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Dying and Rising with Christ

Worship Informed by Romans

So why are we including a series on Romans in this Ascension/Pentecost issue? Because Romans helps us see what a difference Christ’s resurrection and ascension make in the lives of believers and highlights the role the Holy Spirit plays in our daily striving to become more like Christ.

In Romans Paul paints, in broad strokes, histories of the Gentiles and the Israelites. Both include a good deal of futility, sin, and death. What distinguishes Israel’s history is an underlying hope—a hope that finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, who, by his death and resurrection, definitively changes the course of cosmic history. The resurrection demonstrates God’s power to overcome futility, forgive sin, defeat death, and open up a new future for the whole of creation. The new future, embodied in the risen and ascended Christ, comes to us through the Holy Spirit’s activity in us and through us.

Worship informed by Romans should provide the congregation with a profound sense of assurance. The words, music, and symbols should work together to inspire confidence in the accomplishments of Christ. By means of this assurance, the community can find the courage to root their histories in his, to make Christ’s pattern of dying and rising their own pattern. This article describes the ways in which we attempted to accomplish this in our worship.

Throughout many of his letters, scholars agree, the apostle Paul draws from the liturgy of the church. So when creating a series based on one of these letters, the first thing to do is obvious: pull those portions out and stick them into the service. During our series on Romans we did this, repeating certain passages week after week. Even three months into the series, the repetition never felt redundant. It became a form of lectio divina (see below) with a six-day intermission between readings. As a result, those verses developed deeper resonance as the weeks went on.

In a Word

Lectio divina—divine reading—is a practice of reading a Scripture passage or phrase repeatedly, praying the text and listening to what God is saying through it to achieve a better understanding of its meaning and application to one’s life.

But our worship planners strive to do more than simply quote the book shaping our worship. After all, Romans is not just a collection of quotable propositions. It is an argument with an overarching intention. Worship informed by Romans ought to reflect that as well. Paul’s particular emphases in his letter to the Romans ought to be the particular emphases in the services as well.

You’ll notice that this series is a little different than our usual series. That’s primarily because of its length: at South Bend CRC the series took place over a number of months. Of course, you are welcome to craft a series that fits your own context, picking and choosing among the suggested texts to create a shorter series if that works best.

Sermons Informed by Romans

Even more obvious than using passages from Romans in the liturgy for our series is preaching from Romans in sermons. Our take on Romans relies heavily on J. R. David Kirk’s excellent book Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God (Eerdmans 2008). Building on the work of Richard Hays, N. T. Wright, and others, Kirk not only revises your interpretation of Romans but leaves you wondering how you could have read it any other way.

Romans 1:1-17. While there is often good reason to be embarrassed by the church and fellow believers (think Westboro Baptist, Harold Camping, Jesus’ image on a grilled cheese sandwich), Paul declares that he is “not ashamed of the gospel.” Why? Because Christ, by “the power of God,” defeated sin and death. Uniting with him in faith, we can live assured that we too will participate in resurrection and not be left ashamed.

Song: “Salvation Belongs to Our God” SNT 256

Romans 1:13-32; 3:21-31. The problem with human beings is not that they have desires. The problem is that those desires run amok. To paraphrase Johnny Cash, “It’s like one day our desires turn to us and say, ‘We’ve enjoyed serving you, but now you’re going to serve us.’” The gospel requires us to recognize this bad news because it is then that the goodness of the good news becomes evident and moves us to faith.

Song: “Amazing Grace” CH 343, PH 280, PsH 462, SFL 209, TH 460, WR 422

Romans 4:13-25. The centrality of faith is not some newfangled idea concocted by Paul. It is right there in the story of God. Judaism’s founder, Abraham, has faith in the promises of God, and God reckons this to him as righteousness. While “righteousness” can connote “moral purity,” here it means more like “acceptability.” To be righteous is to be counted among God’s own, and the grounds of that acceptance is faith. As Abraham trusted God to deliver on the promise of a son, we trust that the Promised Son will bring to fruition what he began at Easter.

Song: “If You But Trust in God to Guide You” PH 282, PsH 446, SFL 210, TH 670, WR 429

Romans 5:1-11. Union with Christ, in his dying and rising, enables us to “boast in the hope of the glory of God” as well as “glory in our sufferings.” Paul’s not suggesting we brag about having cancer or being unemployed. “Suffering” here is about pressures. We live in a culture content with the shallow and banal. Uniting ourselves with the work God began in Christ produces longings for something bigger. This creates pressure. The world feels constricting. Without faith, this suffering leads to bitterness and frustration. A faith that trusts in the God who burst the confinement of death can rejoice even in the midst of this suffering.

Song: “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus” CH 244, PH 2, PsH 329, SWM 83, SFL 122, TH 196, WR 153

Romans 5:12-21; 1 Samuel 17:38-54. When Israel faces off against the Philistines in 1 Samuel 17, two individuals battle in lieu of two nations: the shepherd boy and the mercenary behemoth. By the time they are through, David has turned Goliath’s own sword against him, cutting off the Philistine’s head (see Fokkelman Reading Biblical Narrative). Similarly, Adam and Satan do battle at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam loses, and all humanity goes down with him. In Christ, God enters the fray. At Calvary, Christ and Satan face off, and, like David, Christ turns Satan’s weapon—death—against him. Death and resurrection become the means by which Christ changes the fate of humanity.

Song: “He Is Lord” CH 34, PsH 633, SNC 160, SFL 178, WR 305

Romans 6:1-14. The doctrine of original sin can sound a bit misanthropic, as though the point is to declare infants guilty before they take their first breath of air. A more productive phrasing might be to call it the “doctrine of original mess.” From the very beginning, our desires are a mess. They’re overblown or repressed, entangled, and confused. In our baptism we die to this mess. We allow grace to wash it away. Baptism, however, is no magic act. While it assures us that we will not be resigned to the mess, it does not immediately reorder our desires. That process of dying and rising is the task of a lifetime—but not one we engage in alone. We engage in the reordering of our desires with the One who has determined already how the struggle will end.

Song: “We Know That Christ Is Raised” PH 495, PsH 271

Romans 8:1-25. The story of dying and rising is not merely Christ’s story, it is our story. To “walk according to the Spirit” does not necessarily involve a life of spiritual highs and miraculous occurrences. Those things may come, but ultimately our walk involves a determination to follow Christ’s pattern: dying to fear and sinful desire and rising in expectation of new life. Again, Christ’s story becomes our story. But not just ours. In this passage, Paul declares that the story of dying and rising is not just Christ’s story, not just our story, but the story of the whole creation.

Song: “In Labor All Creation Groans” SNC 271

Romans 8:18-30. Humanity is a mess. As a consequence, so is the creation. But Paul declares that through “the power of God” (Rom. 1:17) there is good news: there is a future of glory. Meanwhile we live in the tension between present mess and future glory. As Paul presents it in these verses, prayer simply expresses this tension we feel. We long for something that is in stark contrast to our present circumstances. This longing is, in fact, evidence of the Spirit interceding for us. So in the midst of our longing there is comfort and hope that enables us to “wait . . . with patience.”

Song: “Our Faithful God” PsH 445

Romans 8:28-39. “All things work together for good.” Looking to the resurrection for a picture of goodness, we conclude that the “good” Paul is referring to is life that overcomes death, and wholeness that overcomes evil. According to Paul, “all things” work toward that end. How it happens is a mystery. It’s not a mystery that we should try to figure out for others; it’s difficult enough to figure out in our own lives.

Song: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” CH 210, PH 482, PsH 253, SFL 27, SWM 45, TH 53, WR 71

Romans 10:5-13. The way Paul inserts Christ into this quotation from Deuteronomy suggests that Paul never conceived of the law as a means by which individuals attempted to save themselves. Rather, obedience to the law was the way to demonstrate trust in God’s salvation. Now God’s trustworthiness has been made evident and available through the death and resurrection of Christ. As a result, Christ—not Torah—becomes central.

Song: “How Great Is Your Love” (Mark Altrogge)

Romans 12:1-2. If Christ’s resurrection has secured our salvation, we need not live our lives dictated by or in rebellion against any other entity—institutional or personal. Such things hold no power to determine our salvation. Like a sacrifice giving off an aroma of gratitude and praise, we live for Christ.

Song: “Thuma Mina/Send Me, Lord” SFL 252, SNC 280, SWM 228, WR 713

Romans 12:1-8. Paul calls us to have “sober judgment.” In light of what he’s argued in the previous chapters, “sober judgment” consists of a good dose of humility. We cannot overcome sin and death on our own. We are failures. But Paul also argues that “while we were still [failures]” (5:8), there was this profound demonstration of love through which a glorious future had been secured. Self-loathing is therefore not sober judgment; it’s out of touch with reality. We are profoundly valued.

Song: “Just as I Am, without One Plea” CH 488, PH3 70, PsH 263, SWM 156, TH 501, WR 354

Romans 12:9-21. The first instruction here—“Let your love be genuine”—is critical to fulfilling all those that follow. All our efforts at loving arise out of some back story. That story might be our need for approval or a desire to gain advantage. The back story of genuine love is chapters 1-11 of Romans: a profound awareness of the mercy we have been shown.

Song: “They’ll Know We Are Christians” CH 429, WR 595

Romans 14:1-12. We’re often told that to overcome being judgmental we need to understand others. Indeed, understanding is helpful. However, being judgmental arises more from insecurity than ignorance. We judge because we assume that some standard must be met in order for a human to be of value. We lose that impulse once we find security in the fact that, as participants in Christ’s resurrection, “whether we live or we die we are the Lord’s” (v. 8).

Song: “In Christ There Is No East or West” CH 428, PH 440, PsH 540, WR 600, 603

The Sacraments Informed by Romans

Because baptism identifies us with the dying and rising Christ, we sought to give added prominence to this sacrament in our worship during this series. We placed a bowl filled with water on a pedestal near the entrance at the back of the sanctuary and invited congregants to dip their fingers in the water and then mark their foreheads with the sign of the cross before taking their seats. This provided a tangible way for people to prepare for worship by calling to mind their participation in Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism. Later, during the declaration of pardon, a member of the congregation carried the same bowl of water down the center aisle and poured it into the baptismal font.

We provided the following explanation of the baptism motif in our bulletin: “Since the declaration of pardon offers us the opportunity to again rise to new life, we have accompanied the reading of it with the pouring of baptismal water—which Paul describes in Romans as a sign of our dying and rising with Christ.”

As for the sacrament of communion, we drew on passages and themes from Romans as part of the Great Thanksgiving:

The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.
It is truly right and our greatest joy
to give you thanks and praise, eternal God,
“who gives life to the dead
and calls into being things that were not” (4:17).
“At just the right time, when we were still powerless,
Christ died for the ungodly” (5:6).
“We were reconciled to [God] through the death of his Son,
how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!” (5:10)
Through his death we died to sin,
through his resurrection we rise to new life,
Therefore, with the apostles and prophets
and the great cloud of witnesses that proceed us,
we lift our hearts in joyful praise.

The Worship Space Informed by Romans

Inspired by the work of Paul Villinski (paulvillinski.com), we created a crucifix out of butterflies, tying death and resurrection in a single image and underscoring our union with Christ in that death and resurrection.

Constructing the butterfly installation was relatively simple. Thanks to Carol Roeda Studio, we had access to several hundred small butterfly-shaped ornaments that were cut out of steel. (We are willing to lend these to interested churches.) After putting a screw partially into the wall (using short and long screws, varying how far each butterfly was from the wall; see image “Butterflies on Screws”), and using a heavy-duty magnet to attach a butterfly to each screw, we were able to achieve the effect we were aiming for (see image above). Additionally, we created a graphic for projection that complemented the installation at the front (see “PowerPoint 1”). We also created a similar image for the front of the bulletin and for the prayer cards that our staff sends out to members for whom we are praying (see image “Romans Prayer Card.”)

Litanies and Declarations Informed by Romans

Few books of the Bible are as adaptable for liturgy as Romans. Much of our spoken liturgy—the greeting, confession, assurance, and blessing—quoted the book verbatim, though some passages were adapted.

We used portions of Romans 8:31-39 in the declaration of pardon and the closing declaration. In fact, for six weeks of the series we recited these verses twice during the service. Romans seeks to accomplish many things, but none is more important than this: to assure us that our salvation has been secured through the death and resurrection of Christ. Few passages declare that as definitively as 8:31-39. One could simply declare that “nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ our Lord.” But when you recite all those “this nor that’s,” the comprehensiveness really hits home. Overheard after one of the services: “You know, it never struck me just how complete that list is. It’s really reassuring to know that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” Mission accomplished!

God’s Greeting

To all God’s beloved in [your church],
who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from
God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(Rom. 1:7, adapted)

Confession

Righteous God,
we proclaim neither innocence
nor purity of mind, heart, and action.
We cannot plead ignorance to what your will demands.
We do, however, proclaim Christ,
finding in his mercy and sacrifice
the courage and will to lay our hearts open
and confess the sin that weighs upon them.
Quick to overlook and forget our own wrongdoing
while dwelling on the wrongs of others,
we ask that in these moments of silence
your clear light might illumine our dark corners
and remove every shadow in which sin hides.

Silence

For these sins named,
and those still unacknowledged,
we ask your grace and mercy. Amen.

We live in the tension between present mess and future glory.

Declaration of Pardon

Option A
Having been united with him in a death like his,
we will certainly be united
with him in a resurrection like his.
We know that our old self was crucified with him
so that the body of sin might be destroyed,
and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
For whoever has died is freed from sin.
But if we have died with Christ,
we believe that we will also live with him.
We know that Christ, being raised from the dead,
will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died, he died to sin, once for all;
but the life he lives, he lives to God.
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin
and alive to God in Christ Jesus. (Rom. 6:5-11, adapted)
Sisters and brothers,
know that you are forgiven and be at peace.
Thanks be to God.

Option B
The Scripture says,
“No one who believes in him will be put to shame.”
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek;
the same Lord is Lord of all
and is generous to all who call on him.
For, “everyone who calls on
the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
(Rom. 10:11-13)
Sisters and brothers, know that you are forgiven
and be at peace.
Thanks be to God.

Option C
What then are we to say about these things?
If God is for us, who is against us?
He who did not withhold his own Son,
but gave him up for all of us,
will he not with him also give us everything else?
Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?
It is God who justifies.
Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes,
who was raised, who is at the right hand of God,
who indeed intercedes for us.
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine,
or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Rom. 8:31-35, 37-39)
Sisters and brothers, know that you are forgiven
and be at peace.
Thanks be to God.

Closing Declaration

Option A
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
“For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?
Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever. Amen.
(Rom. 11:33-36, NRSV)

Option B
Can anyone separate us from the love of Christ?
No, in all things we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Rom. 8:31-35, 37-39)

Blessing

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen. (Rom. 15:13)