8th Sunday after TrinityRomans 8:12-177/29/12
“We are the children of God: and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:16-17).
In 1997 at the War Crimes Tribunal, a witness, testifying in the matter of genocide in Rwanda, told a very moving story. He told of a pregnant (Tutsi) woman, who just before she was attacked and killed by an (Hutu) invader, handed her tormentor a book and said, ‘Take this Bible, for it is our memory, and because you do not know what you are doing.’
This anonymous woman’s powerful testimony reminds us that Holy Scripture is indeed our memory, and when we lose it, for whatever reason, we forget who we are and don’t know what we are doing.
In today’s epistle lesson St. Paul reminds us of who we are. “We are children of God,” he says “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” What an incredible thing for us to remember: that we are privileged to be God’s beloved children (and joint heirs with Christ).
However, it’s important for us to understand this in the correct way. St. Paul is not telling us that we are deities; nor is he saying that we are divine creatures and equal to Christ. As we know, we are still human beings, and sometimes we act all too “human.”
Instead, God is the one who chooses to make us His children through the spirit of adoption. As today’s epistle states, “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the spirit of adoption.
In other words, St. Paul uses the imagery of adoption to describe the new relationship of a Christian to God. However, the practices and policies of adoption in ancient Rome looked very different from today’s.
A Roman Family
According to Biblical Scholar William Barclay, it is only when we truly grasp how serious and complicated the process of Roman adoption was that we begin to understand the depth of meaning in today’s epistle.
In Rome the patria potestas was the father’s power over his family; that power was absolute; and in ancient Rome it was actually the power of life and death.
In regard to his father, a Roman son never came of age. No matter how old he was, he was still under the patria potestas, under the absolute control of his father.
So, in the ancient Roman adoption process a person had to pass from one patria potestas to another. He had to pass out of the possession and control of one father into the equally absolute control and possession of another.
According to Barclay, there were three main consequences of Roman adoption:
First of all, the adopted person lost all rights once held in his old family and in return gained all the rights of a legitimate son in his new family. In other words, in the most binding and legal sense, the adoptee gained a new father (patria potestas).
Next, according to Roman law the old life of an adopted person was completely wiped out; for example, all former debts were cancelled and the adoptee was considered a new person entering into a brand new life, totally unaffected by his past.
And finally, the adoptee became heir to his new father’s estate. Even if later on down the line, other biological children were born, it did not affect the adoptee’s rights. He would still legally be considered a co-heir with them.
In today’s epistle, St. Paul takes every meaningful step of ancient Roman adoption and applies it to our adoption into the Family of God.
Once we were in the absolute control and possession of selfishness and sin, but God, in His great mercy, brought us into absolute control and possession of Himself.
Once we were enslaved to our past, but God, in His infinite love, completely wiped away our old life and has given us a brand new one with Him.
And once we were utterly oppressed by fear and anxiety, but God, in His abundant grace, made us His sons and daughters, heirs of all His riches and joint heirs with His only Son, Jesus Christ.
(In the church), the way in which we recognize and publicly acknowledge this adoption into the Family of God takes place in the Holy Sacrament of Baptism.
As some of you may recall from your confirmation classes, a Sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. In other words, a Sacrament is nothing that we deserve nor is it something that we earn through our own efforts, but it is a totally free gift from God.
In our own baptism, whether as an infant, child, or adult, God first reached out to us and said: “through my Son’s death, I have wiped your slate clean and adopted you into my family.”
In other words, God didn’t wait for us to come to Him, instead He first came to you and me in our selfishness, sin and suffering, to show us just how very much He loves us.
Now this can be a difficult concept for many of us to grasp, after all, everything around us says that love must be earned. We must first do something that is pleasing to others.
We must do something that makes us different, unique, and worthy. We must be successful and popular. And then and only then, might we be accepted and loved.
However, what happens in the Sacrament of Baptism is the exact opposite of this. Just as a loving parent first seeks to adopt a child, through our baptism we recognize that God has first chosen and loved us and called us into His kingdom.
The beautiful mystery found in the Sacrament of Baptism is not so much that we give our children or ourselves to God, but that God first chooses to adopt us as His own beloved children.
This is one of the reasons why we baptize infants (like little Peter Ellwanger this morning) in the Episcopal Church. Because before they do anything good or deserving, they are marked as Christ’s own forever.
We tell them that they are beloved children of God, because God first reached out to them and that sin, fear and anxiety are only symptoms of them forgetting who they really are: “children of God.”
The good news is: when we remember that we are beloved children of God; when we remember that we are unconditionally loved by the One who brought everything into existence, our entire outlook on life will begin to change. For when we see ourselves in this new and different light, with Gods’ grace, we will also come to see others in a different light.
During the dark days of the apartheid regime in South Africa, Desmund Tutu, speaking to a group of white Afrikaner businessmen said, “my fervent wish for you is that one day you will come to know just how much God loves each of you. For when you comprehend that, you will be able to see how much God loves other people as well.”
Today, may we remember who we are and reach out to others with the same love that God has already shown us, so that they too may hear those powerful words: “you are the children of God: and if children, then heirs, heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.”