... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

PENTECOST Message July 15th, 2011

Divine Adoption: Human Response

Text: Romans 8:12-25

One of the really joyous aspects of preaching is the discovery of new meanings in the lectionary texts and finding everyday examples to illustrate the instructive lessons Scripture has for us. And today is a real gem field for on what at first seems to be a collection of unrelated readings, becomes a collective overview of God’s relationship with humanity in the social milieu of human lives depicting pivotal points of awareness freedom hope and commission. From Jacob’s dream at Bethel to Paul’s declaration of adoption, from the parable of the wheat and the weeds to the psalmist’s rejoicing, we witness how God breaks into human history, works through weak inadequate and, often less than ideal, human agents to accomplish the divine tasks and to give those same agents a hope and vision of the divine.

Jacob who, by all accounts, is a mamma’s boy is sly cunning and in many respects greedy corrupt and all together not a likeable character. After conning his brother Esau out of his inheritance and after impersonating Esau to get his father’s blessing finds himself on the run, and fearing the retaliation Esau has promised. Alone, fear-filled and deserted Jacob’s life changed forever as God breaks into his solitude. Out of Jacob will come the promised salvation. Jacob awakens from his sleep as an adopted child of God to fulfill the covenantal promise. Paul declares that God has done the same thing in Christ Jesus, but that this time it is for all people who come to believe. In that belief we will all be adopted by God as God’s children and heirs with Christ in the Kingdom of Heaven. The parable of the wheat and weeds carries on this theme of adopted believers and further explains why the reality of the present is not the idyllic of the Kingdom. However, when the time is ripe, those who are of the evil one will be sorted out and the true wheat selected to enjoy the divine promise of abundant life.

As I was reading the lessons one of the great literary 19th century masterpieces came to mind – Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and more recently produced as a musical for theatre by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzner. In one notable scene, Jean Val Jean who, having served 19 years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving relatives, finds himself as a parolee unable to get work and being forced into a life of crime. In desperation he steals a couple of silver candle sticks from the rectory of the church. On being apprehended by the police and brought back to face the priest to affirm the crime, Jean Valjean is overwhelmed by the response of the priest. In lieu of anger there was compassion; in place of condemnation there was forgiveness; and instead of admonition there was commission. The priest tells the police he had given the items to Valjean and that, in his haste to get back on the road, he had actually forgotten to take several others items. Then to Valjean he says, “You have been given a new life, use the gifts to the betterment of humanity.” From that point on Jean Valjean becomes the model hero, employing empowering and embracing those who need his help and trying to make a difference in the world. Touched by the holiness as represented by the priest, Jean Valjean become the adopted son of righteousness growing the gifts into still greater gifts and showing what true freedom in the Spirit can mean. Unfortunately for Jalvert the officer of the law, the model of legal adherence, the freedom as offered by Valjean is unacceptable and ends up destroying not only his beloved legal code but Jalvert as well.

As God breaks into the social milieu of human history choosing various individuals as agents of change and sowers of the seeds of the divine will, new things happen, new possibilities are awakened and realized and new hope is given. For Paul this hope is the promise of salvation and while this eternal salvation cannot be experienced in the present reality the hope is no less real and is in actuality the basis behind one of the gifts of the Spirit – that of patience. In his argument for salvation Paul in his letter to the Romans has shown that a new way of life has been opened for those who come to believe in Christ Jesus. This new life is one lived in the Spirit – that is a life influenced by God’s Holy Spirit and directed toward the accomplishment of the divine purpose. He states that this new life is in fact a freedom from the evil one and a bulwark against the fears and superstitions which the forces of evil uses to try to snatch back those who have been freed.

Here he uses one of those great metaphors to describe the new life and the new relationship God gives to those who believe in and through Christ Jesus. He says that Christians have received a Spirit of adoption and in so becoming are made heirs with Christ and truly children of God. To Paul’s audience adoption was a well known albeit complicated Roman practice. It was often used by the rich and powerful families to ensure an heir to estates and family lines. Under Roman law the head of the household was the father and his power was absolute. If he had no sons to become heirs and his wealth enabled it, he could adopt a male from another family, especially from a lower social strata family (but not always). The adoption process had several steps with a symbolic sale and purchase agreement and then a legal writ of adoption. The adoption had four main consequences : 1) the adopted person lost all rights in the old family and gained all the rights of a legitimate son in his new family 2) He became the rightful heir to his new father’s estate even if there were born other sons afterward 3) the history of the old life of the adopted person was completely eradicated and 4) a new history was commenced. Perhaps one of the most celebrated of Roman adoptions was that of Nero by the Emperor Claudius. Claudius had no male heir, having only a daughter Octavia, and so adopted Nero as his son and legitimate heir. This adoption process was what Paul had in mind when stating we have been adopted and have received a spirit of adoption thereby becoming children of God. The adoption process had nothing to do with the adoptee but everything with the adopting father. So too in Paul’s mind was the action of God when a person became a Christian. All previous history of the person was wiped clean by God and from the moment of adoption a new life was given. Debts were cancelled and the glory of the kingdom inherited.

That is the story line behind Jean Val Jean and it is the story line behind baptism. In baptism we are adopted into the family of God – sons and daughters with Christ as our brother and co-heirs with him of the glory of the kingdom. Unfortunately as in life here the wiles of the evil one are ever-present to draw us away from that inheritance and so vigilance must always be maintained. But that vigilance is not a solitary or individual undertaking. It is the task of every Christian along with the church. The services of reconciliation, Eucharist, social outreach are part and parcel of maintaining our status as adopted children and as nurturers of each new brother and sister. That is our life’s work.

[And here is the great admonition to us today. As we welcome William Robert Topling as our newest brother in Christ’s family we take on the vows to nurture him in the way of righteousness. These vows are specifically aimed at the godparents but are generally laid on our shoulders as well. It will be by our nurturing and example that he will grow and become a faith-filled heir, sowing the gifts of the Spirit and realizing the bounties of the harvest. The task is set and by God’s holy Spirit may we be able to be successful in our undertaking!]