The Spirit of Adoption

Romans 8:12-25
Mark Edwards
May 30, 2021
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 Last week was Confirmation Sunday and if you tuned in, you saw the color and joy of five youth joining the church.  I preached on the question of “What is the church?” Working from Romans 8, as we are again this week, I suggested that the question of “What is the church?” is intimately tied up with the great theological question “Who is called, foreknown, predestined, and justified by God for glory?”  I suggested both of these questions “What is the church?” And “Who is predestined to be with God?” are for the apostle Paul, both questions concerning “Who is in Christ?”  And Paul’s radical and scandalous answer, throughout his letter to the Romans and his other texts—our affirmation of faith was the Christ hymn of Colossians 1— is that “all things” are in Christ. Indeed all things, are loved, created, known, and called to be glorified with Christ because God as Christ takes on the sin, death, hostility, and alienation of the world at the cross.  As Paul says for instance in Romans 11:32 “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” The cross of Christ is the great exchange between an ungodly world that is antagonistic and hostile to God, and the Son of God who has a natural right to all the thrones and riches of the good and gracious king.

This week is Trinity Sunday, and so it seems fitting to try and put these two weeks together.  If Christ has taken our place and predestined for us for glory, what exactly are we predestined for?  If the creation, reconciliation, and redemption of the world is an act of the Triune God, what exactly is that again?  How does that Christian Trinity thing work?

Perhaps it is better to try and not explain the Trinity. Perhaps we ought recognize that as the inner being of God, this Triunity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is simply off-limits to the human mind, that it is out-of-bounds for human language, and that it is past the border of sanity and rationale thought.  Perhaps it needs to be simply accepted in faith or experienced in mystical ways?  Or perhaps we ought to start tapping the delete key as we quietly backspace over language we are now embarrassed to use?  Perhaps we should just reverently pass by on the other side, keeping distance from language and titles so robbed of dignity and abused by sin?

Holy, Holy, Holy,

though the darkness hide thee,

though the eye of sinfulness thy glory may not see

only thou art holy, there is none beside thee

perfect in power, in love and purity.

If only God is holy, if there is nothing really like this God, and so no analogies can be drawn, and if our sinfulness blinds us to seeing God’s true glory, what hope is there for trying to articulate the nature of this triune God?

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Creator, Redeemer, Reconciler.  Rainbow of Promise, Ark of Salvation and Dove of Peace.  Up, Down, and Sideways. Are they all equally good? Are they all equally bad?

Now clearly this is controversial turf. We have just walked into questions about patriarchal language, gender and identity, literal and metaphorical readings of scripture, and the relation between church and culture. These are hard questions. These are real questions. These are good questions.

But we have also stumbled into claims about the very identity of God. And so these are, at some point, unavoidable questions. Is the Christian God a masculine God? Can a male savior redeem women? Despite instances in the Bible when feminine imagery is employed for the divine, why do the Old and New Testaments so repeatedly return to the language of Father and Son for the identity of God? I surely cannot answer all of these questions today. If only we lived in a town where we could study such matters!

But I do want to scratch a bit of an itch. For even as I have asked more than can be answered in a short sermon, I do think there is a trickle, maybe even the headwaters of a river of reason, emerging from the strange and curious anointing of Jacob.

Esau is the older son.  The blessing of Isaac for a good and prosperous future is his. This is how things work. This is how generational wealth is passed along. This is how property is bestowed. This is how power is conveyed. This is how rulers are established. But this is also how goodwill is transmitted.  A father’s love in tangible form goes to the oldest son.  A Father’s blessing, by nature goes to the firstborn. The inheritance is Esau’s. Esau will inherit the land. Esau will inherit the house. Esau will inherit the position of leadership. And everyone knew this. Everyone, always knew this- there was no secret about it.  The others were due to serve him.  He was destined to rule.

And yet.

By trickery and deceit, by opportunism and strategy, Jacob maneuver’s into position. His mother Rebekah is there to help him. She guards his back until an opportunity arises and a more active role makes itself available.  We skipped over this part of the story, but Rebekah’s role is not to be downplayed. She appears to have hatched the plot to deceive Isaac, makes the stew, and dresses up Jacob in his brother’s garments. “Go on, get in there. You can do this. He’ll never know. Or at least, it will be too late by the time he does.”

The plan works. Isaac the aging father, though curious at a few elements that seem to be somewhat off, “The voice is Jacob’s,” he says “but the hands are the hands of Esau” Isaac bestows his blessing on the wrong child. Jacob is blessed. Esau’s inheritance has been stolen. Esau’s birthright has been lost.  The firstborn has been supplanted.  And while the family was not perhaps the most harmonious, now there is outright hated and pledges of violence. Esau swears to kill his little brother. Rebekah believes him. The fractured family splits. Jacob flees.

The deceit is too poignant to forget. The trickery is too effective to be ignored. The reality is too dirty to be myth.  The victory too human to be divine.

And how is this a supposed insight into the nature of the Triune God?

As I’m sure you have noticed, or can easily recall, the Bible is full of inheritance stories, many of which go completely sour: Cain and Able. David with Absalom and Solomon. The prodigal son. And over and over again, the natural order of the inheritance going to the designated older son is disrupted.  Over and over, though gracious acts that defy the embedded cultural order, the younger is gifted.  What is going on? There is, perhaps, a divine plot-line afoot.

In Romans Chapter 8, Paul tells us we are being adopted into the family of God. We have received the spirit of adoption who is conforming us to the image of the Son so that we may be heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.   We are children of God, indeed the whole creation is aching, quaking, and longing for this adoption. What does this mean?

The Son, the perfect Son of the perfect Father, the Son who lives in faithful dependence upon the ever gifting Father. The eternal Son who is begotten by the Father to be the object of the Father’s love. The Father who begets  the Son precisely so his own thrones, riches, and power can be given away. The Son, the one who “does not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, clutched, gripped” is the one upon whom the Father bestows all the riches of the kingdom, all the wealthy of glory, all the extravagance of the divine storehouses.

And yet.  This Son, this firstborn, does not grasp, retain, horde, or scrooge it away. This Son, the eternal Son, the one begotten for glory and exaltation, gives it all away.  The Father doesn’t want it back, the Father is trying to dump it out upon Another. It is not that the riches are not valuable. It is not that the glory is not good.  It is not that the celestial freedom is not awesome.  It is that the Son does not wish to be the only one who receives these things. The Son, though worthy, makes himself worthless for the sake of another. The divine Son humbles himself, gives away what is his by nature, and in grace, becomes a servant. The oracle regarding Jacob, “The elder shall serve the younger” (Gen. 25:23)  takes on new meaning.

We are the ones who are served. We are the others to whom it is given.  Christ, our elder, is the one who serves us.  We are the ones who inherit the riches of the kingdom. The Son, the royal son, has destined this to be. We are the ones who are adopted into the kingdom.  We have no right. His place is not ours. We do not belong. We are not in that family.  We do not have garments beautiful enough. We do not have hearts righteous enough. We do not have strength deep enough.  And yet. It is given to us. The king, gives us the crown of glory, the robes of righteousness, his Spirit of power, a seat at the table.  Our cups runneth over. We are called Daughter. We are called Son. We are made to be children.  There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s  life so outsiders can be made family.

The Spirit cleanses us of our selfishness to be servants like Christ. The Spirit empowers us to be faithful like Jesus. The Spirit opens us up to be willing adoptees who freely serve and love.  We are wrapped into the triune embrace of a family who bestows all feasts, preparations, robes, and rings upon others, others brought in from the alleys, the highways, the curbs, from across the borders, from out in the fields, from inside the workhouses, from other nations. The elder Son is not begrudging. The elder Son is not jealous. The firstborn Son is not selfish. He who does not seek to be equal to the Father and who gives all the heavenly riches away; pours out that Holy Spirit, upon us so that we might become awakened to our destiny as adopted children of God and co-heirs to the kingdom of glory.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This not the deification of masculinity. It is not the worship of patriarchy.  It is not the exaltation of male men.[1] It is about the inheritance. And the inheritance is given away.

To be children of God. This is no enforced servitude. This is no coerced slavery. This is no kidnapping.

Will we allow the Spirit to turn us into worthy children?  Will we too give away our privilege, power, and superiority? Will we suffer with Jesus in the agony of sacrificing oneself for the sake of others? Will we set our faces like flint in order to set the captives free?  Will we discover freedom as we liberate the creation from bondage to decay and death?  Will we await in hope when our bodies, our minds, and our hearts fail us? Will we allow ourselves to be sent into the wilderness to be fed by the Spirit? Will we say, “Not my will, but thine be done.” Or will we disintegrate, rust, and crack as we attempt to cling to a life of the flesh? Will we say, “My will, not thine be done.”

Friends, a kingdom awaits. Your seat is prepared at that glorious table.  You are not worthy. I am not worthy. None of us is worthy.

And yet. You are worthy. I am worthy. All are worthy. For the anointed one of the good and gracious King is making us into children who can stand shoulder to shoulder and eye to eye with the God who made the universe. The Spirit is bestowing this inheritance upon us. And the all the saints who have gone before? Well,

All the saints adore thee,

casting down their golden crowns

around the glassy sea.

They too do not hold on to what has been given. They give it away.

And the cherubim and the seraphim? Even the mysterious celestial monsters, they too are falling down before thee, thee who are perfect in power, love, and purity; thee who art God in three persons, blessed Trinity. AMEN.

[1] A homophonic pun on Nietzsche’s critique of believing in a God who gives us what we need when we need it:  “A god as servant, as mailman, as calendar man—at bottom a word for the most stupid of all accidents.” See Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist #475 in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. by Walter Kaufmann (NY: Penguin, 1976), 636.