More than 135,000 adoptions take place every year in the United States. There are more than 2 million adoptions annually worldwide. UNICEF says that at any given moment there are probably 145 million orphans in the world. Which means there are many kids and many families needing to be united with one another. And as we continue our exploration of Paul’s letter to Roman Christians we see the image of adoption being used. Adoption has always been a powerful image throughout the Bible, with the most important story of Moses being drawn out of the river and drawn out of danger to be drawn into family by Pharaoh’s daughter and, then, to eventually free God’s people.
Adoption also seems to be in every movie I have watched with my daughters recently. In Frozen and Frozen 2, Elsa and Anna’s parents perish and so the sisters adopt each other into a stronger family bond, adopting, as well, the funny snowman, Olaf. In Big Hero 6, Baymax and a team of nerds accept the young Hiro as family when his brother, Tadashi, dies. Big Ralph in Wreck-It Ralph adopts into friendship the lonely, wannabe racecar driver, Vanellope, as they both need a friend and companion. In Kung Fu Panda, Po, the Panda is raised by a Kung Fu loving Goose named Ping.
And a big part of Paul’s communication with the church in Rome was about the freedom that comes through adoption. And remember, Paul had already made it very clear that the freedom that comes through the law of the Spirit is a freedom from condemnation, from sin, and from death. And this freedom we have received is not earned, in fact, we cannot attain it on our own. The first verse in this scripture today says that we are debtors, debtors to God for this gift of freedom. And we receive this freedom as a gift from God when we follow the law of the Spirit rather than the law of the flesh. But remember from last week when we talked about the flesh being sarx and soma. If we do things in this world that hurt ourselves, hurt others, and that bring oppression and death, those are sarx, things of the flesh.
But we can see in the text that Paul is not condemning our bodily existence and human embodiment. In fact, God wants to bring us closer, into deeper connection: an embrace so close that our bodies and our spirits are wrapped in God’s love. We are essentially adopted. We are children of the divine; one with God and in God’s family. And this is extremely important to that early church gathered in Rome because most of them were Gentiles. They were outside of the mainstream Jewish faith and possibly wanted to have a place of belonging in this new Jesus movement. In fact, Paul was writing to the church in Rome from Corinth because he needed to go to Rome eventually, even though he hadn’t yet met the Christians there, in order to receive their monetary tithes and gifts to help the struggling church in Jerusalem. An adoption into the family of God in Christ meant those new Gentile Christians were part of the same family as the Jerusalem, Jewish Christians. The early Roman Christians needed this message of belonging and adoption. They could do nothing more to prove their worth and hoped the divine would graft them into the family, adopt them, give them a hope and a future.
This analogy of freedom from slavery paired with the image of adoption we see in this portion of this Letter to the Romans was very important. Freedom and adoption spoke poignantly to the lives of the Christians in Rome. One commentator agrees, saying, “Made up of Jews, proselytes, and other non-Jews, many of whom were not native to Rome, the church was mixed across social strata, drawing largely from lower classes, including slaves and freed persons. For Jews, slavery brought to mind the exodus, when God led God’s people to freedom. Not only are Christians to understand themselves as ‘free’ from the former slavery; they are made part of a new family by adoption, so much so that they may call God ‘Abba! Father!’ in the very words of Christ’s own prayer.”
And let’s not miss it. The placement of the Aramaic “Abba” here in the text invites us to think about Jesus crying out in heaviness and in sorrow from the Garden of Gethsemane. Or crying out in pain and dereliction on the cross for his divine parent to be present. Or asking Christians to remember that when we pray, we should pray, Our Father, Abba, Daddy, Loving Parent, who art in heaven. This notion of a parent who is near to new Christians was crucial because it invited them and invites us into a relationship with God that is intimate and familial. The law of the spirit is one that beckons us closer to the divine while the law of the flesh separates us from God and from one another. The Spirit of God invites us to be children of God.
The notion of being a child of God would have resonated with Christians in Rome, because this image of God as father didn’t originate with Jesus or the early church. Greco-Roman and Jewish history are loaded with parental language. And Paul reinterpreted this idea of God as parent to point to Christ and our relationship with God. You see, in the Roman Empire, where these new Christians lived, Augustus positioned himself as a god. By doing so, his son, Julius, claimed to be the son of God. For ordinary, non-royal citizens of Rome, to see themselves as children of God would have been preposterous, but exactly the message Paul was trying to communicate. By being the children of the Most High God, these early Christians could be more than what they were, as slaves, as servants, as citizens, and as oppressed peoples. The law of the Spirit adopted all Christ followers into a new and prosperous family, where everyone was loved and everyone was free.
Nick Carter says, “If Christians are heirs to the promises of the covenant through the Spirit rather than through the observance of the law, there is a solid foundation of hope for the salvation of the Gentiles, now and in the future.” That was good news for the early Roman church and is good news for today. That means there is hope for us, each and every one of us to be loved, included, invited, and welcomed into the family of God where we might find true and life-changing freedom. And that is definitely something to celebrate as we grow together and love one another.
Whew. But families are complicated, aren’t they? We might have children that utterly frustrate us. We might have a mother who is not with us anymore. We might have a father who walked out on us. We might have siblings that make us want to punch a wall. Families are a blessing and sometimes a curse. And when we think of being in the same family as Christ, we naturally think of all the good things, like the reward we will inherit because Christ inherited eternal life with God. But what Christ received at his death was both suffering and glory. Being adopted is not always wonderful and easy.
Jennifer Maddox who works with Jonathan’s Place, a foster care and adoption organization, mentioned a profound story of adoption. She told me of a boy named Mason. He came into care as a teen when his parents kicked him out of his home because he was gay. His parents refused parental responsibility and he was placed in foster care. He was placed in multiple foster homes, and then eventually ended up in a residential treatment center. Finally, his now adoptive mother became his foster parent because she wanted to provide a safe place for LGBTQ teens. So, Mason became her first placement. Under the care of his adoptive mother, Mason blossomed and was able to fully express himself and stop living in fear.
And that’s why I think the Spirit of adoption is such a powerful metaphor. I know many families who have struggled with infertility and the hope that their family would get bigger. And so many families open their doors to children who need a family to love and care for them. Adoption is an act of grace; it is an act of hope. It is a way to say that loneliness and hurt do not have the last word. Adoption says we are accepted into a family and will receive the full blessing of that family, the inheritance of not only possessions, but of love. The fact that you and I are brought into the family of Christ with people from all over the world creates an intimacy that makes me want to shout, just like Jesus and just like Paul, “Abba! Father! Mama! God!”
But inclusion and intimacy are not the only things experienced with the spirit of adoption. As the early Christians knew, suffering is also what unites us to Christ. Just as we pray the same prayer as Christ, Abba Father, we also share in Christ’s suffering. And as part of Christ’s family, the law of the Spirit puts us at odds with the powers of the world. N.T. Wright says, “The road to the inheritance, the path to glory…lies along the road to suffering.” And that’s why Paul ends this part of his letter with a reference to our groanings and our labor pains. Rev. Karen Chakoian says, “It is like a woman in labor, who cannot wait for the pain to be over but, even more, cannot wait to meet the long-awaited child about to be born. Here, in this most human experience, suffering and hope are not contradictory, but inseparably interwoven.”
And that, dear church, is some of what we are feeling right now. We are stuck in both the suffering and hope of life and it feels like an “in between time.” Can we venture outside, or should we stay home? Do we really have to wear a mask? (Yes, we do.) What will school look like in the Fall? What if I lose my job? When will we see every person treated equally and like siblings? When will my spouse come home from the hospital? When will my baby come home from the hospital? The pains of waiting are immense. And if you are like me, you might be impatient in this time. We want everything to be better, newer, faster, and we want it right now. The law of the Spirit asks us to remember that we are adopted and that we are in the “in between” of this current world and the world that we hope for.
But, while we are here in our suffering and in our glory, we are prompted to remember that we have inherited the goodness of God. We have inherited the belovedness of God. We have inherited the freedom of God. And since we are children of God we know freedom, we know love, we know justice, and we know grace. The church of Christ living the law of the Spirit is a church that even in our suffering, we anticipate new birth, being adopted, and the inheritance of abundant life.
When Leslie and Forrest McKinney adopted Violette and Sophie, Forrest said something profound: “I gave them my whole heart when they walked through our door. Whether it was for a day or forever they were our family. I knew my heart could get broken, but it was theirs to break.” God has given us God’s heart in the life of Jesus. As we realize that God’s spirit is the spirit of adoption, let us live into a different law, not the law of the flesh but the law of the Spirit. Let us celebrate our adoption by the Most High God and be good siblings that bring freedom to a groaning world in need. Let us go out this week with a spirit of adoption.