This was my sermon for the 8th Sunday after Trinity 8 at Grace Anglican Church. The scripture readings were Jeremiah 23:16-24, Psalm 31:1-6, Romans 8:12-17, and Matthew 7:15-21.
Last week we were described as slaves of God. Today that image is expanded to encompass another critically important metaphor. We are adopted sons of God.
What does sonship entail?
Romans 8:12-17 describes sonship to God in several ways.
- Like being a slave, sonship comes with a position of debt and obligation (v12-14). As a part of God’s family, it no longer becomes us to act like we’re part of someone else’s family – be it a religion power, political power, social power, or any other sort of organization; God’s fatherhood over us is a supreme headship to which we must conform and defer.
- Sonship comes with a position of relationship that other workers don’t have (v15). Consider:
- A son doesn’t work for wages, but for an inheritance based on a promise. (We’ll revisit this later!)
- A son shares the desire and goal of his father, according to biblical ideals. (Notice our need to reorder our desires according to God’s!)
- A son shares a mutual love with his father. (This alone changes the whole dynamic.)
- A son gives us up his freedom to work with his father (a slave can’t disown and leave).
- Sonship comes with a position of confidence (v16). As our Psalm this morning described, we know that we can trust and take refuge in God the Father. He’s not just the company CEO or the head farmer, but also an approachable friend. As St. Paul describes it here, the Holy Spirit himself bears witness within us, telling us that we can call God “dad.”
- Sonship comes with a position of expectation (v17), and this goes both ways. St. Paul describes us as “co-heirs with Christ,” which sets up a crucial picture of the Christian life and journey: on one side, we can expect a marvelous inheritance from God as sons of God alongside his firstborn Son, Jesus Christ! On the other side, God can expect us to be like his firstborn Son, Jesus, by the time he hands that inheritance over.
What is our inheritance?
Let’s dig into the meaning of this inheritance now, and the expectations that we can have from God, and God from us.
One of the chief images for our salvation that the Early Church drew upon was the Exodus. (To this day, many of the Holy Week and Easter liturgies feature Scripture readings about the Exodus and the Passover and the parting of the Red Sea and the giving of the Covenant.) Comparing a few of these biblical parallels can help us to understand the nature of our adoption to sonship, our life of sonship, and the inheritance it yields.
First, let us consider the story of the ancient Israelites.
- They start out as slaves to the Egyptians.
- God saves them by sending his Prophet, Moses, who institutes the Passover sacrifice to break the Pharaoah’s hold over them, then leads them through the waters of the Red Sea into a new life.
- Through Moses, God initiates a covenant with them, giving them the Law as their guide.
- False prophets arise along the way, complaining about their hardships in the desert and advocating a return to Egypt.
- Finally, they reached their inheritance: the Promised Land, where they could live in peace and prosperity.
Second, let us consider the story of the Christians.
- We started out as slaves to sin.
- God saved us by sending his Prophet, Jesus, who instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice on the Cross to break Satan’s hold over us, then leads us through the waters of Baptism into a new life.
- Through Jesus, God initiates a covenant with us, giving us the Holy Spirit as our guide.
- False prophets arise, complaining about the hardships of the Christian life and advocating a return to sin.
- Finally, we reach our true inheritance: the Kingdom of God, where we can live in sinless glory.
And in between these, Jesus himself has a similar story.
- He started out as the invisible Word of God.
- He did not need salvation, of course, but he did enter into a new life, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.
- Through John the Baptist, God sends the Holy Spirit upon Jesus to initiate his ministry.
- False prophets arise, complaining about Jesus’ teaching, and advocating the sufficiency of Torah and Temple.
- Finally, Jesus reaches his inheritance, which Psalm 2 describes as “all nations” – the whole world.
The similarities are similar and great, as you can see! St. Paul himself wrote some comments on these parallels. To the Corinthians he wrote that the crossing of the Red Sea was like the Israelites’ baptism, and that Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is our Passover and therefore let us keep the feast! So too, in today’s reading from Romans 8, Paul has in mind the parallel of inheritance: as Israel was promised a new and better home, so are we. This is one of the chief benefits of being God’s people – especially God’s sons – our new home will be with him!
Beware the danger in the road.
And yet, in both cases, we hear about false prophets. For Israel, they advocated a return to the old ways: the old homeland (as much as Egypt was a homeland), the old gods, the old slavery. And this took many forms throughout the Old Testament, including our reading this morning from Jeremiah. It’s exactly the same with us: false prophets tell Christians to return to their pagan gods and lifestyles, to return to Judaism and the yoke of the Law, to return to that independent spirit of Atheism, or to flee to the supposedly greener pastures of worshiping another god, another society, another king or government or power.
One of the underlying sins here is covetousness – the inordinate desires for something someone else has. This is not the same thing as envy, which is focused against another person directly. Covetousness, rather, is like saying that ‘the grass is greener on the other side of the fence.’ I’ve seen this with sheep and they do this a lot: no matter what side of a fence they’re on, they often stick their heads through and graze on the other side. It’s comical to watch, especially when you can see perfectly good grass just beside them on their own side of the fence! But with God’s people this turns quickly from comedy to tragedy, seeing people who confess Christ but then resort to karma to explain their ups and downs in life, or stake the salvation of the world upon the existence of modern Israel, or proclaim the superiority of America as God’s chosen country, or have their own children murdered in the womb. All these errors and sins are proclaimed, taught, rationalized, and encouraged by false prophets. And since we cannot see into the hearts of others, we are taught by Jesus (in today’s well-known Gospel passage) to look at the fruits of others’ lives. Good trees produce good fruit, and bad trees produce bad fruit.
A quick example of this from the past week is the Ebola epidemic in western Africa. While many American missionaries and doctors left, quite understandably, a few chose to stay and fight the disease, potentially laying down their lives in sacrifice to save others. What beautiful fruit that is, to see the unselfish love of Christ shining forth in these people. Let us be sure to pray for Dr. Kent Brantly and other who have put their lives on the line in the service of Christ. Conversely, we’ve seen the bad fruit of worldly reasoning by people like Ann Coulter, denouncing the ministry of Dr. Brantly and insulting the Gospel ministry by asserting that if he had instead “practiced at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and turned one single Hollywood power-broker to Christ, he would have done more good for the entire world than anything he could accomplish in a century spent in Liberia.” Remember Jesus’ words, “whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Caring for the needy is just as legitimate as caring for the rich – if not moreso! It doesn’t take a bible scholar to see the fruit of this tree; let us also pray for Ann Coulter and those who listen to her, that they would be filled with the love and compassion of Christ that they desperately need.
Returning, finally, to the topic of our sonship to God, examining the fruits of our own lives and the lives of others helps us to see how we’re doing. Are the fruits of our lives evidence that we’re carrying out our debt of obligation to our heavenly father? Are the fruits of our lives evidence that we’re in a relationship with God characterized by mutual love? Are the fruits of our lives evidence that our confidence is in God above all others? Are the fruits of our lives evidence that we’re expecting an inheritance from God, and not from a false prophet’s version of the Gospel? We all fall short, and so we pray:
O God, whose never-failing providence orders all things both in heaven and earth: We humbly beseech you to put away from us all hurtful things, and to give us those things which be profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord.