Thomas J Parlette
“Life in God’s Family”
Romans 8: 14-17
In his book God, Help Us!, R.J. Chandler tells a wonderful story of a church that was celebrating Pentecost Sunday. They had the young children process down the aisle while carrying large cardboard flames to symbolize the Holy Spirit.
However, as in most children’s programs, not everything went smoothly. One little boy became upset when he realized he had forgotten his flame. Not having a flame to carry, he ran up and down the aisle, frantically waving his arms, then stopped and announced to everyone, “I’ve lost my flame!”
But then a little girl ran up to him, tore off a piece of her flame and handed it to him. “No you haven’t”, she said. “Take this.”
When she saw the boy’s face light up with happiness, the little girl decided to share her flame with everybody. So she walked down the aisle handing out pieces of cardboard flame to everyone she could reach.(1)
That little girl understood the meaning of Pentecost. She wasn’t going to keep the Holy Spirit to herself. She was going to share her flame with everybody.
Today we celebrate Pentecost, the day the church was born. Last week, Jesus offered a final prayer before his journey to the cross. And today that prayer is answered. Jesus prayed that God would make his followers one with him and give them a share of the Holy Spirit, as he had a share of the Holy Spirit. In these events of Pentecost, God sends the Holy Spirit on the gathered believers, and the church is born – empowered to speak of God’s Kingdom.
On the heels of that story of wind and flame, we turn to Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, in which he speaks to us about what it means for us to receive this Spirit.
Paul is well known for his theological arguments, and his letter to the Romans is hardly considered light, bedtime reading. It is a dense and heavy theological opus. Yet, here, Paul speaks clearly about life in God’s family, something that we all wish for. “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God,” writes Paul, meaning that we are children of God when we allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit of God. The Spirit leads us away from self-centered living and toward God-centered living. We want God to shape our actions, attitudes and values.
So what does that mean – to live in God’s family. Paul says in Romans 12 that we should “let love be genuine; hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.”
That’s life in God’s family. Love, mutual affection, honor, zeal, hope, perseverance and hospitality. God is like a father or mother who has adopted us – chosen us – to be their child. This means at least three key things:
We are chosen.
We can talk to God.
We are heirs.
Let’s look at each of those quickly. When we live in God’s family, we are chosen. According to the Roman legal concept of adoption, an adopted child has a whole new identity, status and set of relationships. Such a child is chosen to become part of a new family. “Because the Spirit makes us God’s adopted children,” writes professor of biblical studies Richard Carlson, “we are empowered to address God in intimate and direct parental terms – Abba – Father.(2)
To live in God’s family means we can talk to God. And it is because of this close kinship that we can approach God with any concern, and do so at any time- just as a child can do with a loving parent. When we come to God in this manner, “it is the very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” as Paul says. The Spirit of God makes it possible for us to experience a new identity, a new status and a new set of relationships as members of God’s family.
In this family, God shows us unconditional love and unlimited grace. Our value comes from who we are, not from what we do. There is truly nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us any less. In this family, the Spirit bears witness “with our spirit that we are children of God.”
In addition, life in the family of God means that we become heirs – “heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ.” When people speak of adoption today, attention is generally focused on the desire of would-be parents to create a family unit, or the need for children to grow up in a stable and loving home.
In ancient Rome, however, and particularly among higher-class families, adoption was a way for a family with no surviving sons to choose and designate an heir, a person who would become the head of the household, after the death of the current head. Frequently such a person would not be an infant, but possibly a grown man at the time of his adoption. Adoption was not a secret, confidential matter, there was no shame or pity attached, and the adopted person might retain a connection to his birth family. The Emperor Augustus, a figure of very recent history to Paul’s readers, was a famous adoptee, born and raised outside Rome and then adopted by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar.
The legal process of adoption then, was less about establishing a family than it was about establishing an heir. Being adopted meant you had something to gain. People of humble circumstances would not have practiced adoption in this legal sense, even if they took the children of others into their homes and raised them as their own. They might, however, spin fantasies about someday being adopted by a family of means- sort of like how we might dream about winning the lottery. Being adopted by God meant being a member of the most important family of all.(3)
Now that we have received the Holy Spirit, we are part of God’s family, and life in God’s family means we are chosen, we can talk to God and we are heirs.
In her poem “Statement of Faith”, Ann Weems reminds us of the many ways in which the Holy Spirit works.
“We believe in God, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, and in you and in me.
We believe the Holy Spirit has freed us to worship as a community.
We believe the Holy Spirit works through
Balloons and ministers
Daisies and wiggly children
Clanging cymbals and silence
Drama and the unexpected
Choirs and banners
Touching and praying
Spontaneity and planning
Faith and doubt
Tears and laughter
Leading and supporting
Hugging and kneeling
Dancing and stillness
Applauding and giving
Creativity and plodding
Words and listening
Holding and letting go
Thank you and help me
Scripture and alleluias
Agonizing and celebrating
Accepting and caring
Through you and through me
We believe God’s Holy Spirit lives in this community of dancing, hand-holding people where lines of age and politics and lifestyles are crossed.
We believe in praising God for life.
We believe in responding to God’s grace and love and justice for all people.
We believe in the poetry within each of us.
We believe in dreams and visions.
We believe in old people running and children leading.
We believe in the Kingdom of God within us.
We believe in Love.(4)
Henri Nouwen reminds us that we must not only cease to listen to what the world says about us, but to listen more intently to what God says about us. “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.
When we listen to the Holy Spirit, we are assured of our identity as God’s child and as a joint heir with Jesus Christ that everything Jesus has in heaven today will be ours as well.
Such is life in God’s family.
May God be praised. Amen.
1. Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXV, No. 2, pg61.
2. Homileticsonline, retrieved 5/22/19.
3. Sandra Hack Polaski, Connections, Westminster John Knox Press, 2018, pg336.
4. Ann Weems, Reaching for Rainbows, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, pg17.