If you’re around here much, you’ve probably figured out by now that I find my grandchildren an inexhaustible window into the scriptures. So I tell you that for what seemed the longest time, when our granddaughters were about 2 and 4, their movie of choice — every time — was the musical Annie. I’m sure some of their fascination had to do with the catchy rhythms and melodies of the songs woven throughout the story. Sara, who was barely two at the time and has yet to know serious deprivation or danger of any kind in her life, would often burst into a spontaneous and rousing chorus of “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” much to everyone’s amusement. I know that they both like the music, but sitting through the movie with them more than a few times during the Annie phase, I learned that they had also memorized nearly every line of the dialogue and clearly understood the story line. Without fail, at the close of each viewing they cheered the end of Annie’s suffering and endangerment when she was finally adopted by Daddy Warbucks.
Appropriately enough on this day when we gather to baptize young Roman Anthony Pierce, the reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans that we hear this morning is about adoption, about being joined into a new family, into God’s family. I do think that because of Paul’s liberal use of words like “flesh” and “spirit” it can sometimes be difficult for you and me to fully appreciate the wonder of what he’s claiming. Because we so take for granted that God is our Father, we sometimes miss what a radical shift our adoption as God’s children represents in our existence.
Benefits of Family Life
Being the member of a family, any family, brings with it both privileges and responsibilities. We have a place and some people who belong to us and we to them in a particular way. In healthy families that means there is a mutuality of love, respect and responsibility. Ideally, family provides an environment of physical, emotional and spiritual safety, a network of dependable relationships that change and grow and mature as we do. Of course few families maintain that healthy ideal all the time, and some seem forever caught up in resentment, fear and mistrust. But even when it’s lacking, you and I know what we need and yearn for in our families.
Paul says that two of the benefits that come with membership in God’s family are recognition and courage. We are no longer dominated by a “spirit of slavery” because slaves are people who are valued simply as objects, as property to be owned and used rather than as the unique and precious human beings they actually are. Being recognized and treasured is essential to our full flourishing as human beings, and adoption as God’s children assures us that we are. Echoing the prayer that Jesus gave to his disciples and through them to us, Paul says that we witness to our status as God’s children every time we are “bold” enough utter the words, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
But we also receive the gift of courage because God’s children need to be brave. Unlike Annie whose life, at least theoretically, will forever after be free of loneliness and need and danger because she has been adopted by Daddy Warbucks…unlike Annie, the children of God face the very real prospect of suffering. And that brings us back to the troublesome words I spoke of earlier: flesh and spirit.
Obedience and Rebellion
What Paul means by the word “flesh” is rebellion against God, a rebellion that we human beings act out with our bodies. Let’s face it, we all do things with and to our bodies that deny and distort God’s intention for our own incarnated, embodied existence. We eat and drink too much of the wrong things. We do not get enough rest or exercise. We rebel with our minds, using the gifts of intellect and speech to diminish and destroy rather than to build up. Yes, we are a rebellious lot, you and I, and this is the “flesh” Paul says we are to put away. It’s not the joys and pleasures of living embodied lives we’re meant to discard, but rather the perversion of those pleasures to destructive ends.
What Paul means by “spirit,” the spirit of adoption, the Holy Spirit is that divine power which cancels and abolishes our obligation to a world which is dominated by rebellion against God. When the Spirit changes our relationship to God from one of rebellion to one of obedience, it also changes our relationship to the world from one of obedience to one of rebellion. And, as you might imagine and may have experienced, the world does not take kindly to being rebelled against. When you and I reject rebellion against God as a way of life, then the world that remains in rebellion against God will direct the force of that rebellion toward us as well. When we are drawn into the family of God, we are often rejected by the people and places and allegiances we once valued but no longer do. With rejection comes suffering and with suffering comes the need to be of good courage. It sounds like a rather grim exchange, this swapping out of obedience and rebellion.
In fact, for the Christians of Paul’s day and for quite a while after that, the shift could literally be a matter of life and death. And it is still a matter of life and death for some people around the world today. For you and me the suffering is a bit more subtle. We need the gift of courage that comes with adoption as God’s children to step up and plead for the poor and the dispossessed in a world that’s obsessed with the accumulation and the preservation of wealth and power. And that kind of courage doesn’t seem to be very much in vogue in the present political climate. You and I need the courage to live our lives in ways that are respectful of our bodies, minds and spirits and are dedicated to the well-being of others which may set us at odds with some of our friends and perhaps even members of our families. Our suffering may be the loss of old ways of being and the connections that old life gave us.
The paradox of accepting and living into our adoption as God’s children is that, unlike in the movie Annie, our adoption doesn’t necessarily lead to instant gratification. The truth of accepting and living into our adoption as God’s children is a life marked by profound gifts: the treasured recognition of who we really are, the courage to be who we really are, and a life that is sustained by hope not driven by wishful thinking.