Welcome to God’s family! Yes, that’s the whole sermon in one sentence – welcome to God’s family. Everything else that follows is detail on what that means. Specifically, we’re looking at these six verses from Romans 8, which are like a welcome letter to all Christians, welcoming them into their new family. It tells us theology – who God is, and how He brings us into his family; it tells us the law, and how we are supposed to act as part of this family; it tell us the Gospel, what God has done for us that we could never have done for ourselves.
By way of a useful coincidence, July 26th is also an optional minor saint’s day, commemorating Joachim and Anne, the parents of Mary. Normally, minor feast days cannot be celebrated in place of the regular Sunday lessons and themes, and I’m not breaking that rule today. Instead, since this Sunday’s themes speak so wonderfully to welcoming us into God’s family, we’re giving a nod to the grandparents of Jesus as a side point along the way.
Introducing Sts. Joachim & Anne
Many of you may not be familiar with Joachim and Anne, so I’ll give you a quick introduction to them. Two different genealogies of Jesus are given in the New Testament – one by St. Matthew and one by St. Luke. Many scholars, both ancient and modern, both Catholic and Protestant, have surmised that the differences between them are accounted for by the fact that Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus through Mary, rather than through Joseph. Thus, the father of Mary according to Luke 3:23 is Eli (or Heli), which is usually the shortened version of a longer name. As far as how his name has been remembered in the Church, he has been known as Joachim, and his wife (not mentioned in Scripture) is called Anne.
The story goes that Joachim and Anne were both old and childless. And, like several stories throughout the Bible, they were visited by angels who informed them that God was going to provide them with a child. But, unlike all those other stories, they were promised a daughter rather than a son. Normally this would be a little disappointing, since the role of a firstborn son was critical in carrying on the family name, but rather than preserving an earthly heritage, they were promised a spiritual one: this daughter would grow up to become the mother of the long-awaited Messiah! How many of these details are historically precise, we don’t know. As far as we can tell, Joachim and Anne lived in Jerusalem, and it was probably with them that the young Jesus stayed overnight when his parents accidentally left him behind after one of the great feasts of the year.
Sometimes Christians from other traditions accuse us of idolatry when we remember saints such as these, especially concerning the Virgin Mary, or in this case, her parents. But what must be remembered when we think about Mary and Joachim and Anne, is that all theological and devotional remembrances of them are reminders that Jesus is human. When we get too high-in-the-sky distant from Jesus, it is a powerful reminder to think about the fact that he had a mother, and grandparents, and that we know their names, and even some little tid-bits about their lives. Jesus was a real person in real history. And, as we are taught by Saint Paul, we are all part of Jesus’ own family.
Theology: God is our Father
The most important lesson that we learn about God from this welcome into God’s family is that God is our father. Many of our prayers, both in public liturgy and in private devotions, address God as father. Jesus himself taught us to do that when he gave us the Lord’s Prayer. Romans 8:15 tells us “you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” This is one of the most profound things about becoming a Christian: we are adopted by God into his family. Just think how much love must be behind such an act! Normally, parents don’t get to choose what children they get; we’re stuck with whoever we get, and sometimes that’s easy, and sometimes that’s hard. But in adoption, a prospective parent gets to preview that child – evaluate the merits and the flaws – and decide whether or not to go through with the adoption. God looked upon each of us, in all our glory and all our sin, and decided “mine.”
Specifically, we “have received the Spirit of adoption as sons.” We’re shown that it is in the sending of the Holy Spirit that adoption takes place. Normally, this event is expressed through Holy Baptism. By “water and the Spirit” we are united to Christ in both his death and his resurrection. This union with Christ makes us “one with him,” as many of our prayers say. As far as this image of family is concerned, this union with him makes Jesus our brother. Have you ever thought of that? His Father has become our father – that means Jesus is our brother!
But we must be clear, even though this heavenly adoption is a full and complete adoption into God’s family, and even though Jesus is now our brother, there is still a difference between Jesus and us. Jesus is the “only begotten son” of God, as John 3:16 describes. Jesus is the only Son of the Father naturally. He is, therefore, God. Our adoption makes his Father our father, but does not make us into gods ourselves. So we cannot drag Jesus down to our level entirely; he is still the oldest brother, the primary heir, the one who sits on the throne. He shares with us because he loves his adopted brothers and sisters, not because we have any rights to his glory and power.
Law: We are to be obedient like the Son
Now we turn to the law – what does being a part of God’s family put upon us in terms of requirements for how we live our lives? Our reading from Romans 8 begins with a very straight-forward answer: “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh.” Because we’ve received that adoption through the Spirit, we are in debt to God. That debt is one of obedience. Even a quick glance at the life of Jesus reveals that he lived a life of perfect attentive obedience to God the Father; our calling as adopted sons and daughters is the same. As Jesus himself said in today’s Gospel reading, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Our simply claiming adoption is not enough to be saved. We can’t just say we’re in the family, we have to be in the family.
Our debt of obedience to God goes even further. At the end of our passage from Romans, we are told “we [must] suffer with [Christ] in order that we may also be glorified with him.” This is an echo of Jesus’ own words that we must take up our own cross and follow him. Our reading from Jeremiah (23:16-17) also speaks into this reality, reminding us that it is the voice of a false prophet that says “It shall be well with you” and “No disaster shall come upon you.” Sorry, following Christ is a path of hardship and toil.
As tough as that can be for us to swallow, the alternative is far worse. As Romans 8:13 says, “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.” Obedience to God is tough, but disobedience and following the whims of this world will definitely destroy us. As today’s Collect prays, “O God, put away from us all hurtful things!”
Gospel: The Holy Spirit leads us into a glorious inheritance
Thankfully, there’s more to the story than that. First of all, Romans 8:15 tells us that we “did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” Slaves do not receive a reward for their work. Other religions, such as Islam, essentially preach the message that we are slaves of Allah, and that’s that; obey or perish. But the Christian gospel is that we are no longer slaves under the Law, but are now sons under grace! And as sons, as verse 17 continues, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ,” which means we have the exciting prospect of an inheritance at the end of this often-difficult life!
For many of Paul’s original readers, it was hard to see how this promised blessing of an inheritance for God’s family could apply to non-Jews. The Jews, after all, were the people of promise. Only the descendants of Abraham could be considered God’s family. So Paul added the point, when writing to the Galatians (3:7) that “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Your earthly family is no hindrance to God saving you. If you are a believer and follower of Christ, and baptized into his body, the Church, you are a child and heir of Abraham, and have an inheritance of eternal life with God to look forward to!
Similarly, Romans 8:14 says “all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” Notice: all who are led by the Spirit are God’s children. So when you hear those chilling words of Jesus “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,” and those impossible demands of the law, requiring us to be perfectly obedient to God, to suffer with Christ, and renounce all the things of this world in order to follow him, you must take refuge in the grace of God. He has laid this impossible burden upon you, precisely so you might learn that you cannot live up to his holiness, and teaching you to trust completely in his mercy, love, and grace. Yes we are called to good works, and woe to the one who neglects them! But those works do not save us; to be a child of God is to be “led by the Spirit of God.” God himself provides the strength and power to follow him. We cannot do it alone, we must lean on his help every step of the way.
Doxology: We celebrate in and with our whole family
Now, having examined the theology of God as our adoptive father, having been confronted with the law of obedience and suffering with Christ, and having heard the gospel of being led and empowered by the Holy Spirit, we turn to doxology: our fourth and final lesson about being in God’s family. “Doxology” means praise. All true teaching ought to lead to doxology – what we know about God and his creation and ourselves all together shape how we praise him return. In light of God’s act of adopting us into his family, our appropriate response is twofold: to praise him with his family members, and to praise him in his family members.
Praising God with his family members is exciting. We’ve got to remember that his family is made up of everyone who has ever believed and trusted in God, everyone who does now, and everyone who ever will. Our “church family” is visibly a small gathering in this room, but invisibly it is a crowd of uncountable billions of people, not to mention all the angels and archangels also gathered around God’s throne. That’s why in our tradition of worship we preserve ancient forms, dialogues, hymns, and statements. First, it reminds us that the Church is bigger than we can see, and second, it actually unites us across the ages by worshiping God with one voice.
And then there’s praising God in his family members. By this I mean that we praise God by honoring others who are in his family. When we honor people, we declare their worth. We identify who they are and proclaim the good work that God has done in their lives. And we do this both with our visible church family and our invisible church family. Visibly, we encourage and build one another up; we support each other through prayer and other means; we help one another to stay on the narrow path of Christ. Honoring our invisible church family is only a little different. Those who have gone before us no longer need our earthly assistance to continue in their lives of discipleship, but they can still be honored by being remembered and having their goodness proclaimed as examples and encouragements and testimonies to the power of God. The 11th chapter of Hebrews is a great example of this, listing hero after hero of the faith from the Old Testament, and testifying to their great faith in God. That is why we celebrate Saints’ days from time to time. In the lives of the Church’s “founding fathers,” so to speak, we find powerful testimonies and lessons. Saints Joachim and Anne are not people whose works we know much about, but we do know some of God’s works in them. They were in that special line of that carefully-preserved genealogy throughout the Bible from which the Son of God would emerge. The hymn that we sang earlier, about Saint Anne, illustrates this very poetically. Verses 2 and 3 form a three-part chiasm –a poetic structure that repeats itself in reverse. Verse 2 begins with identifying Jesus, “the Sun of justice, Christ, true light,” then describes his mother “Mary, grace’s dawning bright,” and then his grandmother, “Anna, reddening the sky.” Verse 3 then moves in reverse order: “Anna, fruitful root,” who bears Mary “the flowering rod,” who in turn “bore for us the Christ of God.”
Notice how Mary and Anne are honored in these verses: it’s all centered on Jesus. Jesus is the light of the world that has dawned, Jesus is the flower of Jesse that has bloomed. Anna and Mary were his earthly forebears according to the flesh, and so their glory and honor derives from Jesus accordingly. The same is true for all the Saints, and for you and me: everything good, everything noble, everything beautiful about us comes from God. God created us in his image, and God is forming us into the image of his Son. O, to grace, how great a debtor! May God continue to put away from us all hurtful things, and give us those things which are profitable for us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.