Sunday, July 20, 2014
Taking on Heirs
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
24He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went awy. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' 28He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' 29But he replied, "No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together intol the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"...
36Then he left the crows and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of he field." 37He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; 28the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up wit fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
12So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh - 13for 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. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15For 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!" 16it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and 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.
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
Leah and I have been married for a little over three years now, but have been a serious part of each others lives for almost nine. We met one another's parents pretty early on, but the question of fitting with one another's extended family took a while longer to get settled.
There's always some trepidation involved with meeting new family, especially family you're trying to impress so that they'll say good things about you to your future father-and-mother-in-law. So several years ago, when Leah took me to meet her family that still lives in Alabama, I was more than a little anxious. Alongside the hugs, the greetings, the welcome homes, there was also the furtive discussions of "that boy." Wouldn't you know it, every one of those discussions involved pointing fingers, stealing glances, and meaningful nods in my direction. I was "That Boy" to her family.
But as the weekend went on, I had a chance to gather around a table and graze on h'ors d'oeuvres with some of Leah's older cousins, while their children played in the back yard. Eventually, Leah's cousins broke off leaving only their spouses and me and half-eaten bowls of vegetable dip at the table. Then the conversation turned.
Each of the folks around the table introduced themselves to me again, and started sharing stories of how they used to be "that boy" or "that girl." They remembered their awkwardness aloud, and got to know me in a way that was more full of camaraderie than expectation. Each of them remembered their family inspection, and as a group they adopted me into the "that boy" club. We former outsiders made our own in-group out of the shared experience of trying to live up to the person who introduced us to the family.
That memory is perhaps the highlight of my Alabama trip.
Just so, Paul's theology of adoption is one of the highlights of his letter to the Romans. It's an image for the way God claims us and defines our identity.
The Christian Church in Rome was founded by someone other than Paul, and as such his letter to them does not address a specific issue in the life of the church, as many of the other letters of Paul do, but rather it introduces the Apostle, and gives us a summary of his theology as a whole.
But there was an issue that was eating up the Christian church in Rome. There was division between the Jewish and Gentile believers. Paul is speaking to a church that had divided itself along racial lines. The Jewish Christians on the one hand, the Gentile Christians on the other. The Jewish Christians were very proud of their heritage, of their connection with the ancestors whose stories and struggles are told in the Old Testament. They had been a part of God's covenant people already when they heard the good news of Christ.
When a social group gets put under pressure, there's a natural human tendency to try and hunker down into a defensible position, and to identify who is and is not part of our little tribe. When we feel threatened, we start dividing ourselves into smaller groups, to pull inward because it feels safer. We revert into an almost primal state of making sure our group, and only our group, will have access to the limited resources around us.
But the gospel challenges us to reach out to those around us, rather than to reach into ourselves. Because we have been adopted as fellow heirs with Christ, and whatever may be threatening us is "not worth comparing to the glory about to be revealed to us."
Paul is a Jewish Christian, and was trained as a Pharisee before he converted to Christianity, so he has the same connection that they do. But he was sent as an Apostle to the Gentiles, to spread the good news beyond his own people. He does not discount the importance of the covenant with Israel, but he describes the relationship that we have with God in a deeper, more powerful way: Where there had once been a law, an instruction, a covenant, now there was adoption. God claims us and defines our identity. Unlike a law we could break, "redemption is the powerful act of a loving God... and part of that love is not to allow us to botch it up." Redemption means adoption into God's household.
We are members of God's household, not as servants, but as fellow heirs with Christ. We are not hired into the household, we are adopted into the family.
My family line is very important to me, I keep wondering how much it would cost to get an artist's rendering of my family tree, depicting both the people and all the complicated relationships therein. I am, after all, Joseph William Taber IV: son of a minister, grandson of a neurologist, great-grandson of a construction worker who was also a poet. That's just one line, the Joseph William Tabers. There's also the Potters, the Barnettes, the Shrewsburys, the Boshells, the Barnards, and many dozens more than I could hope to count. Each family has stories to celebrate, triumphs and struggles, and more than a little baggage that their members carry with them. But even though my family heritage has shaped my identity, it's not the founding principle of who I am. I am a child of God, adopted into God's household, and a fellow heir with Christ. There's not anything I've done to apply for it, I don't have some special genetic link, I certainly don't deserve such an honor, but that's the Christian claim: We are adopted by our heavenly Father. "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 that 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."
I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we are somehow holier than those who do not go to church every Sunday. I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we are always going to be happy or successful in this life. I do not believe that the Christian claim is that we have access to some magical ability that is otherwise inaccessible.
The Christian claim is that God claims us and defines our identity.
My father-in-law tells a story of when he was young. It was the time in our cultural history when it was fashionable to leave home and go "find yourself." He packed his bags, and got ready to go, and announced to his dad that he was headed out to go "find himself." His Dad replied, "You don't need to go find yourself, I'll tell you exactly where you are. You're Don Boshell and you're standing on my front porch in Townley Alabama." Don was apparently satisfied by that, because he went back into the house and unpacked.
God claims us and defines our identity. But part of our task as the church is to remind one another of that adoption, because we will forget from time to time. Paul, in Romans, was writing to a church that was struggling with its own identity, with what it meant to be united in Christ, rather than divided by family and ethnic ties. The early church faced persecution, and Paul's assurance is that there is hope that outweighs the present suffering. Verses 18 and 19, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God."
God claims us and defines our identity.
It is tempting to set aside who we are and whose we are when things get difficult. It is tempting to trust in our own ability, because we can see the work of our own hands, but trusting the hope we have in God takes faith that may look like a luxury when we are suffering. Paul is pushing us towards acting in faith, knowing that part of the life of a Christian is suffering, but the claim God places on us through adoption defines us more than suffering ever could.
God claims us and defines our identity.
But it's easy to forget that truth when things are going well for us. In times of trial, we fall back on our faith for comfort, crying out "Abba, Father." But when things are going well, it's easy to forget what it means to be God's children. The church's job is to remind us of what it means to be a fellow heir with Christ. "If they are God's children, they are to think of themselves as in the same family as Christ, set to inherit all that Christ inherits. What Christ receives at his death is both suffering and glory"
God claims us and defines our identity. We are not who we are because we are successful, neither do we find ourselves in our suffering. We find ourselves when we orient our lives toward our relationship with God. The church is a community who have come together to remind one another of who we are and by whom we are adopted.
This church family has adopted me, and some of y'all are fiercely protective of me, others have expressed, and shown, a willingness to help me in any way possible. The reception we had to welcome me and Leah a couple of weeks ago was a big event in a long line of confirmations that this congregation and I are called to walk together into the next chapter of our ministry.
We know that new life in Christ is emerging into the world through the cross and the empty tomb, but it is a difficult transition. Paul is dealing with the suffering that still exists in a redeemed world, and uses the beautiful metaphor of childbirth to explain the connection between suffering and hope. "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies."
We are not satisfied with the state of the world right now, because we have seen a piece of the what redemption looks like, the first fruit of the Spirit. So we work to show the world the hope we have in Christ, and to proclaim the kingdom of God in our midst. When the rest of the world turns inward in the face of tension, dividing into opposing camps, the church is called to go out, and proclaim the hope we have in Christ Jesus. Perhaps that's the next chapter in our ministry, to be the strange folk who run to help, knowing that even when we stumble or end up going the wrong way, we are still adopted by God, and there's nothing we can do to lose that claim. God claims us and defines our identity.
Because we have received a Spirit of adoption, and our church is stepping into the breach to share the hope we have for each other and for the world. We also know that we are not our own. We belong to God, as fellow heirs with Christ, who will not let us go. We will not always get it right, in fact we humans have an almost majestic capacity to botch things up. But we at the Presbyterian Church of Lowell have been called to be together so that we can share in both the suffering and the hope as "we groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies." While we wait for that adoption, that new life, we know who it is that claims us and defines our identity. We know that it is God who redeems us. Therefore, let us orient our lives toward relationship with God, and to live out our adoption into Christ's love.