ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JULY 28, 2013
CHILDREN OF GOD
Romans 8: 12 – 17; Matthew 12: 46 – 50
This past week people celebrated the birth of a new heir to the British Throne. The papers showed the happy couple, Kate and William with their 1 day old, 8 lb 6 oz, son emerging from the hospital. While many wondered what the baby’s name would be, I couldn’t help wondering how the Duchess could walk. George Alexander Louis greeted the world with a royal wave. By simply being born, HRH Prince George of Cambridge is a full-fledged member of the Royal family, a tribe of position and tradition, with all the rights and privileges that entails.
As we know Jesus was also born into a family – he was the son of Mary, adopted by her husband Joseph; he was a Jew of the tribe of Judah. We know Jesus had brothers; Matthew 13:55 records their names as James, Joseph, Simon and Judas (not to be confused with the disciples: James the brother of John, Simon Peter or Judas who betrayed him). The gospel reading today told a brief story that took place after Jesus had been ministering close to his hometown. He had been healing, teaching against evil, delivering people of demons – in short doing God’s will. His mother and brothers had been hanging on the fringes witnessing his ministry and wanted to speak to him; their real intent was to interrupt and undermine his mission. Mark said they came “to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’” (3:21) In John’s Gospel we read of another occasion where the intent of the brothers was even more sinister. Jesus had been keeping a low profile “because some of the Jews were looking to kill him”; knowing this, his brothers urged him “Go to Judea…show yourself to the world” (7:3-4). John commented, “For not even his brothers believed in him.” (vs.5) So on this day instead of going to talk with his family, Jesus asked a rhetorical question, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mt 12:48) This is a really important question. Who is my family? Who belongs in my tribe? It’s a question we sometimes ask on a personal level: is this really my family, or was I adopted? Who are the people with whom I am most deeply bonded? We also ask it as a community: Who will we let join us? Who fits in? How open is our door? Is the criteria we are using God’s criteria? In answer to his own question, Jesus pointed to his disciples, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (vs. 49 – 50) Although Jesus was, no doubt, emotionally close to his entourage of students, it wasn’t simply a bond of friendship that made him declare them brothers. These people supported Jesus and shared in his ministry. They desired to see God’s kingdom come and followed Jesus so they could be part of it – they too “did the will of His Father”. Most of all, they believed he was the Messiah who would create God’s will on earth as it was in heaven. Because of this spiritual kinship, Jesus “adopted” these people as members of his family, his messianic tribe, not only in their present moment, but also in God’s eternal kingdom
In Romans Paul drew on Jesus’ practice of spiritual adoption to teach and encourage the Christians in Rome. To do this he made a parallel with the Roman practice of adoption. In our society today parents have a lot of responsibility but not much power. Once your child hits a certain age you don’t have access to their medical practitioner, even when you are concerned for their well-being. Apart from sending the kids to the “naughty chair”, discipline is pretty regulated by law. If you have a rebellious preteen you can’t limit their freedom, but if they get into trouble you’re responsible for the damage. This makes it hard t for us to relate to the authority of a Roman father.
The Romans abided by a law known as Patria potestas or Paternal power. The male head of the family, the Patriarch, had complete power and control over his entire extended family and over any property they possessed. In fact the family were also considered his property. In the legal system, the father alone had rights. The father’s freedom extended so far that he could put a child (even as an adult) to death. For these reasons there were clear lines between those who were family members and those who weren’t. If you were to adopt, the child could not become a legal heir or member of the household and was not considered part of your lineage without going through lengthy legal proceedings. Adoption was a complex process. The first step was mancipatio or emancipation. On three different occasions the birth father went to court to sell his child; the first two times the father would sell the child and then buy him back. The third time the child was sold but the father didn’t buy him back; with this the Patria potestas would be declared broken.
The second step is vindicatio or vindication. The adopting father would go before the magistrate and present a legal case for adoption. This process required 7 witnesses in case there was ever a dispute in the future. The results of adoption were:
- The child’s old life was wiped out. He was seen as a person without a past. If he had debts, they were cancelled. In short he was “reborn” a new person.
- The birth father lost all authority over the child and the child lost his position in the family of origin. He gained all the rights of a birth child in the new family
- He became the legal son of the new father and the new father had complete authority over him.
- He became an heir, or if there were other siblings, a co-heir
Paul paralleled all this with the experience of those who have the Holy Spirit at work in them. Paul said we once lived under an old authority – we were ruled by “the flesh”, or more simply put “sin”. This sin had the power to put us to death. Paul stated, “If you live according to the flesh, you will die…” Under the power of sin we live with constant fear of punishment. Paul also reminded us we are in debt to God our true Father and authority. Often we live like we owe sin something, but in reality its God whom we owe. We are kind of like teens, who have an allegiance to friends who are a bad influence on them, but don’t see what they owe to the parents who love them and want their best. Yet there’s hope. “…but if by the Spirit you put do death the deeds of the flesh, you will live.” (Romans 8:13). Again we see the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives. If we work with the Spirit to overcome our sin, we’ll live. Even more, if we are led by the Spirit, (follow the Spirit’s guidance) not only will we live, but we will be “children of God” (vs. 14). So just to review, once our “patria potestas” – the power that controlled our lives – was sin. By Jesus death we have been emancipated – set free from the power of sin so it no longer controls us. And by his resurrection Christ has vindicated us – we are adopted as “children of God”. The Holy Spirit along with our own conscience is our witness. It can not be disputed. We are God’s children now. Members of God’s family, part of God’s tribe.
What does this mean for us? It means
- Our old life of sin is wiped out. We have no past. Our debts are cancelled. Whatever happened before, didn’t. We are reborn as new people.
- We have all the rights of a birth child in the new family. Like little Prince George we are fully a member. We have more of God’s blessings to anticipate than we can imagine.
- 3. God is our Father; we now call him “Abba, Daddy” (vs. 15). We have an intimate relationship with our Dad who loves us and wants our best. Our Abba now has authority over us, authority that gives us freedom and confidence. We have a “spirit of adoption” (vs. 15); we’re loved and secure.
- 4. We are children and therefore we are heirs. All that God has will one day be ours. But we do have an older brother, Jesus himself, so we are co-heirs with him. In God’s economy that doesn’t mean there’s less for us, it means that all the glory, all the wonder, all the honour, the full and eternal life that Jesus has, will be ours also.
Children of God – that’s us! But you may be thinking – aren’t all people children of God? Well in one way that’s true. The best example I can offer to make sense of this is poor old Prince Andrew – he’s every bit his father’s child but its unlikely he will ever inherit the throne. Fortunately God is in a position to be more generous than any earthly monarchy. God has made it possible and is hopeful that all his children will know him as Abba and be co-heirs with Christ reigning with him in the kingdom – and not just for a time, but forever.
How do we ever capture the splendour of our adoption; the joy and wonder of being God’s child? I once asked a child who was adopted at the age of 7, “When you were adopted did you ever imagine your life would be so wonderful? That all this would be part of the package?” Her eyes shone, her face beamed and she laughed and said “no”. I think for her she must be like a child in a story who wakes up to discover she’s a princess. For the children of God, it’s even better.