The following is about a recent visitor in church one Thursday afternoon, and what he taught me:
ON WINGS OF ASSURANCE
12Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation—but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it. 13For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, 14because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship [adoption]. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.
We had a visitor in church the Thursday before last. He came in, uninvited, unexpected, and frankly, unwanted. He got in while folks from Messiah Church were moving in some furniture from the annex across the street. And he stayed for about six hours, until I finally got him out of here. I first saw the intruder here in the sanctuary, walking across the ledge underneath the stained glass window portrait of Christ behind me. When I tried to approach him, he fled. For the rafters above.
Obviously, that was not a person, but a pigeon. So I opened the front doors to the building, facing onto 25th Street. I still faced the problem of getting him down from the rafters. But you know, these woven offering baskets make pretty good frisbees. And he didn’t like having them fly up at him. But instead of going toward the door, he went up to the balcony, to which the doors are locked. I wasn’t about to toss these baskets up there, or we’d never see them again.
As much as it hurts me to admit it, that little bird brain had outsmarted me. And the way he was strutting around on top of those pews, he seemed to know it and was rubbing it in. So I called Jim Poplett, our trustee, and at his suggestion I called Messiah Lutheran Church, our landlords. It would now be their problem. So I left the sanctuary, closed the front doors, and went up to my office for a few hours of work.
Later, on the way out that afternoon, I heard a racket in the library, that room with the green shag carpet. I looked in and saw that the pigeon was trying to get out through the windows there, which don’t open. It would have been much easier to catch him there, against that window, than it was in the sanctuary. I’ve caught and handled chickens before, plus maybe a sparrow or two. And I regularly handle fish, live or dead, and even clean them with no problem. Plus I collect my own bait by hand, like night crawlers after a rain, or crayfish from a creek. But…and here I make my confession….I hate pigeons. They give me the willies. Pigeons, up close and one on one, creep me out, even though I know, logically, that they’re simply part of God’s good Creation.
I think its because, growing up near or in inner city neighborhoods like this one, pigeons were my first encounter and experience as a little child with death and dying. If there are a lot of live pigeons around big inner city homes and buildings, then there are dead ones too. And they don’t have the common courtesy to dispose of themselves properly. That’s where my initial childhood fears around death and dying went: to pigeons.
So I closed all the doors to the sanctuary, opened the front doors again, and tried to shoo him out toward 25th Street. But his little bird brain said “Up is the way to safety,” and soon he was in the upstairs hallway trying to get out by the window on the south end, which doesn’t open either.
After a half hour of trying to get close enough to drive this panicky, fluttering pigeon into going back the way he’d come, but without getting close enough to actually succeed, I realized three things: 1) this ought to make a good sermon illustration some day; 2) that if I was scared and creeped out by proximity to this pigeon, that was ten times as true for this poor bird. I’m the big bad predator here, the lions, tigers and bears all rolled up into one, and all my efforts to help him are just scaring him all the more; 3) if I’d just gotten over my fear and loathing of pigeons and caught him when he was still fluttering against the library window, I could have been home already.
Fear. There at the end of upstairs hallway was a stand-off between two frightened characters, wasting precious time and energy to fear. The pigeon’s fear made sense to his little bird brain. My fear, by contrast, made no sense, not even to myself. I had invested that poor bird with all my fears about my own mortality, frailty and vulnerability. A lot of time and effort and frustration could have been saved by facing that fear and overcoming it as soon as I recognized it.
“Just think of it as a little chicken, grab it and release it outside the door!” I finally told myself.
Which goes to show that sometimes our fear of something does us more harm than the thing we fear. To paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, “Sometimes, the thing we must fear most is fear itself.”
“But God,” Paul tells us, “has not given us a spirit of slavery again to fear.” Notice two things: 1) Paul did not say that God did not give us the capacity to fear. He did, actually, as part of our survival tool kit. Thank God for fear: it keeps us from stepping into the path of an oncoming truck. Thank God that fear makes us reach out and grab a child before he or she runs into the path of an oncoming truck.
Paul says, “God did not give us a spirit of slavery again unto fear.” That’s the second thing I ask us to notice, that God does not want us to be slaves to fear. Again. There’s all the difference in the world between a momentary fear that saves us, and a persistent fear that enslaves us. God did not make us to be ruled and restricted by fear, such as the fear of death, frailty or vulnerability. But when Paul says, “God did not give us a spirit of slavery again to fear,” that word, “again,” implies that slavery to fear is where his audience used to be, what our fallen condition is outside the grace and the gifts of God, before Christ enters our lives.
Like Martin Grey, ten years after the end of the Second World War, when people were telling him, “Slow down, relax a little, marry, settle down and enjoy a family; you survived, now try living. You survived the Nazi occupation of Poland; the Warsaw Ghetto, and torture in a Gestapo dungeon; you escaped and survived the death camp of Treblinka; the Ghetto uprising, service with the partisans, and in the Red Army; you even escaped across the Iron Curtain and got asylum in America. So now, instead of just surviving, try living for just a change.”
But after six years of running from the Nazis, who had exterminated almost all of his Jewish family, Martin found it hard to stop running. It was as though, after having run out of a burning building, he was still running with his head down, miles and years after the fire had been put out. The fear that had alerted him to dangers and saved his life was now running him ragged when it was no longer needed. He blamed his hectic work life on fear: the fear that, should ever such evil arise again, he wouldn’t have the money nor the influence to protect himself a second time. There was another fear driving him: the fear that death would take away those he loves, just like it did in Nazi-occupied Poland. So he avoided love and commitments. He kept burying himself in his work and travels as an antique art collector and salesman, to the point of deep depression and total exhaustion. Only when he met Dinah did someone’s love overcome his fear to the point where he was ready to stop running himself ragged, settle down, marry her and raise a family. It was love that broke the chains of fear for him. Or, at least love which diminished fear’s power so that he could get on with living, not just surviving.
Which is like what Paul says: God has given us the “Spirit of adoption, by which we cry ‘Abba’ Father.” The love of God is our antidote to the slavery of fear. With that phrase, “Abba, Father,” we get a glimpse into the prayers and the worship of the first apostles and the early church. That’s what first generation First Century Christians of both Jewish and Gentile stripe were taught to call God: “Abba, Father.”
They got that directly from Jesus, who often addressed God with that term in his Aramaic, of endearment and affection from a son or daughter for her father, “Abba,” kind of like “Daddy” or “Papa” in our common usage today. One of the times we find Jesus calling his Father “Abba” is pictured in this sanctuary, in the Garden of Gethsemanae, when he was praying for release from the trial to come even while he prayed for strength to endure it. Today’s passage is one of several New Testament verses where it shows up again. The apostles passed on to their disciples the way of prayer that Jesus taught them.
But calling God “Abba, Father,” was not just a matter of tradition. Paul says here that if we have any sense, any feeling, any confidence that God is our loving Father, any hope and assurance, however weak, that God welcomes our prayers the way a good Father welcomes the time and attention of his son or daughter, that is not just wishful thinking; that’s not being prideful or pretentious; that’s God’s will for us. That confidence and assurance are gifts from the Holy Spirit and signs of His presence. Not as flashy or dramatic as what we celebrated on Pentecost Sunday last week, when the first apostles evangelized in languages they hadn’t learned. But unlike those momentary and unique gifts, the one we’re talking about today is every believer’s birthright in Christ. Indeed, the comfort, assurance and peace of the Holy Spirit, that we are God’s children in whom he is well pleased, becomes another name in this passage for the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of Adoption.
Or is it, “Sonship?” And here we hit a controversy that might be reflected in your various Bible translations. Some might say, “Spirit of adoption,” while others say, “Spirit of sonship.” While the language is masculine and patriarchal and reflects the laws of inheritance from fathers to sons, among free people, and Gentiles, Paul is talking as much to women as to men in the kingdom of God because, “in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile,” in Paul’s own words.
There’s not a controversy over the word in the Greek. Its a controversy over how to translate it. And here’s why: Let’s say a Roman man, the head of the household, recognizes that his son, at age 14 or so, is showing enough of the promise and potential to replace him one day as the head of the household, with all the rights, responsibilities, privileges and properties that come with this status, including Father’s name as one of his. So Dad would arrange a religious ceremony with oaths and a lot of feasting, with priests and witnesses, to say that from now on, this son was no longer just a protected but powerless child. He is now a legally responsible adult, and shall increasingly be treated that way, as the primary designated heir of the household. The Greek word used for that ceremony and that status is the very word that Paul uses to describe the work of the Spirit whom God has given us, sometimes translated as “sonship.”
But let’s say that Dad looks at his sons and says “No way! What an oafish lot! They’re hopeless.” Or let’s say that there are no sons to inherit Dad’s property, name and position. Then he might adopt someone from among his more distant relatives to be heir to his property, his status and his name. Or a young man he has come to know, trust and admire in the community. Or even, in a few eye-popping cases, a trusted slave. Then there would be the same ceremony of “sonship” for the adoptee. And the results, and the adoptee’s status would be the same as if he were born to the manor, with the same name and status. This adoption ceremony even went by the same title.
This adoption/sonship word would carry a lot of weight for Paul’s Roman audience. Because that’s precisely what many of the Roman emperors did. Julius Caesar adopted, or “son-shipped” his nephew Octavian, so that he inherited Caesar’s name and Caesar’s throne and became Caesar Augustus. When Paul wrote this letter, Nero was Caesar because he had been adopted, or “son-shipped,” by the previous emperor, Claudius Caesar.
So which one does Paul mean? Were we spiritually adopted, or did we come of age, spiritually speaking? Well, we can either wait to ask Paul in heaven, or, in a worse case scenario, someone could start a new church: The First Church of Adoptionism/Mennonite. Or of Sonship. As long as its Mennonite. Or we could try both conditions on for size and see if the results fit with the rest of the Bible.
Let’s say that by “sonship” Paul means that the Spirit of God has moved us from the state of a restricted and irresponsible childhood to something like the status of a responsible and privileged adulthood. That would fit with the fact that we all start out as children of God by the mere fact of our creation. The same is true of anyone we meet, whatever their race, their gender, their beliefs, their character or their conduct: they are children of God equally as much as ourselves, by virtue of being created by God, and because of how much God loves them.
But are we always children of God in the sense of our wills and our desires, our spirits, and our trust, especially toward God? Or in terms of the eternal inheritance we expect and embrace by faith? Not according to what Paul says in this passage. Again, he says that before Christ we were “slaves to fear.” Like me trying to talk a pigeon out of the hallway and down the stairs. Like Martin Grey letting his fear of death run him ragged long after the war was over.
His use of the word, “slavery,” makes me wonder if Paul is not also acknowledging that most of the Christians to whom he is writing are also slaves. Because most of them probably were slaves. In York, England there is a tombstone dating back to Roman times, on which we can read that a freedman (that’s a former slave), Cecilius Maximus purchased the tombstone for the widow of his deceased former master, Cecilus Rufus. The fact that they both have the same first name, Cecilius, means that the former slave had been adopted as the son of his former master. And that’s why it fell to him, as the adopted son, to buy the tombstone for the woman who had effectively become his mother. So even in pagan, class-obsessed Roman society, such fairy tale changes did happen. On vary rare occasions, at least.
And that’s why I favor the translations that call the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of Adoption.” Because God did for those Roman Christians what very, very few of their masters would ever do for them. And whatever our status, our story of redemption is still every bit as awesome and stupendous as was the adoption of a slave into the status of freedman and head of the household. Before this status was ours, we too were slaves, not sons and daughters, at least as far as our loves and our loyalties toward God were concerned. Slaves to fear. The story of Cecilius Maximus, in Roman England, is effectively our gospel story today. Even though, in our fallen human condition, we start out as slaves to fear, God offers us a new status through the gift of His Holy Spirit. One sign of that gift is the assurance that we have been adopted into God’s home and family as though we had been part of the family in every way since our births.
That means at least two things: 1) that nothing about our past can disqualify us from being part of God’s forever family today, and heir tomorrow of all that he has promised us in Christ. If Cecilius Rufus could adopt a slave, make him his son, his heir and give him his name, how much more can God do the same, and even more, with anyone, regardless of their status, their struggles, or their past? Secondly, life just has to be different, and better, when our assurance and confidence of God’s love and adoption begin to overcome our slavery to fear, and to replace that slavery with a new freedom. Not just when it comes to getting pigeons out of church buildings. But when it comes to facing all the curves that life throws us.
Because we’ll never be done dealing with fear. Frightening things come at us all the time, real, possible, or imagined. If our anxiety level is also a biological or psychological condition needing medical help, then we should avail ourselves of that, too. With each challenge comes an opportunity to exercise our faith, develop our trust, learn something new, and develop our spiritual fighting muscles. That’s called growing up in faith and character. Like sons and daughters, not slaves.
But with each challenge there also come lies, whispered by the father of all lies, telling us that every setback, every grief, every trial and temptation is simply proof that either God does not exist, or that God does not care for us, nor care about us. In such times, Abba Father looks and feels more like absent father.
That’s when we must cling to the Word and the witness of God’s Spirit, the Spirit of Adoption, who testifies to our spirits that we are God’s children. Its easy to feel the truth of that when things are going well. But when we cling to it by faith when our feelings of confidence vanish and our fears say otherwise, God is honored, we are strengthened, and the father of lies is defeated. Again.
That’s got to help in this life, as well as the next. And with more than intruding pigeons. By the way, if you’re wondering what happened to him, don’t worry, he’s not roosting in the rafters above you. Back to that window at the end of the hallway: as soon as I worked up the courage to get close and try to grab him, the pigeon took off over my head, shot for the staircase, went down and landed on the steps three feet away from the open door. And there he sat, to my surprise, just looking at freedom and safety, for the better part of 30 seconds. Again, I imagine that little bird brain thinking, “A big rectangle of light that looks open? Yeah, right. I’m not falling for that again, Mister!”
As I wondered, “What’s wrong with you that you won’t fly out to freedom, now that you’re looking at a wide open door?” it occurred to me that God must sometimes look at his human children and ask the same question. “With the resurrection of Jesus I’ve opened a door through the worst of your fears, I’ve given you wings of faith, hope and love with which to fly, and my Spirit for comfort and confidence during your journey. So why do you just sit there looking at your freedom from slavery to fear?”
I’m happy to say that, finally our feathered friend found the courage to try again, and strutted out through the front door as though he were saying, “Thank you; this is one of the nicer church buildings that I’ve visited; can’t say as much for your pastor, though.” Once outside, he spread his wings and flew off to the sound of my cheering and clapping.
You and I have been given wings too. The wings of trust, of faith, of the assurance of God’s love for us as his children, heirs to all that belongs to Jesus, especially his Spirit. We’ve all had frightening and frustrating times of beating our heads and our wings against closed doors and windows. I wish I could say that all fears and frustrations were over. But will we choose to remain slaves to fear, or will we keep rising to the light until we find the way through? When its hardest for us to trust, hardest for us to continue, we have an ally, the Spirit of God, who witnesses to our spirits that we are God’s children, and joint heirs with Christ. And we have each other, to remind us of that love, to remind us of our royal status, whenever we forget and fail to fly.