baptism and full inclusion in the body of Christ.
The richness of the theme of unification can be more fully grasped when we dig a little deeper into the meaning of the Greek word usually translated as united, symphytos. The meaning of symphytos goes beyond a simple understanding of unity. To be united with Christ is not just to share similar thoughts or to be an assistant to. Rather, to be united with Christ means to be bound together, entwined or enmeshed. We are bound or entwined with Christ through our baptism. We are bound with him in his death, and we will be bound with him in his resurrection.
There are a few directions you might want to explore as you seek to help your congregation understand the nature of what it means to be bound or entwined with Christ through their baptisms. There are at least three images that would be helpful: the marriage image, the plant image, and the wound image.
In seeking to draw out what it means to be untied with Christ, you might turn to the marriage image. In marriage, a man and a wife are bound together to become one flesh. Each partner had their own way of life before they were united in marriage. As they are joined together in marriage, they begin to die to their old bachelor way of life. Partners who refuse to let go of the lifestyle they once lived will experience a rough road.
Even though the partners in a marriage relationship have died to their old way of life, they do not cease to be who they are as individuals. The knitting together of two lives bears fruit in both partners’ lives as each draws strength and sustenance from the other. The longer the marriage survives, the longer each partner is defined by their entanglement with their partner. While our union with Christ does not yield the same benefit for God as it does for us, we do become co-laborers with Jesus, participating in his Kingdom-building work.
Our unification with Christ through our baptism is like the grafting of two plants together. In the grafting process, a branch is cut from its species of origin and is united with a new plant. The branch draws its ability to live and bear fruit from this new plant. The fibers of the new plant and the branch begin to mesh together, forging a life-giving bond for the branch.
As in the marriage image, the plant image highlights the nature of growth that takes place in the Christian life. The branch that has been cut from its old plant is now dependent upon the new plan if it is going to continue to grow and bear any fruit. Growth is the natural result of the grafting.
For further insight, we must go past the bounds of this week’s passage and include verses 12-14. Paul admonishes his readers to cease presenting their members to sin but to continue to present themselves to God. While our baptism grafts us into Christ, we must choose to remain attached to Christ the trunk to continue to have victory over sin. Here, you could very easily move the conversation in the direction of our continued growth in grace through sanctification.
Symphytos can also be used to describe the knitting together of wounds. When the body is wounded, there is a rift between two parts that had originally been one. Humanity’s relationship with God can be viewed in this way as well. Having been created in the image of God, we were joined to God in ways that we cannot now imagine. We were whole and so was our relationship to God. Sin has caused a wound in us and our relationship with God that needs to be stitched back together.
Through our baptism, through our dying and raising together with Christ to newness of life, this wound has begun to be stitched together. Growth is evident in this image as well. We are in the process of growing together. The grammar of the text supports the tension inherent in an active healing process. The stitches have been sown, but the wound has yet to heal completely enough for the stitches to be removed. Healing, the union of God and humanity, has begun, but it has not yet been completed.
What each of these three images have in common is that new growth begins to happen when we are brought together with Christ. Our union is more than just a mere meeting; it is an entanglement of our death and life with Christ’s. What always comes about because of our union with God is growth – growth for us as individuals, for the church, and for the Kingdom of God.
About the Contributor
Pastor, St. Louis, MO