Tag: Adoption

Chosen for Blessings – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 7B (Ephesians 1)

 

Waiting for the Blessing —  Pymonenko, Mykola

 

Ephesians 1:3-14 – New Revised Standard Edition

 

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

 

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                Every professional team sport has a draft in which teams chose athletes to stock the team. If the team has the first pick in the draft, the choices are limited only by the number of athletes available. It’s a coveted position to be in, though the pick comes with a caveat. The team with the first pick normally is the one with the worst record in the league. That is, they are a bad team. The hope is that by giving the worst team in the league the first pick, they can begin improving themselves (as long as they choose wisely).

                The opening chapter of the Ephesian letter takes up the question of being chosen by God to be part of God’s team. In a sense, everyone is a first-round pick. At least that’s one way of reading the passage before us. Just a note, the passage is also featured in the lectionary for the Second Sunday after Christmas. Liturgically, the context is somewhat different. Instead of a Christmas message, we find ourselves situated on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Year B). The reading is the first of several that will take us through the letter until we reach chapter six.

                When it comes to conversations about the Ephesian letter, the identity of the author always comes up. There is no consensus, with some scholars accepting the traditional view that Paul is the author. After all, the letter opens by identifying the author as the Apostle Paul (Eph. 1:1). Others argue that based on the theology, the style of writing, and other markers, it must be the product of a later author. I address some of this in my Participatory Study Guide on Ephesians, though I don’t take a position on the question of identity. For our purposes, I’m not sure it matters whether it is Paul or someone writing in Paul’s name (according to ancient practice this doesn’t make it a fake letter if Paul didn’t write it). What seems clear is that the author is a Jewish Christian/Christian Jew, and the audience is predominantly Gentile. Note that Paul uses the word “we” in verse 12 and “you” in verse 13. The we who were the first to set their hope in Christ would have been Jewish believers in Jesus. Nevertheless, as verse 13 spells out, “you” (Gentiles) are also included in this act of adoption since they had heard the word of truth and believed in Christ and had received the seal of their salvation, the Holy Spirit. If we keep all of this in mind, then we can for the sake of simplicity call the author Paul.

                “Paul” begins by affirming the many spiritual blessings God has poured out upon God’s people, doing this in Christ.  Having declared that God is the giver of spiritual blessings in and through Christ, Paul speaks of God choosing “us” before creation to be holy and blameless, predestining us according to God’s plan. If we understand the author to be of Jewish descent and most of the audience is Gentile Christians, then the “us” includes both Jewish and Gentile Christians, creating the bridge that the author wishes to build between the two communities.

                Now, words like choose and predestine found here tend to be problematic for some audiences. Indeed, it is a problem for me. So, what does it mean for God to have chosen “us” from before God began to create? How does that affect our own ability to choose? For those of us who embrace an “open and relational” view of God, which assumes that the future is open how might God predestine us for adoption as God’s child? Don’t we have a choice in the matter? As we ponder these questions, we can return to the opening line of the passage, which calls on us to offer blessings to God who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing.

                It is, in my opinion, best if we do not read these words about predestination in an individualistic manner. It’s not that God has predestined each of us individually for salvation (or damnation for that matter), rather God has chosen Jesus to be the agent of reconciliation. Thus, Jesus provides the means by which we are adopted as children of God. According to our reading, this involves the blood of Christ. Paul doesn’t go into graphic detail here. He doesn’t refer to the cross, only that in some way the blood of Jesus is the means by which we receive forgiveness of sins and receive God’s grace. Whatever the means, this act of grace is costly and should not be taken for granted.

                As the passage continues, Paul takes up the matter of our inheritance as one’s adopted as children of God. When it comes to adoption, the New International Version uses the word “sonship,” which is rather gender-specific but would reflect the way inheritances were understood in the ancient world, as an inheritance generally went to a son and not to a daughter. Thus, the choice made by the NRSV translators is likely a better one for a modern Christian audience. Now, when it comes to the heirs of God in Christ, note that the author speaks of all things being gathered up, both in heaven and on earth. Thus, in Christ we receive an inheritance. This reference to all things being gathered up is intriguing because it is suggestive while not being definitive that God has an eye toward universal reconciliation/redemption (vs. 10). While this word includes heaven, it also speaks of God’s care for the creation.

                This is a passage rich in meaning. It raises difficult questions that might not be resolvable in a sermon, but what it does say is that God is concerned about the creation, so much so that God has chosen a way of redeeming that which is broken. This comes as an act of grace in Christ and through the Holy Spirit (there is a Trinitarian feel in this passage). What it does, however, is invite gratitude to God on our part for the decision to choose us in Christ to be the recipient of God’s blessings. This need not require of us a belief that God determines all things. It does suggest that God has chosen to act on our behalf to bless us in Christ. In that way God is sovereign—not as a tyrant or despot but as one who acts graciously on our behalf, inviting us to become part of the family of God. That is not something we earn but which we receive as a divine gift in Christ our savior.   

For more on this passage see my book on Ephesians in Energion Publication’s Participatory Study Guide series.      

Image attribution: Pymonenko, Mykola. Waiting for the Blessing, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55788 [retrieved July 4, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PimonenkoNK_PashalZautrRYB.jpg.

Joint Heirs with Jesus – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday, Year B (Romans 8)

Romans 8:12-17 New Revised Standard Version

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.

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                We are children of God if we are led by the Spirit of God. Of course, our status as children of God is due to natural descent. We are not by nature divine. However, according to Paul, we are children of God by adoption. This adoption by God involves the indwelling of the Spirit. If we are adopted by God through the indwelling of the Spirit, that makes us Jesus’ siblings. And, apparently, this makes us joint-heirs with Jesus. It’s good to remember that in the ancient world the inheritance went to the first-born son. Everyone else was on their own unless the first-born decided to share. In this case, Jesus appears to have made that choice. We get to share in his largesse, which is an act of grace. That is Paul’s message to the Roman church.

                The reading designated for Trinity Sunday takes us back to Romans 8, which provided the Second Reading for Pentecost Sunday. In the reading for the previous week (Romans 8:22-27), Paul writes that the Spirit of God intercedes on our behalf when we don’t have the words to offer in prayer. When we lack the words to speak to God, the Spirit can interpret our groans and our sighs, making known our concerns and requests. That ministry of the Spirit occurs because the Spirit of God indwells us. Not only does the Spirit interpret our sighs and groans, but the Spirit also, as we learn in today’s reading, enables us to call out “Abba, Father.”  In this, we share a position in the family of God with our elder brother, Jesus the Christ.

                We hear this word about our status as children of God on Trinity Sunday. At first glance, this is not a distinctively trinitarian passage. Yes, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are present, but the formula is a bit ad hoc. The nature of the relationship between the three persons is not explicitly stated. To get there we have to read the passage through a trinitarian lens. Being that I am by theological orientation trinitarian, I can do this, but it might not be obvious to everyone. If we can imagine the text through this lens, then what we see here is a word about relationships first within the nature of God and then between God and God’s people. As Clayton Schmidt writes, “the main thrust of this text is not so much to explicate Trinitarian theology as to draw Paul’s readers into the family of God.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 41]. So, if we read this through a trinitarian lens then the message here is that through adoption we are drawn into union with God, who is our parent by adoption through the Spirit, which makes us siblings of Jesus.

                Perhaps the message here is really about belonging. We all want to belong to some form of family or community. Paul understands this, perhaps more intimately than we truly know, and so he speaks of a new kind of family, one that is thicker than blood. It is by adoption that we are drawn into this new family, but as God’s adopted children we can call out to God, just as Jesus did, speaking to God as “Abba! Father!”  Ultimately, we can do this through the Spirit who calls out to God on our behalf (Rom. 8:22-27).

                So, what does it mean to be adopted and therefore a joint heir with Jesus? As Kelley Nikondeha, who is herself and an adoptee with an adopted child, points out, how the ancient Greco-Roman world understood adoption differs markedly from how we understand it.

Our contemporary concept of adopting an infant, with the connotations of nurture, care, and compassion, is, in fact, anachronistic. The common understanding of adoption in the Greco-Roman world would have been functional: it was a tool of the elite (especially the emperors) to secure succession, legacy, and inheritance. Adopted sons were pulled into a bigger story and expected to fulfill an imperial purpose. In those times, adoption was about the coalescing and movement of power, not the rescue of orphans. [Adopted, p. 23].

This understanding of adoption is important in that it reminds us that Paul always has in mind the message is the son of God, not Caesar. While Caesar shores up power through adoption, God need not do this. However, Paul understands that by using this terminology he is reinforcing what it means to belong to God’s family. We get to share in that power given to Jesus, not by natural descent but through the choice made by the heir who draws us into the family through the Spirit.

                As Nikondeha points out, in Paul’s understanding of adoption, we’re not merely “imperial functionaries; we are also family members. As family, we recognize one another as siblings and are invited into filial solidarity as adopted ones.” [Adopted,p. 24]. That suggests that Paul is interested not only in our relationship with God but our relationships with each other. We are family. Therefore, we should be in solidarity with one another in a way that transcends DNA. In fact, this relationship that exists through the Spirit’s indwelling stands before the relationship defined by blood/DNA. For those who do not belong to a physical family, for whatever reason, they do belong to the family of God, with Jesus as the older brother who welcomes us all into the circle. So, again, drawing on Nikondeha’s writings on adoption: “As heirs, we participate in extending God’s kingdom of peace. As a family, we recognize others as siblings who ought to be treated as such. As adopted ones, we extend that magnanimous belonging to others” [Adopted, p. 27].  One more word from Nikondeha on adoption: She writes that “adoption imbues belonging with elasticity—we know there is always room for more at the table and more in the family. As we shape our own communities of belonging, we have to run to keep up with the divine largess, since God keeps growing his family with great creativity and an ever-greater reach” [Adoption, p. 28]. Is not that Paul’s message? One’s place in the family doesn’t depend on blood but grace.

                If we are siblings of Jesus, and therefore, heirs of the promises of God, which includes our redemption, then does this not ultimately lead to union with God? In a trinitarian reading of this passage, we can join with Eastern Christians in imagining how the Son became incarnate, bringing together humanity and divinity. To be in Christ, allows us to share in that reality, what Eastern Christians call theosis or deification. As Gregory Palamas shared in a sermon “Heaven is open to them to receive them in due course if, increasing in faith in God and righteousness according to faith, they receive power to become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ, sharing in His incorruptible life and immortality, inseparably united with Him and enjoying His glory (Rom. 8:17–18).