Sisters and brothers, children of God, gathered in the Spirit ...
where do we find our kinship? How do we name ourselves in the world? Do we have a choice? Am I forever bound by nature, or completely free in nurture? The answer is ... yes.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul teaches about the inheritance of Abraham, found in the Jewish Scriptures: the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith… it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us…)
So Paul makes the argument that God’s promise is not merely for the genetic descendants of Abraham … but for the spiritual descendants.
Paul actually uses the word “adopted” in several places, to describe what happens for someone who responds to God’s invitation, someone who turns their heart and their life over to God. In Romans 8, Paul says,
For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as offspring by which we cry out, " Abba! Father!" … this is what makes us new, isn’t it? No longer mine, but thine, Lord. And we are made new, every day, every moment, by this grace of God. Not only our hearts but our very flesh we turn over to God, to be used. We are the same as we always were, but we are also transformed.
As a Christian, I particularly like this word, “adopted.” It isn’t a word we use much in the church, or in prayer. We say we are “children of God,” most often in the recognition of a birthright, or in the cosmic sense of our origins. Normally, when the word “adopted” comes up in daily life, it means something different, something very specific in our society. But that more ordinary meaning should cast some light on our relationship with God.
When we are born – again – in the Spirit, we are, as Paul says, adopted in love. I’m not going to talk about the legal process of adoption, since that’s only a small part of what adoption really is. And I’m not using it as a mere metaphor: it’s a real experience. We have it on a human scale, and therefore it may help us grasp the scope of God’s givingness, and the truth of our birthright.
I’ve done some work over the years with adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents, and it speaks to me of the kind of love that Jesus is trying to teach us. The adoption triangle, as it is called, is also a great illustration for everyone, of the depths – and the limits – of heredity. And also a great illustration of the possibilities of transformation, in love.
An adoption experience is more common than you think. Mention an adoption, or a birth family reunion, and people will pop out of the woodwork with their own adoption stories. I’ve seen it plenty of times. A couple of years ago, I was sent on a business trip with 4 colleagues I’d never met before. … and two of them were, like me, adoptees, and a third was married to one.
If I’ve learned anything, it’s that the adoptive experience is invisible, and all around us, but we rarely talk about it, and what it means for those who grew up with their genetic kin.
I’ll be the first to admit, that the old ways of considering adoption weren’t always very helpful. The authorities used to try and pretend that an adopted baby ceased to have any connection to the birth family, and instead replaced their own genetic information with that of the adopting family. Well, that’s just denial, right? We know better now: we try to connect adoptees with the genetic promptings within them, and incorporate that truth into the truth of family life at home. Because both are real, both are formative, both are expressions of God’s creativity in our lives.
When Jesus distinguishes between being born of the flesh, and being born of the spirit, he isn’t saying that one is true and one is false. Neither is he saying that the flesh and the spirit must by definition do battle. He is saying, however, that being born of the flesh is not enough to enter the kingdom of God. You must be born again …after being born into the flesh, we may then also come to God by being re-born in God.
We are asked to make a choice, to which will we claim belonging? Merely to the flesh? Or will we belong to something bigger than that, something transcendent and holy, the Holy Spirit? Shall we define ourselves by the limits of our genes, or our emotions? Or is our true self to be found in Spirit, in the constant refreshment of God?
Here I have to mention The Da Vinci Code. It’s worth bringing it up for a minute, because everything that was supposedly scandalous about that book (which I liked very much) has absolutely nothing to do with the Christian life.
BULLETIN: Christians don’t care about the bloodline of Jesus! … Next time the book or movie comes up in conversation, feel free to tell your friends about the bad theology in it. Feel free to tell them that the bloodline of Jesus is utterly irrelevant to any who practice what Jesus preached. Or Amos, or Isaiah, or Paul.
The question about bloodlines, and about belonging to God, is very close to my own heart. I was adopted… by a very Christian family – conservative, working-class evangelicals from the Prairies who made their home in Vancouver. My birth family, I’ve since learned, is more bookish, college types who write and teach – and scarcely religious at all. Anyway, growing up, my spiritual life was very active, grounded in the church, but restless … I was no evangelist, and I’m certainly not conservative. Early on I rejected the evangelical church and wandered off into New Age wisdom and Buddhism and a bit of Gnosticism, anything but the mainline churches, right? But remained in my heart a Christian… even though I seldom used the term out loud.
Well, life happens, doesn’t it? Approaching my 40s, I came to a turning point and found myself called to ministry, and – here I am.
I call that kind of grace, amazing.
I met my birth family 10 years ago. I’ve learned so much about “nature” and “nurture”. Learned so much about the many forces of love. It was obvious right away, I inherited my love of words through my biological family. But it’s also clear that I “inherited” my love of God from Mom and Dad.
Last year, I attended a family funeral – that’s my adoptive family – deep in the Bible Belt. My aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins had only recently heard about my new calling. My older cousin grabbed my hand when she saw me and told me a story –
“You know, when you were still really little, and my Mom and Dad used to babysit you all the time, I remember we’d put you on the bed and tuck you in and then pray over you – that God would keep and carry you, and that he would always be in your life and look out for you.” Then she had to stop and say, “Oh no, I’m going to cry!”
But I said “I think it took.”
What we are made of is not limited by our history, or even by our genetic makeup. What we are made of, is God’s desire, moving in us. We are brothers and sisters … in faith! Use your history, use your family strengths – God gave us those for a reason, too. But we all belong to something bigger than our genetic family tree, bigger than our church history. St Paul said it: we are all adoptees – in Christ. We are all changed by the One who loves us.