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,
In the wake of the suicide bombing that occurred at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England this past May Canada’s National Post published an article by writer Jonathan Kay titled Grief Without God. “In a secular age,” wrote Kay, “massacres force us to have the conversation we always avoid. … I realized that I hadn’t the slightest idea how to talk to my children—or anyone—about death.” He noted how, at the school of one of the victims, a special assembly was held at which the school principal urged everyone “to hold on to the love among us.” Kay went on to write this. “The memorial Facebook pages for other Manchester Arena victims also reflect this vague, but admirably humane idea that we should respond to tragedy by loving one another more. It is sentimental and unsatisfying. But without God by our side, it’s the best we can do.”
1. The believer’s personal relationship with God is a key feature of the Apostle Paul’s articulation of the gospel. The section, for example, of the Apostle Paul’s Roman letter we mark as chapter 5:1 to chapter 8:39 is Paul’s probing the implications of relationship with God, or of being “in Christ:’ Paul’s reflection on understanding and experiencing the “good news” of the Christian gospel in terms of its personal, relational, and participatory features. The eighth chapter oozes with talk of the personal experience of God in our life. It may be one of the reasons this chapter is so loved and often quoted. To be “in Christ” is to be “with God.” Reflect again on Paul’s assertion that “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit (capital S) bearing witness with our spirit (small s) that we are children of God.” God is ever by our side.
In this cry “Abba! Father!” “Abba” is the familiar Aramaic word for father and “Father” is the translation of the Greek word for father. The two nouns are found in vocative case meaning they are understood as personal address. Remembering that early believers in Jesus were either Aramaic or Greek speaking Paul is making the case of the personal address of God emphatically. When you cry, “Abba! Father!”
When Jesus taught his disciples to pray he taught us to say, “Our Father.” I love to say the Lord’s Prayer with other believers. I always have this sense that God is listening. Now I am not always consciously thinking as we pray, “God is listening”—it is a sense that we are being heard. The sense that the voices are not just bouncing off the ceiling. Have you ever started to say something to your spouse whom you believe is still in the room only to discover that they had gone to some other part of the house when you weren’t looking? Part way through the presumed conversation you realize you are not being heard or talking to no one save yourself. (I have had these dreams, nightmares really, that when I stood to preach no one was left in the pews.) In our praying together I never get the sense that God has left the room; that we are talking to nobody. Now, how is it that we know ourselves heard?
And how is it that we experience the same wherever we go? A few weeks ago, while on vacation, I had the joy of being at Sunday morning worship in London’s Westminster Abbey. Doubtless we had joined in worship with people from many parts of the world. Acknowledging that this was the case, when we said the Lord’s Prayer worshippers were invited, in the order of worship, to pray it in the language of their customary worship. So whether you said “Father” or “Abba” we all experienced God who listens.
The author Anne Lamott had a vibrant Christian faith. Anne was raised by her dad to be a devout atheist—all the children in her family had to agree to a contract to that effect when they were two or three years old—but she started backsliding into faith at an early age. Lamott said that "Even when I was a child I knew that when I said 'Hello,' someone heard."
How is it that we know ourselves heard? This too is the work of God in our lives. “It is the Spirit (capital S) bearing witness to our spirit (small s).” It is our Lord’s doing bearing witness in the believer’s heart that she belongs to him. We experience this by faith; through believing. Simply to take the step to pray, “our Father,” is an act of believing and we find in this moment that sense of his presence that only God can give. Only God can let you know of God’s own presence. There is no independent verification that God is in the room.
I want to remind you of something we have noted previously in reflection on this text of scripture. We sometimes use the term “children of God” to mean all of humanity but in scripture to be a child of God is to be rightly related to God. The scripture asserts that all human being are his creatures and that God loves his creation. At the same time humans have each gone their own way; a breach of relationship with God. In scripture children of God speaks of relationship restored; something God does for us in Christ. As the Apostle John declared, “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
2. Cardus in a Christian think tank dedicated to the renewal of North American social architecture. They have launched a project in conjunction with Canada’s 150th birthday called Faith in Canada 150 to encourage the celebration of faith in Canada. Part of that project has included a statistical analysis amassed by the Angus Reid Institute. One of the perhaps more comforting statistics for Christians is that about 75 per cent of Canadians pray at least sometimes.
But Cardus co-founder and Executive Vice-President Ray Pennings warns the number may reflect more precautionary wishing and hoping than genuine religious faith. “My sense (from the data) is that if you combine the results (about) sin, prayer and Bible reading, you find that for many people religion is like a spare tire in the trunk,” Pennings stated. “Yes, there is a broad sense that religion is important – the way having a spare tire is important. From day to day, it’s not a meaningful part of our experience,”
Pennings said that while it’s encouraging for people of faith to see that religious belief informs how more than half of Canadians engage with the world, it’s unsettling to see how tenuously they connect to the transcendent.
As your Pastor, I would like to say a word of encouragement that you never be tenuous or hesitant in your connection with God. God is not a spare tire for those moments when one of the regular tires of reason or science or medicine goes flat. God is the reality in which our life unfolds. The Apostle Paul wrote that in Christ all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17) Our Lord is the reason the orbit of the earth has run its usual course this day causing us to experience sunrise even as we look forward to sunset. The gospel affirms that we were created for relationship with God—a relationship for which God is eager. So eager that God pours Godself out without remainder in the Son on the cross.
In a 2012 interview former NHL star Paul Henderson spoke of his excitement with regard to relationship with God. Henderson said, “That's why I get so excited. God says: 'Get to know me.' I have been a Christian since 1975 and I've been on an absolute burn. Some days I say I am just starting to get a grasp of who this person really is. I could do this for the next thousand years and I still wouldn't fathom the depths of God. But I think that is the exciting thing about Christianity: it's vital, it's alive, it's growing! I understand God in a deeper way.”
Recall our Lord’s promise, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Not only Christ will be with us: it’s not just future tense. Christ is with us. Even now. Even here. Even amid our struggles at home or at work or at our congregations or in the world. Christ is with us. Encouraging us, comforting us, working with us, guiding us, granting us the grace and courage necessary to be the people of God in the world right now. Notice he didn’t say “and I’ll check in with you every couple of weeks to see how you are doing.” He is with us always.
Psalm 139 also takes up this theme of God’s constant presence with his people. “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? … If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.” (Psalm 139:7, 9-10) So don’t be shy to engage with the one whose love for you is beyond comprehension.
3. In his Romans letter the Apostle Paul uses adoption as a metaphor for what God has done through the work of Jesus Christ in rendering us God’s children. Paul wrote, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption” .The adoption of a child was not a Jewish practice so it is reasonable to understand that Paul has the Greco-Roman practice and laws relating to such adoption in mind. There have been a number of studies done on the laws pertaining to adoption and certain features of these laws help us see what the metaphor called to mind for Paul and his hearers when thinking of the gospel.
One feature of these laws was that an adopted son was taken out of his previous situation and placed in an entirely new relationship to his adopting father. In Jesus Christ a new relationship with God has been established for the believer. It is not a relationship of slavery filled with fear. You aren’t left wondering about your status. It is a relationship of adoption where God has made you his own in Jesus Christ. The Father welcomes you as his own—as he does Jesus Christ.
In Greco-Roman adoption law an adopted son was considered no less important than any other biologically born son in his adopting family. The wonder of the gospel is that our lives are hid in Christ. When God sees us he sees us through the Son. We are joint-heirs with Christ and God welcomes us as he does the Son and because of the Son. The believer knows herself treasured by God as he treasures the Son of whom God said, “I am well pleased.” God’s good pleasure for the Son extends over us who cling to the Son in faith.
And a third feature of adoption laws was that an adopted son started a new life as part of his new family, with all his old debts canceled. At the cross of Christ we were declared acquitted. The voice of the enemy whispers that our failures will never leave us. New life in Christ has already declared the opposite. The believer’s life is one of embracing this new life in Christ. Or as the Apostle Paul put it, living by the Spirit putting to death the deeds of the body.
4. This relationship the believer has with God implies a glorious hope; a hope that includes the redemption of our bodies along with the restoration of creation being freed from its bondage to decay. Paul speaks of this as the completion of this adoption: “but we ourselves… groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” A glorious future is yet to unfold of which Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”
I want to circle back to the story I began with of the suicide bombing in Manchester. As I think of this saying by Paul of present suffering and of a family who has lost a child in such a terrorist incident I want to be very careful to point out that Paul is not diminishing suffering as no big deal. Paul was himself no stranger to suffering. He is trying to give us hope in the midst of the suffering that makes us groan with pain and confusion. Indeed, he takes suffering so seriously that he pulls out all the stops to help us with it. The most powerful thing he can say is this: as terrible as our suffering is, it is not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. Indeed, “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” There is a day coming when all will be set right far beyond our imagination in its glory.
For Christians hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the faithfulness of God. God’s faithfulness is marked out by major landmarks (promises he has kept) in his involvement with his people, an involvement he won’t renounce on behalf of a people he won’t abandon. The landmark that towers over others and gathers them up into itself, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Here all the promises of God find their fulfilment. Here the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and to Israel’s greater Son overflows out onto all flesh. God had promised to renew the entire creation in Christ, liberating the creation from its bondage to the evil one, freeing it from its frustration and allowing it to flower abundantly. God’s raising his Son from the dead is the decisive moment of this promised liberation and is therefore the landmark of God’s faithfulness.
I return to the principle of that school who encouraged children “to hold on to the love among us.” The gospel instead calls us to cling to the One who is love and who has come among us, our Saviour Jesus Christ.