Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
May 31, 2015
I’m not a fan of reality TV, so I don’t ordinarily keep up with the Duggars or the Kardashians. Of course, they’re hard to ignore when they break into the regular news cycles. While none of us are participants in reality TV, many of us share snippets of family life with the broader public on social media. Sometimes we might even share too much information about our family life with the public! But, whether or not we share the contents of family life with the world by way of Facebook or Instagram, isn’t family life fun?
It’s good to remember that families come in all shapes and sizes, so that in some way we’re all part of a family of some kind!
Some people dream of being part of the perfect family. It’s probably not the kind of family we see portrayed on reality TV, but it could be the Cleavers or the Huxtables. I realize I’m dating myself by mentioning these two TV families of yesteryear, but they do live on in reruns. In many ways Cliff and Ward aren’t that different. They’re the wise fathers who know what’s best for their not always perfect, but generally happy children. As for June and Clair, while they might be very different kinds of women, they provide family stability. For many people these two families projected an almost perfect picture of family life, which many of us dreamed about growing up.
Of course even on TV there were families that didn’t fit the “normative” nuclear family model. Think about Andy Taylor and his son Opie. In that family, Opie doesn’t have a mother but Aunt Bea comes in and takes care of things. On My Three Sons. Steve Douglas didn’t have a wife either, at least for the first several seasons, but he did have Uncle Charlie to help him raise his three sons, one of whom – Ernie – appears to have been adopted. I’m not sure whether you would call the Simpsons a perfect traditional family, but there’s a lot of love in that picture. There are actually lots of different kinds of families on TV.
Whether our real life families are perfect or not, and many are far from perfect, they help form our identity – for good or for bad. I am who I am, in part because of my own family background. That includes both my relationship with my father, which was never close, and with my mother, with whom I remain very close. How I related to my father has influenced how I relate to Cheryl and to Brett. Yes, we are products of our families. Maybe that’s why so many people are interested in tracing their genealogies. We want to know where we come from.
While some TV families seem nearly perfect, there aren’t many such families in the biblical story. Most biblical families have as much dysfunction to them as does ours, and maybe even a lot more. Just think about the children of Adam and Eve, or Isaac and Rebecca. Life in Jacob’s house wasn’t perfect either, but maybe having four wives didn’t help the situation. Even Jesus seems to have had some problems with his family. Remember when his mother and siblings came to get him because they thought he was crazy? (Mark 3:31-35).
When we think about family, is the church family? After all, Jesus said of his followers: “here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:34-35). If we’re part of Jesus’ family then does this family help form our identities?
What does Paul mean when he says: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” Now, it’s clear that we’re not God’s biological children. We don’t have any divine DNA within us. Paul does say, however, that we are God’s children by adoption, and according to Roman law, being adopted was as good as being the biological child of a family. Therefore, we get to call God Abba! Father! This Aramaic word Abba is probably best translated as “Daddy.” It’s the most personal and intimate form of address a child can use for a father.
Not being adopted, I don’t have a full understanding of what it means to be adopted. I know that some adopted children struggle with their sense of identity. They want to know where they come from and maybe even why their birth mothers gave them up. That’s understandable, but at the same time most parents love their adopted children as if they were their biological children. Steve Douglas didn’t treat Ernie any differently than he did Chip or Rob.
In Roman society it was important that families produced an heir. If you didn’t have a child of your own to inherit your property then you would adopt a child, even if this child was an adult. According to Roman law an adopted child had all the legal rights accorded to biological children. So, when the Emperor Augustus needed an heir, and his own descendants were either dead or disinherited, he adopted Tiberius as his son and heir even though Tiberius was already 46. When Augustus died, Tiberius succeeded him.
Paul drew on this Roman legal system when he penned this part of his letter to the Romans. He wanted them to know what it meant to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. Living in the Spirit is life-giving, but it is also identity forming. To be a child of God meant, according to Paul, that you would be one of God’s heirs. Since God already had a child – Jesus the Christ – our adoption means we’re brothers and sisters of Jesus, and we’re also joint heirs with Jesus of God’s bounty. Therefore, as joint heirs with Christ, even though we are adopted into the family, we too can call God Abba, Father. So, if you’ve ever thought about what it would be like to be part of a royal family, this would seem to be even better!
There is a reason why this passage appears as part of today’s Trinity Sunday lectionary readings. Even though it doesn’t offer an explicit Trinitarian formula, all the elements of that formula are present. Here we encounter God the Father, God’s son the Christ, and the Spirit. Through the actions of God, who is made known to us in Christ and witnessed to by the Spirit, we are welcomed into God’s family through the act of adoption.
Now, there are two things to know about when it comes to being joint heirs with Jesus. First, since he suffered, so will we. Since he was glorified, we get to share in that glory. I think Paul wants us to understand that being a child of God doesn’t exempt us from suffering. We don’t get to hang out in the palace surrounded by servants. Where Jesus goes, we go. When Jesus suffers, we suffer. But, when Jesus is glorified, we share in that glory.
Being adopted as God’s child and heir changes our status in life. Paul writes that because we have the spirit of adoption we’re no longer bound by the spirit of slavery. That means we no longer need to live in fear. This is good news because we live at a time when fear is rampant. Our society seems to be enslaved by fear, and politicians, creators of consumer goods, and even religious groups use this fear to enslave us. The good news is that we’re not subject to that fear. We’re God’s children, and so we don’t live in fear. Yes, it’s good to be prudent, but not fearful.
I think many of us like to watch Leave it to Beaver and the Andy Griffith Show, because they seem to hearken back to a simpler time. Wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the way things were in the 1950s and early 1960s? Of course, reality isn’t quite so simple. Father didn’t always know best and society was often less than just. That vision is tempting, but it’s not life-giving.
The good news is that we can live life with boldness because we’re children of God, and children of God don’t live in fear. Yes, there might be suffering along the way, but suffering doesn’t have the final word. When we think of the Christian story, we shouldn’t stop with the cross. We need to move on to the Resurrection. As for this family thing – no matter what our family background is, we are God’s children and therefore, we’re joint heirs with Jesus of God’s grace and love. This promise is what forms our lives so we can embrace life in all its fullness.
So, don’t live in fear. Live in hope because you are a child of God who can cry out Abba! Father!