Saturday, May 25, 2013

Children of God

Romans 8:14-17

"All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. 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-- if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

What an incredibly rich text we are given in this short passage from the Letter to the Romans which Paul wrote. Children of God, Spirit of God, Suffering and Glorification all woven together to describe the Christian life.

The Bible comes to us because of the dedication, the piety and devotion of men who through the ages worked to transcribe copies of the original manuscripts. Every bit of it down lovingly by hand. In many monastic communities artistry accompanies the words, to provide what are known now as illuminated texts.
If this blog seems curious to you because I highlight specific words or phrases, perhaps you can come to appreciate it against the backdrop of the more ancient tradition of illuminated texts.

What was Paul suggesting in the idea of being Children of God, experiencing a spirit of adoption, suffering with Christ and being led by the Spirit of God?

Well, here I'm going to test your Biblical literacy a bit. Remember the story that comes from the Hebrew Bible, the leading of the People of Israel from bondage out of Egypt? The entire book of Exodus, the second book of the Hebrew Bible, (to Christians this is often called the first or "Old" Testament). This story is the framework of understanding Paul held. He knew himself to belong to the Chosen People, and that history included knowing the narrative of God's Spirit leading the way for Moses. For the Israelites, the Spirit of God was manifested through visible phenomenon. Pretty easy...see..follow..arrive at destination...wait until the next movement..follow.. and so forth.  Paul, on the other hand, does not suggest any visual aides would be necessary, nor forthcoming. In Paul's teachings to the followers of Jesus, all of this happens in an invisible, and inner way within each person. It is a spiritual action with consequent manifestations within each believer. The sense of having communication from God to believer is also implied within Paul's various writings to the communities and individuals he mentored. He refers to visions and dreams from time to time, throughout his body of writings. This too seems to be important to the concept of being led by the Spirit of God.

What does it mean to you to be "led by the Spirit of God"?

Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park

Can you recount an experience in which you were particularly aware of the sense that you were being led by the Spirit of God?

I asked someone recently how this passage spoke to the person. I wondered especially about the idea of being adopted, whether there was any vitality in this passage. As I suspected, at least for this one person, the passage sort of landed lifelessly.  In the Twenty First century children are put up for adoption for a variety of reasons. Also, with blended families, there are many marriages where children may have step-parents who adopt the child of their new spouse. How can this passage, which is intended to convey a rich and special relationship for all believers become a life-giving text when adoptions are not wholeheartedly viewed  as great events by the adoptees?^^ 

Our practice of adoption is very different from the practice of adoption which Paul used for his analogy. In Greek Mythology, adoption of Hercules was executed by Hera as a sign of his inclusion within the pantheon of Gods. Also, in ancient Rome, Emperors were known to adopt adult heirs very near their time of death to assure the continuity of the throne and power. Paul was familiar with this tradition and a concept of adoption always being a beneficent act. In the New Testament then, Paul introduces a novel idea in coining this phrase.

Paul has built upon the tradition which Jesus emphasized that God is Father of all, at least that tradition which the Gospel of John also conveyed. Paul suggests, that in choosing the life that mirrors the life of Jesus, our previously unknown relationship with God is revealed. We are children of God in order that we may fully appreciate a living and communicating relationship with God. It includes a concluding and fully consummating action, to be received from God at the end of our earthly days, when our mortal bodies fail and our spirit breaks free of the body which encased our spirit.

While there is great hope intended in this passage I think it fair to note that there does appear to be a tension within the passage. There is after all, a conditional statement, and a call for co-suffering by followers with Jesus that will be expected  which exists in the fulfillment of the promises described.

So we are challenged to consider the troubling ideas of suffering.

What are your "God-Thoughts", your theology of suffering?

Do you look at all the suffering that occurs in the world today and point fingers at God demanding answers?

Does the idea of dying for a cause, in this case, the cause of placing Jesus as the first and only Lord of your life resonate in a good, bad or indifferent way?

Paul's letter was written to address a specific form of suffering, which is best classified as political oppression. Christians were ardent in their refusal to acknowledge the ruler of earthly principalities, "governments" as the ultimate "Lord". The refusal to pay honor to the ruler or surrogate was met with harsh punishment, torture and frequently death. This treasonous behavior earned followers the extreme displeasure but the followers held tightly to their profession of faith. Martyrs were the ones who testified only to the Lordship of Jesus. These received cruel treatment for their treason, and death. Paul's letter assured these and future generations that this loyalty which resulted in death would also yield a reward which he called the glorification.

I've held missionaries in great admiration because of the cost of their discipleship. For two years, one of my ministry positions was that of serving as the congregational coordinator of missioners which we funded with the general budget of the parish. I corresponded with them, offering encouragement and shared their stories with the mission committee and members of the parish.  In order to enter the mission field, missioners hear a message directed to them in the words of Jesus, "sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me." To do that, they divest themselves of real estate, and adopt a modified life that fits within the community style to which they go to serve. In my short term mission experiences I've always come home deeply appreciative for all the comforts of home I temporarily left behind in order to serve in a foreign location.  Insignificant inconveniences compared to the men and women over the past 2000 years who died as a consequence of their love and desire to bring the Gospel to people who did not know the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. It's folks like David and Ann Dedrick  who listened to the call to follow faithfully to serve in a foreign land that leave me recognizing how little I have actually had to endure that might be construed as sacrificial living. I haven't experienced any form of physical suffering in the cause of building God's kingdom in the present tense. But don't think I have some great desire to endure it either. I am grateful that what I've been called to do hasn't included any form of physical torture.I'm not at all certain I could endure without denying Christ. But this was the very issue which Paul wished to address in the conditional statement.

In referencing suffering let me can suggest that Paul surely felt there is a gigantic distance between intentional evil, illness and mortality which is anchored in the temporariness of the human body, and the visitudes of life, which include natural disasters. All of these can be referred to today as sources of suffering. But, to find personal meaning in this text, and to avoid the temptation to propose what are truly abusive theological claims, it will be more wholesome if we replace the word suffering with the phrase and notion of "sacrificial living". Sacrificial living is a faithful life not centered in self but in the desires of God for all to experience wholeness of life. This is the heart of the message Paul presents to the church today. 

Frankly, the thing that troubles me is the plethora of negative theological reflection that occurs around the idea of suffering in the present age. Every time a disaster hits, or a terminal diagnosis is rendered statements are made right and left as to how God has caused or intended specific events as a source of punishment or judgment. But, if one stops and simply asks the question what could Paul have possibly wanted to convey to the early church, the people in Rome and beyond, about suffering, we clearly cannot draw out an intention to communicate some form of fierce and judgmental God. PAul was instructing and communicating an intimate and loving relationship that exists between believers, Jesus, God the Father and the Holy Spirit. Out of the conditions of his time Paul constructed a narrative of the path for Christians to achieve "glorification".

Glorification is both exceedingly direct and yet quite mysterious. Its' mystery is in not being capable of proving  with scientific certainty that something happens to our essential spirit, the "soul' after our body ceases to function. Belief and faith are what we must operate upon. Glorification is the final stage of  the Christian salvation, which includes life in heaven.

Now, because of the construction of the last verse, which includes conditional statements, we who are followers of Jesus Christ must wrestle with this. I end up asking myself, "how can I suffer with Christ" in order that I will "inherit" the promise Paul has spoken of? This very same question has been carried in the minds and hearts of an untold number of Christians, from the first century all the way to the present day. It has sparked some spiritual practices that have included forms of self-flagellation. Honestly, I don't ascribe to the idea that was the intention of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Living in each day as a vessel of the Holiness of God places a new awareness within us. It draws us into a place where, in spite of difficult circumstances followers of Jesus Christ are able to pull through each day strengthened and sustained to bring about greater good in the world. Each day of this form of living brings glory to God. It evokes praise and wonder out of others.

The take away from this passage:

Know that you are dearly loved by God as one of his own children. Then, in response, glorify your Father in Heaven through  your daily life of self-sacrificial living so that you may see, at the end of your life, your own glorification, which is life eternal in heaven.

Tomorrow is Trinity Sunday. You can find the texts for that and the entire quarter here

^^ Adoption is a sticky topic.  The statistics and the process for present day adoptions could distract us from the real message being delivered by Paul through all ages.

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