03 June 2012

Becoming Children of God

Romans 8: 12-17

Trinity Sunday/ 3rd June 2012

There’s probably no better summary of what it means to be a Christian than Paul’s majestic and profound theological claims in Romans 8, written to Christians in Rome.  There’s probably no better summary of Paul’s own understanding of what it’s like to be a follower of Jesus. In many ways, the core, the center, the linchpin of the chapter, as well as the center of his personal experience, is right here in verses 12-17, and the lead-in actually begins with verse 11.  In these verses we are presented with an extraordinary, bold understanding of what it means to be, as Paul often said, “in Christ.” What we’re given here is Paul’s own’ Pentecostal insight, we’re allowed to see Paul’s view of the Holy Spirit – who the Spirit is and what the Spirit does and where the Spirit is at work doing all of this.

            To “get” this we need to proceed slowly, very slowly, and follow what Paul is saying here, following his logic.  He packs a lot in of a few sentences.  If we go slowly, we might be able to have a better understanding of how he viewed the Christian life – and it might just change the way we see our lives as Christians.  So listen (again) for the Word of God in Romans 8, starting with verse 11:

            If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
he who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also
through his Spirit who dwells in you.
            So then, brother and sisters, we are debtors,
not to the flesh [read: human nature],
to live according to the flesh [human nature] – 
for if you live according to the flesh, you will die;
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body,
you will live.
            For 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 the 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.

There’s a lot here, but there are two major points I think we need to lift up, and they’re related – being children and being part of a family.

Did you notice how Paul defined the children of God?  He’s very specific.  In our age, we tend to be generic about how we use this phrase.  People of faith and even of none often refer to humanity in general as “children of God.”  That is, simply being born, given life by the creator, means that we are children, having been fathered and mothered by God, as it were. We think to be created in the image of God means to be a child of God – and to some extent, this is all true. We’re all God’s children.  However, this is not what Paul is talking about here.  He’s being very precise, very particular here, and has something very special in mind:  “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  Who are the children of God?  Those who are led by the Spirit.  Now, to our ears this might sound exclusionary, that the true children of God are Spirit-led, the rest have to fend for themselves. It sounds as if Paul is being divisive.  But this misses the point.

He wants his hearers to know that to follow Christ is to be “in Christ,” and when we’re in Christ the same Spirit of God who raised Christ from the grave and granted him new life is now at work in us, continually raising us up from the grave, giving us new life.  It’s in this sense that we are children of God, when the Spirit of God is leading us; when this is happening we are the offspring of the generative Spirit who is making us into sons and daughters, children of God. 

This means that as the Spirit is leading us, as we’re becoming children of God, we are leaving behind our former family of identification, children of the flesh, children of a wayward human nature, children of the ego that wants to live a life apart from God.  The term Paul uses here for this transfer of allegiance is uiothesia – adoption.  When the Spirit leads us there is – or should be – a break, even a total break with the old family. This does not mean we reject families altogether, it’s just that they no longer ultimately define who we are.  We give up our identity through biology and are placed within the context of a new family – the family of God – with all its rights, privileges, and responsibilities.

To be in Christ means that we have been incorporated into a new family, called to be part of a larger community.  The family of faith now becomes our adoptive family, which is not biologically related.  We’re all adopted children of God, adopted into the very life of God, as fellow-participants.  This is one of the reasons a text like this is the lection on Trinity Sunday, because this text makes it very clear that to be led by the Spirit means that we have and are being taken up into the community of God’s love – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – into that holy family. 

The evidence of this is found in prayer.  And Paul couldn’t be more explicit here.  When we cry in prayer, “Abba!  Father!  Daddy!  Papa!” this profound, sincere, heart-felt cry of parental intimacy that comes from the depths of our being to God, Paul tells us, is the Spirit praying through us, bearing witness with our spirit, reminding us that we are children.  In other words, just the fact that we turn to God as intimate parent testifies to the fact that we are indeed part of the family of God.  The Spirit works deep within the depths of our spirit and tells us, reminds us, shows us that we are not alone, that the deepest parts of ourselves are intimately connected with God, that we are safe and secure within. And every time we cry out that way and direct our prayers to God as Father or Mother we are reminded that we are not children of the flesh, not children of nature alone, not left to ourselves, but that we are the beloved children of God, part of God’s family.

And if we’re children, that means we’re also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ – we’re all in the family, as it were, sharing in the life of God.  We’re all participating in the life and blessing and joy of God. We’re all participating in the love of God together. 

Joint heirs with Christ, that’s who we are, – if, in fact, we suffer with him…  Suffer? Everything up to this point was so affirming, uplifting.  Why did Paul throw this into the mix?  Is he glorifying suffering?  Shouldn’t we be working to alleviate suffering in the world?  Jesus suffered on the cross for me, so why do I have to suffer? We could call all of these responses “natural,” we could say they’re “flesh-ly,” we might say they’re “of the flesh.” To respond in this way is to miss the point.  

Now, we have to tread very carefully here.  I have some anxiety in saying what I’m about to say because I don’t want to be misunderstood.  We have to be careful here that we don’t glorify suffering.  However, we also have to be careful that we don’t avoid the importance of suffering. To share in the life of God means we also share in the sufferings of God.  It comes with the “package” called faith in God.  Jesus, as fully, authentically human suffered; that is, he underwent pain and sorrow and even death, and he did so not because he had to, but because he wanted to – because of his love. That’s what love does; it suffers. He showed us that love suffers when we participate in another’s pain and sorrow and grief.  The greater the love the greater the hurt; the greater the love the great the grief and suffering; the grater the love the more we embrace it all and feel it all.  This is an extremely difficult concept; it’s tough. For some it might feel way too challenging, too much.  Some might say, I can’t love or suffer like that, or I can’t love like that because I don’t want to get hurt – or hurt again

Ironically, though, there is a kind of unnecessary suffering, the kind that comes in refusing to acknowledge this fact, which avoids suffering.[1] The psychoanalyst Carl Jung (1875-1961) found that “neurosis is always a substitute,” for what he called “legitimate suffering.”[2]  It’s the kind of unnecessary suffering that comes by avoiding suffering.  I came across a similar insight decades ago in the Gnostic text from the 2nd century Apocryphal Acts of John.  Don’t go calling the heresy police on me for quoting a Gnostic text; there’s a lot of psychological and spiritual wisdom here, when Jesus says this, “Had ye known how to suffer, ye would know how to suffer no more.  Learn how to suffer, and ye shall overcome.”[3]  Like Jesus who was willing, in love, to face suffering throughout his life and yet triumphed over it because of the power of God working through him, so too, the Spirit empowers us to love and to suffer and suffer through in order that God’s glory might be revealed through it all. All of this requires more attention, but I couldn’t overlook the reference to suffering here, because it’s so crucial.  It’s an insight into the meaning of redemptive suffering that is given when the Spirit is leading us.  In Christ, we know this to be true, maybe less so when we think “in the flesh.”

It’s all part of what is being given and granted to us by the Spirit, bearing witness with our spirit, leading us and reminding us that we are children of God.

Francis of Assisi (1181/82-1226) knew what it was like to move from one family to another.  Francis’ father had dreams for his son, dreams that came crashing down when Francis heard the voice of the Christ and led him in a different direction, into ministry.  His father was furious with him.  He humiliated and shamed Francis in the town square. Francis lived in poverty on the outskirts of Assisi, but went into town now and again.  He was often wary of making the trip should he encounter his father.  So one day, on the way up to Assisi, Francis asked a beggar sitting along the side of the road to walk with him.  Francis said to him, “Every time my father yells an insult at me in one ear, tells me I’m dirt, that I don’t count, whisper in my other ear, ‘You’re a child of God.  You’re a child of God. And keep telling me so.’”[4] 

That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us – whether it’s through the voice of a beggar who reminds us who we are or the community of the church that reminds us daily who we are, whether it’s through the wisdom of our dreams or the voice of dear loved ones who tell us until we really believe it – the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are indeed children of God.

Image:  Triqueta, ancient Celtic symbol for the Trinity.
[1] Cf. Richard Rohr’s discussion of “necessary suffering” in Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life  (Jossey-Bass, 2011),  73.  This section is informed by the writings of C. G. Jung.
[2] This is a foundational precept of Jungian analytic theory.  See also James Hollis, What Matters Most:  Living a More Considered Life (Gotham, 2009), 59.
[3] Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) translation of the Apocryphal Acts of John, used in his choral composition,  Hymn to Jesus, Opus 37 (1916).
[4] As told by Fr. Richard Rohr, Rolling Ridge Retreat Center, Harper’s Ferry, WV, October, 2011.