The Life Line (1884)
by Winslow Homer
public domain

Baptism of Our Lord, Romans 6:1-11

Historical Description:   Winslow Homer (1836-1910), born in Boston, began his career by illustrating popular periodicals, including Harper’s Weekly.  His early experience sent him to cover the Civil War in 1862.  After the war, he spent ten months in France where the Realism movement inspired him to capture rural subjects.  Homer’s last significant influence came from his time spent in a small English fishing village on the North Sea coast.  There the rugged, dramatic climate evoked an almost equal admiration for human bravery and innovation.

In The Life Line, Homer captures a coast guardsman rescuing an unconscious woman with the help of a breeches buoy.  He highlights realism, heroics, and human ingenuity.  In the original sketch of this oil painting, Homer does not conceal the identity of the coast guardsman.  He adds the scarf in the final rendition in order to emphasize, not only the victim, but also what he considers the true hero—the breeches buoy life line.

Devotional Reflection:  Survivors of near-death experiences often recall seeing their entire lives flash before their eyes.  Their lives are changed forever in an instant.  Death’s cold, dark reality has a way of reshaping the perspective of all who tarry too close.

Winslow Homer grants us a glimpse into what surely seems a near-death experience.  The woman appears unconscious, though her situation may be even more dire.  She may be approaching death’s door; knocking just as incessantly as the waves crashing around her.  She may already have passed death’s threshold.  If so, only a timely rescue can bring her back.  But no matter the extent of her peril, hope looms large in the faceless man who has secured her in his arms.  Risking death himself to save her, we look on in hopeful anticipation that cold, dark death will not claim them this day.

In our text from Romans 6, Paul describes an experience with death.  In fact, he describes the experience of all who have passed through the treacherous waters of Baptism.  Of course when we look at the Baptismal font with its still, calm waters it fills none of us with fear or trepidation.  But it could.  It should.  It should because, as Paul asserts, those waters are where we knocked on death’s door.  “All of us who have been baptized in Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (v. 3).  We crossed over.  We went under.  In those waters we drowned and experienced death with Christ.  As each person is brought to the baptismal waters, we can catch a glimpse of a moment—the moment—when death rages around them.  Death takes them.

We don’t know how the woman in Homer’s painting arrived in her predicament, dangling limply over the whitecaps, swinging aggressively between death and the hope of life.  I suppose she may have slipped and fallen overboard the ship.  She may have been lured into the waters by a friend’s tempting dare and lost herself under the weight of the waves.  Whatever the reason, accidental or incited, she is now limp and cold, lifeless and weak.

Paul reminds us of the reason for our predicament.  We all share in the slip of the first man and woman.  Adam and Eve’s plunge into darkness brought the promise of death.  We can’t avoid it—the waters loom too large and the depths are far too deep.  We may try to swim for a while but to no avail.  We can’t breathe.  Our eyes sting with tears.  Our muscles fatigue.  Light and life seem only a distant memory.  In the end, we sink into death’s dark pit.

But in that pit, Paul proclaims the presence of Jesus.  Not faceless.  Not shrouded in anonymity. Jesus is there.  He secures us in His arms—our hope looms.  “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him” (v.8).  We rise from the depths and return to life.  We breathe freely and richly in the hope of the resurrection of all who die with Christ.

An experience with death has a way of reshaping perspectives—shifting priorities.  Whatever led to the young woman’s fall, I cannot imagine she will be quick to do it again.  Her view of life and death and the dangers they contain will affect her every step.  She will be wary to let herself fall again.  So too with those who have passed from death to life in the Savior’s arms, rescued and claimed by God’s Son Himself.  “The one who has died has been set free from sin” (v. 7).  We know the place where sin leads us.  We’ve ventured through those hostile waters.  Thanks be to God Jesus was there.  Thanks be to God Jesus continues to carry us into life everlasting.

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