Born of Empire, Groaning in Hope, Adopted by God

The Voyage Home  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  25:05
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We have been born into the empire, into the enslavement by the powers of sin. And yet we feel the groaning in our bodies, a longing and hope for what is yet unseen and promised. In this longing, we find a God who adopts us and calls us beloved, a part of a new family, set free to be a part of that coming hope.


12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 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!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Future Glory

18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Last week, we looked at the division of the law of sin and death from what it means for us to be in our bodies as people of the Spirit, people who have known and encountered a life made new through Christ’s resurrection. The redemptive power of Christ overcomes the enslaving power of the law of sin and death.
But we also recognize that we live in tension — we want this freedom, this liberation of the body and the Spirit for all people. And yet, we are very aware that we inhabit a world where the power of the law reigns, where the Empire holds control over us. We are a people who long for what is not yet realized.
And this has to become a standard part of our walk with Jesus — we have to become accustomed to being people who already claim Christ’s presence and yet long for the not yet realized restoration of all things.
Today’s passage hits at the heart of this and proclaims a message of hope. Because you can’t have hope for something that you see — if the vision of a better future was already realized, it wouldn’t involve hoping — it just would be.

Born in the Empire — I was born into this

Who do you belong to? I mean, who can claim you as their own? Your partner? Your parents? Your children? Ownership is a funny word, but what I’m getting at here is that we belong to other people — deep belonging, flesh and blood belonging. Some of it, we’re born into, some of it we accept and take on as life goes on.
I belong to Stacy, to Asher. I’m the son of Jim and Sandra, so I belong to them as well. I’m the brother of Lora, brother-in-law to Mike, Jill, Tadd, and Hope. I’m the uncle of Aiden and Lukas. I belong to others: to dear friends, to a community of clergy colleagues, to college roommates. I belong to you all — as your pastor, while I’m technically not a member of this church, I belong with you all — we belong to each other.
Thinking about who we belong to also frames what cultures we participate in. I’m specifically thinking about cultures and communities that we are born into — belonging that we don’t really get to choose.
I am an American. I’m a Cascadian, born and raised in the Pacific Northwest. I’m white. I identify as a man. I’m straight. These are all belonging categories that I was born into. They are who I’ve been for as long as I’ve had a sense of identity.
There are other belonging categories that we might call identities that we choose: I’m a Christian (in reformed theology, I should actually say I’m called into being a Christian…it’s something I’m called by God into, but that’s an aside). I choose to be a fan of the Seattle Sounders. I choose to be a runner. I choose the belonging of my fellow Bellinghamsters — I chose this city to come to college to. I chose the belonging of this place.
Identity is at the center of who we are. What we belong to, how we identify.
For the Roman Christians, many of them were born to belong to the Empire. Their citizenship assured them rights and access and privileges to the spoils of the Empire, the structures of that ordered society. And the belonging extended to non-Roman born people — there was belonging within Roman society for many cultures and races. And for all born into Roman citizenship, a part of holding that belonging was the commitment to honor the law and support Caesar. It’s a part of belonging.
The hearer’s of Paul’s letter belonged to the empire. And with the benefits, there were also the challenges. Especially when it came to setting their hearts on Christ — this was a conflict in belonging — could they coexist? Could someone be faithful to Christ while retaining fidelity to the empire? This is one of the core questions of the book of Romans and, honestly, a core question for us to be wrestling with in 2020.
So let’s be clear about the problem this text presents: To remain in the context of the Empire, people had to wrestle with who they really belonged to. To whom did their ultimate allegiance actually belong?
And, thankfully, for those of us who are following along, Paul gives a great, hopeful reminder of who we belong to: Not the law or sin or death — because we are no longer participating in the fleshy struggle. We are marked and belong to Christ!
Verse 12 uses the concept of being “debtors”. But it’s no longer debtors or slaves to sin and death — that was the old way. The debt is now to Christ — another way of saying it is the belonging is with Christ.
Belonging is a kind of a debt, right? Think about it in the most positive of terms: to belong, to be in relationship with another person, is to have a sense of mutual debt to one another. Not guilt, not bondage — but indebtedness. For instance, I have a debt to my son, Asher. I love him and I’m indebted to him because he makes me a better person by getting to practice and learn and grow and be his Dad. Not a debt that I can ever repay, but a debt nonetheless.
But Paul tells the listeners something SO important: they are no longer indebted to death and sin and the law. Something....someone has erased that debt, broken that bondage: Christ! And Christ’s breaking the bonds has started a whole new thing in them, a whole new thing in us.
To pause…I don’t actually love the language of debt around what Christ’s life and death and resurrection is all about. Debt can turn very transactional very quickly: like we owe Christ something. I don’t think that is always very helpful — hope, grace, forgiveness, death and resurrection — these are free gifts, no price, no debt to pay…simply gift and love.
I’d rather like to link “debt” with “belonging” — to the ones I belong to, I am in your debt…because your life enhances my life and makes me better and so I am grateful for that.

Adopted by God

Prepared for a hopeful future, longing for it
It seems that every time we get to a place of certainty or understanding about how the laws of the world are supposed to operate, how we’re supposed to play into the systems of power…and then when it’s exposed to the loving Gospel of Jesus Christ…everything is flipped on its head.
We belong — we’ve clarified that. We belong to others, we belong to the system, we belong to the law. We belong to the flesh.
And it is these systems that give us power and certainty and connection and stability…right?
Well what about when we don’t belong? What about when we realize that the system we’ve committed to belonging to, for example the flesh or the law, what happens when we realize that we’re trapped in a corrupt cycle of patronage and bondage?
So much of the struggle in the New Testament writings dances around issues of power, dominance, and allegiance. Who we belong to creates a power dynamic — some people choose to lord power over others.
That’s the set up for the beautiful twist of God’s good news in this passage. The belonging we look for, where we truly are a part of mutual, loving, flourishing relationships is set against systems of Imperial patronage and submission.
And because the powers of the world are like this, don’t we expect God to be like this too? Obey God and you’re in. Disobey and risk banishment.
So we are indebted to the systems of flesh and sin and power…are we not? Its the cycle.
Here’s the twist: God breaks the cycle in Christ. The flesh dies…but the Spirit leads to life.
Adoption is a huge theme throughout the Scriptures. As many times as we see the chosenness of the Hebrew people proclaimed, as many times as we hear the exclusivity of belonging in the family of Christ…as many times as this, we have also so many declarations of how God brings into God’s family the outsider, the foreigner, the non-family member…and adopts them.
God not only adopts the outsider, the law breaker, the sinner into God’s family…God makes them heirs!
For the sake of illustration, bear with me. We know the story of the Prodigal Son pretty well — younger son goes off and blows the family inheritance while the older son stays dutifully by the father’s side at home. Younger son comes back and is received in grace, welcomed back.
Consider this: what if the Prodigal son brought a couple of friends along with him? What if he arrived in the sight of the father and said, “hey, I know I screwed up…thank you for welcoming me back home…by the way, these friends of mine are orphans too. They need a home.”
What would the Father do? If the Father is a metaphor for God’s love, what would we expect from God?
I will bank on the truth that God will adopt and welcome those strangers too. “Get another couple of robes” he says. We’re gonna need another rack of ribs for the party!
In the context of our study of Romans, we’re seeing this theme of adoption play out in how we are able to break with the cycles of the law and the flesh and be welcomed home into the family of God, not be merit, not by citizenship or blood, not by power: but by adoption and radical love. Reception from God comes not because we deserve it or have proven ourselves: adoption by God comes by God’s grace alone.
Amen and hallelujah!

Groan inwardly - vs. 23

And yet…with this good news, we also experience a deep longing. Suffering doesn’t always end. The world is still in a state of great unrest. As Paul writes,

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Nowhere else do we witness the tension between the law and the promise of God than in the unrealized hopes of creation, of humanity, of those who long for justice. And so we wait, eagerly, hopefully, steadfastly, but also with tired eyes, aching backs, weary souls: we say, like the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord, how long?!”
If you have ever experienced or been a witness to childbirth, you know that this visceral description from vs. 23 is very fitting: We know the whole of creation has been groaning in labor pains until now...
Belonging, adoption, and tension. What is this all pointing to? Something is being birthed among God’s people. Amidst the chaotic world, amidst pains in our bodies that make us groan and long for reprieve, amidst the systems that misuse power to subjugate and suppress — amidst all of this: something is being birthed.
The pains of childbirth are intense. But through them, life arrives.
What is being birthed in this passage and for these Roman Christians is the hope of what is yet unseen: the hope of a new kind of life. It is a hope that is found in adoption, belonging, and reception by God’s Spirit into God’s family.
What is being birthed in us? What new belonging are we being ushered into? What does adoption look like in 2020 amidst all the chaos of the world?

Our New Home

In Christ, we, you and I, are being birthed into a community of radical belonging and grace. We are being received into it ourselves, as we are broken out of the oppression of those who seek only power, financial gain, and certitude. We are being received, adopted, into a family that looks nothing like us: And that’s a good thing. It is a family of all people, all nations, all colors and shapes and sizes. It is a family of diversity and beauty.
This family, this community in the Spirit of God, is what we’re attempting to model as we gather as a Church. We aren’t always great at it. But what we hope for is to be a community of faith that endures the labor pains, the hardship, in order to come into a new life, a new home together.
Friends, we cannot go back to the way things were. We cannot return to a time when the powers of the world and the flesh owned us.
Instead, we look forward, in hope, to a new birth, a new home, a new way of being together.
In closing, I want to make it clear: I’m talking about what can happen and break forth in and around us in the here and now, the not so distant future, the moments of the rests of our lives together. I’m talking about being a kind of church and faithful community of God that glorifies God and holds hope in this very day and time.
I’m also talking about that which is not yet, that which is arriving as God’s ultimate reign is ushered in, here on earth as it is in heaven. But it begins now. We seek this community of love and belonging in Bellingham, on the South Hill, in our living rooms, at our tables. We are becoming this community, groaning for a new way of living together. A way that embodies grace and forgiveness today. That engages in radical welcome and adoption, today.
The work of justice — it is for today. It will not be realized, fully, but it is to be engaged and pursued and established as much as we can, today. And, Lord willing, we will see the fruits of this adoption, the first fruits of the Spirit, even as we wait.
May it be so. Amen.
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