A Spirit of Adoption
| Romans 8:12-17
||Sun, June 15, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Let’s be honest. The reason that we are reading these verses from Paul’s letter to Rome today is straightforward. Today is ‘Trinity Sunday’ in the Christian year. And to be blunt, the Biblical texts that refer explicitly to the threefold God are few and far between. The trinitarian nature of God takes the early church time to grasp. Even then this huge mystery is always beyond the church’s grasp. Nonetheless, this Triune - three/one - mystery is not something that was invented by the church out of thin air. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is what a community of scripture finds as it pays close attention to its texts and its story. These verses in the eight chapter of Romans are a case in point. Listen: “All who are led by the Spirit of God ... When we cry, ‘Abba! Father! ... then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” In this brief span of words are the three who together are the one God - Spirit, Father, Christ. At the heart of the uniqueness and peculiarity of Christian faith is this odd paradox - the one God is communal in nature. This monotheistic faith does not worship a lonely God. Within God there is a community of love. I find it fascinating that there are more than a few who imagine that this is a problem for Christian witness rather than its central truth. The mystery of the Trinity does not appear to suit our reasonable ways of thinking. So we decide that the ancient tradition must have it wrong and we do our best to make Christianity unitarian after all. Don’t misunderstand. I don’t imagine that we will ever figure out the Trinity so that it can be explained to our satisfaction. But I am beginning to pray that the Trinity will one day soon figure me out and figure us out and figure the world out so that our brokenness and violence and fear is healed and reconciled and finally overcome.
So let’s be honest. This text from Romans has been chosen to help preachers and congregations ponder the Triune God - Abba, Spirit, Christ. Given the chance we preachers move quickly to our notes from classes in church history and theology, looking up illustrations to help us explain the Trinity. But we do so at our peril, for we too quickly run from the text, the text that predates the doctrine of the Trinity, the text that foreshadows and calls forth the doctrine of the Trinity. But there is plenty of material on the Trinity just down the hall, in the stacks of the VST library. Besides, we are becoming disciplined to stay very close to the text and to wait here for the Spirit, for Abba, for Christ to speak in the silences between the words on the page.
“So”, writes Paul, “we are debtors, not to the flesh”. This is such odd language, so foreign to us. We are in debt, but “not to the flesh”. We don’t owe anything to “the flesh” says Paul because the only thing that living “according to the flesh” gains us is death. Well, on second thought, maybe we should have a sermon on the fine points of the Trinity after all! Then again, perhaps we simply need to linger under these words until they figure us out. It is easy for us to trip over this word “flesh” in Paul’s writing. He speaks of a life in “the flesh” on one hand and a life in “the spirit” on the other hand. Once Paul does this we jump to conclusions. We assume that life in “the flesh” is a life that enjoys the material world, a life of physicality, an earthy life. More than that, we imagine that a life in “the spirit” is a spiritual journey away from bodily pleasure. But Paul would be mortified to imagine that his words ever encouraged the church to set a spiritual life over against a life that is fully engaged in the material world with its pleasures and pain, its beauty and struggle. Later in this same letter, he says: “present your bodies as a living sacrifice ... which is your spiritual worship.” For Paul spirituality is earthy and life in the Spirit is life in the world of materiality. So what is all this about not owing anything to “the flesh” and about “life in the flesh” leading only to death. The Greek word ‘sarx’ lies behind our attempts at translation literally means ‘flesh’. Other translation capture a surprisingly different sense. One replaces the word “flesh” with “human-centered reasoning”. Another calls the life that leads to death “human nature” and another “a do-it-yourself life”. Paul says that we owe nothing to the kind of life that the world presents us with as normalcy. We are not in debt to a life of climbing ladders and rat races and so-called ‘common sense’. We are not indebted, not in hock to the ways and categories of the world. Our bodies and our spirits are debt free. In fact, says Paul, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
This is a very big claim: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” This is, you understand, entirely reverse logic. Everyone knows, that the way to life is to collect a significant resume that lists great deeds of the body. But Paul says that when the Holy Spirit helps you kill off your deeds and your accomplishments you won’t be a nothing or a nobody without an impressive c.v. Instead, says Paul, you’ll be alive for the first time! Of course, we know by now that he is not talking to individuals. Paul is speaking to a church. The y’all he is referring to is a community that likes to preen its feathers with some pride. He is saying to the church something like: “If by the Holy Spirit of God you kill off your reliance and pride in what you have done and where you have come from and what you have built then you can begin to live.” When the Spirit arrives from the future, from the coming Kingdom of God, from out ahead it turns the church’s head around. No more looking back. No more attempts to rebuild. Its all out ahead now. No longer is it us trying to recover yesterday. Now it is all coming at us from tomorrow.
Now Paul enters daring testimony before the jury. He says that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” It sounds to us like an innocent, self-evident truth. No danger here. But listen again. Paul has just claimed that the Spirit of God causes those who follow it and breathe it and live it by its energy to abandon the “do-it-yourself life”. Do you hear? To be led by the Spirit of God is to find oneself no longer at ease or at home in a do-it-yourself world! To die to “human centered reasoning” is to be born into a new way of figuring things out, a way that makes no sense to do it your-selfers and a do it yourself culture. Paul is calling the church to a life free from any expectation of succeeding according to the categories of the world. The church Paul calls out is no longer a child of the culture. The church he sends is not enslaved by fear. Paul risks claiming that the church has “received a spirit of adoption”. This orphaned people that does not fit the categories of the world or live up to the expectations of those in control finds itself, to its great astonishment, adopted. This foundling, this abandoned people is welcomed into the household of God. This is not some obvious, self-evident truth. This is a shocking announcement. This testimony claims that God is an adoptive parent who calls and claims a family made up of a motley cast of characters. The children of God, it turns out, are orphans from every household and nation and ethnicity and story and background. We adoptees hold this in common - that we are dying to a life of human-centered reasoning and no longer fit in a culture of “do it yourselfers”. We are not children of God because of our birth certificate. We do not belong to God by birth-right. Children of God owe our place at the Table of the Lord to the Holy One who makes room for our orphaned life in an amazing act of mercy that we can only call grace ... pure, clear, amazing grace. The church we knew was floundering, trying to save itself, dying. But not now. We were once lost and now are found. All grace. We have received a spirit of adoption. We students, we couples, we wise one ... we thought we knew exactly where we were going and how we were going to get there. We had plans. But, the truth is, we were blind and now we see ... we see that in dying to our certainty and our self-reliance and our arrogance we are received home, as a beloved child.
But how does an adopted church know that it really belongs to the household? Paul says the proof is in the infant’s cry: “Abba! Dadda!”. He says: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Notice that the proof of belonging to the family of God comes in the church’s instinctive desire to be in relationship with God, just as an infant reaches out to its ‘Abba’. This infant’s cry of the church is the work of the Holy Spirit mingled with our human spirit in a mutual cry of dependence upon God. It is the church reaching out to God and, at the same time, God’s Spirit reaching out to the church. Our life together is rooted in this deep trust that calling upon God is an instinctive, natural and necessary cry. More than that, it is a deep trust that God longs to be called and needed and loved in this way. Isn’t this what our worship life amounts to? Aren’t we here to cry “Abba” and then to discover the surprising response of the One who makes room at table for orphaned souls and foundling churches? To our amazement there is more. We do not simply receive a meal and a place. Adopted orphans in this holy household do not only receive room and board. They are also given a full share of the inheritance.“If children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” Heirs of God?! Now that is some kind of inheritance. Our minds leap to bounty. Then Paul reminds us that we are “join heirs with Christ – if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” This family of God, this household that gathers at the Lord’s Table has a peculiar heritage that we inherit. We are a people who bear grief and sorrow, who carry burdens and hard questions, who do not run from trouble or from those in trouble. This is the rich inheritance that God wills to all who are adopted into the Body of Christ. On this day of deep gratitude to the God who makes room in the family for our troubled lives and this bewildered church we are especially grateful for the inheritance of shared suffering with Christ. Janice and Jim slowly make their way back to us, burdened with grief and sadness, orphaned from parenthood, bewildered. Adam remains in Saskatchewan, betwixt and between beloved families. Our ‘do it yourself’ expertise cannot fix things or make it all better. We cry, we pray: “Abba! Father! You pass on to us your rich inheritance - the compassion that stays through the night, that does not flee from grief and sorrow, that bears the pain and loss. Give us our share of your inheritance so that we may know the inexplicable glory that will yet come beyond the terrible endings of Friday and the long aching Saturday on that Eastering morning that is almost beyond our believing ... except that we have seen and we have heard and we have received a spirit of adoption that causes us, even now, to trust you, the threefold community of compassion we call ‘Abba’.” Amen.