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.
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.
In movies and TV dramas, the reading of the will is always a moment of tension. What will I get? Will I be included or excluded? If you saw the recent movie Knives Out, the drama is centered on the inheritance (spoiler alert—people get murdered because of the inheritance). Of course, an inheritance can lead to blessing, if it’s shared. But the reading of the will does suggest a moment of transition. Whatever the outcome, one’s life will be different!
Here in Romans 8, Paul speaks in near-apocalyptic terms of the prospect of moving from the present age into the future age. While the current age involves suffering, the coming age will provide freedom from suffering—both for the children of God and for creation itself. That future hope, in Paul’s terms, involves glory. This is the inheritance promised to God’s children.
According to Paul, if we are in Christ, something he’s been developing throughout the letter to the Romans, then we are children of God. Here in the reading for the seventh Sunday after Pentecost, we continue our reading of Romans 8. Paul begins by contrasting the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit, which he had explored in the opening verses of the chapter. Paul is concerned that his readers embrace the way of the Spirit, rather than the flesh. If we live according to the Spirit, then we will experience life and not death. Here in our reading, Paul reaffirms the relationship of the Christian to the Spirit. If we are led by the Spirit, then we are children of God, literally sons of God (in verses 14-15, whereas Paul switches to the inclusive tekna in verses 16-17). It is a status that we share with Jesus the Son of God (Rom. 8:3). As such, we are no longer slaves to fear, for we are children of God by adoption.
That word adoption is key here. In the Roman world, adoption was a common method of passing on an inheritance. Julius Caesar adopted Octavian (Augustus) as his heir, and Octavian used that adoption as the foundation for his claim to leadership in Rome. The same was true of Tiberius, who was adopted by Augustus (and on it goes). And, one could be adopted out of slavery (remember Ben Hur?). The reader would have understood the importance of adoption. So, having been adopted into the family of God, we can call out “Abba! Father!” This we do through the witness of the Spirit of God.
Since we have been adopted by God as God’s children, that makes us heirs of God, together with Jesus, whom we confess to be the Son of God. Note that Paul reminds the reader that if we are joint-heirs with Jesus, we shall likely share in his suffering. In making this point, Paul reminds us that to be in Christ does not free us from suffering, for Jesus himself suffered. Karen Chakoian writes that suffering is not to be seen as divine punishment or a sign of divine absence (something to remember in this time of pandemic). Thus, “suffering in no way negates the glory, truth, and promise of the resurrection. Rather, suffering offers evidence that these Christians are in fact already united with Christ” [Feasting on the Word, p. 259]. With this in mind, they can affirm that the inheritance (glory/salvation) is greater than the suffering. So, while once we were enslaved, now we are children of God through adoption, and therefore, we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. Here is how Karl Barth describes this reality, in relationship to Abraham.
Like Abraham (iv.13), we are heirs of the promise, heirs of the world which God has blessed and made good, heirs of the eternal life and being and having and doing of God Himself, which, because of sin, had become invisible and indescribable, unreal and impossible. Living in the flesh, we await and hope for resurrection, we await our body with its new predicates. Of this hope our present life is the reflection, impress, and witness. Pledged to hope, our life finds there its goal. [Barth, Epistle to the Romans, p. 300].
Therefore, let us claim our inheritance, as heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Jesus, and live accordingly.
As heirs with Jesus, we know that living with and for him, may include suffering. But this suffering, Paul suggests does not compare with the future glory that awaits us as we inherit eternal life. But we are not alone in awaiting the fruit of our inheritance. According to Paul, creation itself awaits the opening and reading of the will (to use my opening analogy). Creation, Paul tells us, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (Rom. 8:19). Indeed, creation, which has been subjected to futility is groaning in anticipation of its liberation. In other words, even as we are redeemed, so will creation be redeemed. In this age of debate over climate change and its related environmental challenges, it is a good reminder that God is concerned not only about humans, but creation itself. This suggests a symbiotic relationship between us as children of God and the broader created order.
When we read Paul here, we need to use our imagination so we can envision the cosmic nature of God’s relationship with creation. Yes, God is concerned about us, and about the world we live in, but as our minds stretch to take in the larger universe, we need to consider how God might embrace the universe as a whole. I’m enough of a science fiction fan to consider the possibility that we’re not alone in the universe. So, how might the larger universe await the revealing of the children of God? In this regard, what is the expectation for the future? How might the hope of glory be revealed, which includes, according to Paul, the redemption of our bodies? It is in this spirit that we wait, patiently, for the reading of the will so we can claim our inheritance.
Picture Attribution: Fowler, John. Rising Star, Milky Way, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56313 [retrieved July 12, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Milky_Way_-_28_June_2014.jpg.