July 20, 2014
I’ve been married to my wife for a little more than twenty years now. Occasionally during those years of marriage I’ve been present when she sees relatives, family friends, old teachers, or others whom she hasn’t seen in many years. One thing that happens frequently in those reunion situations is that someone is very likely to make a remark about how much my wife looks like her mother.
We’re accustomed to looking for family resemblance of some sort. Whether it is in a child, newborn or adult, in whose face we see the features of mother or father; or the grandmother who sees in a grandchild’s tantrums or misbehaviors the very same tantrums or misbehaviors the child’s mother – her own daughter – threw when she was a child; or perhaps more unfortunately, the grown son who falls into the same destructive patters of behavior that brought his “old man” down.
In the case of my wife’s resemblance to her mother, though, it’s always a little bit difficult to stifle a chuckle when some aunt or uncle says to her that she looks just like her mother. You see, my wife was adopted. The arrangements were made well before she was born, and – after an extended stay in the hospital due to premature birth – she went home with her parents, parents who would adopt another daughter about three years later.
You would never know this, though, just by observing the family. There is no sense in which the way my wife interacts with her parents gives away any lack of blood relationship. They love her, and she loves them, in ways you would never be able to distinguish from those of a “natural” daughter and parents. They are, simply put, a family, and blood relationship or lack thereof simply don’t matter.
To think about adoption, as we know it today, might be just the thing to help us get into Paul’s instruction here in the eighth chapter of Romans. For one thing, adoption was not an uncommon practice in Paul’s time, particularly in the city of Rome, the location of the church Paul was addressing in this letter. Now adoption didn’t work exactly the same way in Rome as it does here and now, but there is an important similarity; one who was adopted into a family gained the right of some part of the inheritance of that family. To be adopted did not signify any kind of lesser status; all of the benefits of being a son in a Roman family were extended to adopted sons every bit as much as to natural sons.
Thus, for Paul to write in verse fifteen that we have not received a “spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear,” but a “spirit of adoption,” is extremely important, and would have carried a world of meaning to Paul’s readers that we need to understand ourselves as well. Paul of course is writing to a church in Rome that contains both male and female members. Given this diversity in the church, it might seem odd that in verse fourteen, Paul uses rather different language that doesn’t really reflect the makeup of his addressees. Unlike other verses, which use a Greek noun that refers to “children” both male and female, Paul here really writes that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” What’s going on here? Are the women being left out? Did Paul revert to sexism?
As Paul might say, “by no means!” Here Paul is making use of his readers’ understanding of adoption and family ties. Both natural and adopted sons received part of the inheritance of the family, but daughters typically were married off, and their lot was cast with the family into which they married. So, by Paul referring to “sons” in verse fourteen, he is emphasizing the degree to which all of his readers, and all of us – male/female, Jew/Greek, slave/free – participate in God’s inheritance. We are all part of God’s family, which is deliverance from the sin that bound us before receiving “adoption” into God’s family.
Now all of this sounds just wonderful, happy, and blissful…until we get to verse seventeen.
Paul continues from where we left off back in verse fifteen, pointing out that our very crying out to God is the very same Spirit bearing witness to us that we are indeed children of God – and here Paul uses that noun for “children” that includes both sons and daughters – and goes on to say that if we are children of God, we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ … “if, in fact, we suffer with him, so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Huh? What’s the deal with suffering? Nobody told me anything about suffering? Nobody said you had to suffer to be adopted, did they? Maybe we feel like we don’t understand what Paul’s talking about here.
Except…when we think about it, we really do understand what Paul’s talking about here. To be adopted into a family means that the child shares in everything that family has. The inheritance, yes. The joys that the family experiences, of course. But also the sorrows, the struggles, the failures, the setbacks and discouragements and sufferings. When my wife’s grandmothers died, several years apart, it was no comfort to her to think that she was adopted, not really “born into” this family. The grief and pain was every bit as real, as painful, as if she were their “natural” granddaughter. She was spared no suffering for having been an adopted child.
And so it is to be adopted into God’s family. The difference, though, is that the scope of “family” here is an awful lot broader than we might be accustomed to thinking. The “family of God” does not stop at the walls of this church. It does not stop on this side of town, or at the borders of our state or even our country. And when any part of God’s grand worldwide adoptive family suffers, we suffer.
When rockets fall from the sky and destroy homes and villages, we suffer, even if it’s not our country. When children flee from murderous drug gangs, we suffer, even if they’re not our children. When fifty murders happen in one weekend in one city, we suffer, even if it’s not our city. If we have truly received that “spirit of adoption,” if we are truly and fully among the children of God, we suffer when any part of God’s family suffers. We don’t smell the stink of the bombs, we don’t feel the heat and thirst of the desert or hear the whizzing of bullets, but we suffer because God’s children are suffering. When any part of our family suffers, we all feel pain. That’s how families are. We feel pain when any of God’s children suffer, if we really are part of God’s family.
As if that weren’t enough, Paul goes even further starting in verse nineteen. After talking about children and heirs and joint-heirs, suddenly Paul shifts gears and begins to speak of creation. Now it is creation that has suffered bondage, creation that was “subjected to futility” as Paul puts it. All of God’s good creation lives in anticipation, “groaning in labor pains.” Indeed our family-of-God-ness is bound up not just in other people, but all of creation as well; when any part of creation suffers, we suffer, if we really are part of the family of God. Creation suffers disasters both “natural” and man-made. When hurricanes slam into populated places, we suffer. When earthquakes shatter whole towns or cities, we suffer. But also, when earth is abused, when air is polluted, when rivers are poisoned, mountaintops demolished, seas become dumping grounds, we suffer with God’s creation. God’s “family” is really a lot more expansive than we expect.
Well, this took a turn for the worse, didn’t it? All of that might just make us a little more cautious about singing that old song, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God.” Finally, though, Paul comes to the climax of his mini-argument here. All of this talk of adoption and inheritance and family and suffering, for Paul, boils down to the indispensible fact of our hope in God.
All that has come before points us to the very thing that allows us to find ourselves in the “spirit of adoption,” and to bear the suffering that God’s family suffers. Because the good news, the gospel that is Jesus Christ, has already been proclaimed, already delivered to the world, we are able to live into our adoption, to live like a child of God, an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ. Because of that gospel, we can live in a world of suffering, and feel suffering because others suffer, bear one another’s burdens and share one another’s sorrows, without losing hope. We can know the pain of the world without despairing.
Hope is, of course, a very tricky thing to experience. As Paul points out, hope is all about what we can’t see. It would sound very silly if a child woke up on a Christmas morning and ran to the living room to see a shiny new bicycle parked beside the Christmas tree, only to continue moping around the house saying, “gee, I hope I get a bicycle for Christmas.” Hope is about what we don’t see yet. Hope is about the anticipation of what is to come, the joy not yet fulfilled but still to be fulfilled. We with all creation “groan inwardly” while we wait for the redemption that is, right now, our hope.
Paul lives throughout this letter in the tension between what is now and what is not yet, between what we know and what we wait for. No one has to tell us that our physical lives are not yet redeemed. We still get fat, still get old, still get cancer. The world still spins out hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes. Children still get killed, rockets and bombs still fall.
And yet… .
We know the salvation of God. We know ourselves to be adopted into God’s family. It is not easy to wait with patience, as Paul prescribes. And yet it is the very hope we have that allows us to wait with patience. We don’t know when or for how long, nor can we really know what “redemption” looks like, if we’re at all honest with ourselves. And yet, the hope is part of that inheritance, a share of which is ours by adoption into the family of God.
And the more we live into that hope, the more we live into that adoption, the more we know our family to be vast and unbounded, the more we know that we are all together bound up with one another and with all of creation, the more we pull ourselves away from the things that bring suffering to others…the more we start to look a little, just a very little, like our adoptive Brother in God. The more we manage to be not merely “Christian” but more “Christ-like,” the more we live into our inheritance of hope,…then the more we finally, even as adoptive children of God, start to take on just a little of that family resemblance.