When in Romans: Children of God

First Baptist Richmond, July 23, 2023
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
Romans 8:12-25

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!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

            Next Sunday morning I’m teaching a combined adult Sunday school class called “What’s in a Name? A Look at our Baptist Identity,” partly because the recent brouhaha about Southern Baptists and female pastors left people wondering: are we that kind of Baptists, and if not, then what kind of Baptists are we? I’ve been pondering that question and some of my thoughts have focused on the word Baptist itself.  It’s a transliteration of the Greek verb baptizo, which means “I baptize,” and carries the idea of plunging a dirty dish rag under water to rinse it clean. But we don’t baptize dish rags; we baptize people.  And somehow that unusual practice has become the way we identify ourselves.

I was talking to a Lutheran pastor last week and said, “Your denominational identity comes from an actual person: Martin Luther, the great reformer.” And then I turned to an Episcopal priest and said, “And your identity comes from your church structure, where the head of the church is the bishop, or in Greek, the episcopos. But my denominational identity comes from the practice of plunging people under water, which must mean more to us than almost anything else that we do.”

            And it does.

            When I try to explain baptism to young people I begin by saying, “It’s like a bath, you know? When you come in from playing in the back yard on a rainy day and you’re covered in mud your mother might say, ‘You’re going straight to the bathtub!’ Well, that’s kind of what it’s like to be baptized. You get into the baptistery covered in sin. I dip you down under the water and (with the Lord’s help) you come up clean. But it’s not only like a bath,” I say. “It’s also like a death. Remember how Jesus died, and was buried, and then rose again on the third day? Well, when you are baptized you identify with Jesus so closely that it’s like dying with him, and being buried with him, and rising with him. I lower you into a watery ‘grave’ and then bring you up to a whole new life.” They usually wrinkle their noses at that one, but then I say, “And it’s also like a birth. When you were born you came into the world and took your first breath. When you are baptized there will be a moment (but only a moment) when you are under water and can’t breathe, but when you come up you will take your first breath of your new life in Christ. It’s like being born again.”

            Bath. Death. Birth. That’s how I try to infuse this unusual practice with meaning, so that when that young person is standing waist-deep in the water she will be thinking about all those things. But for the Apostle Paul, baptism may have meant even more. In Romans 6 he talks about it as a kind of death and resurrection, but in today’s reading from Romans 8 he makes a reference to baptism that you might not even catch if you weren’t paying attention, or if you didn’t know how people baptized in Paul’s day. I had to look it up in one of my old seminary textbooks, The First Urban Christians, by Wayne Meeks.[i]

When Meeks describes first-century baptism he talks about it as an initiation ritual and includes a drawing that looks like stair steps going down and then coming up again. He writes about those converts to Christianity stepping down into the waters of baptism by giving up their old way of life, swearing off their old vices, giving up their old loyalties, leaving their old, dirty clothes on the riverbank, and entering the waters of baptism naked as the day they were born (this may be a good time to remind you that men and women were baptized separately, and that women were baptized by female deacons as a practical necessity). At any rate, it was then, when they were standing waist-deep in the waters of baptism, that they were asked to confess their faith, and when they did they said, “Jesus is Lord!” which was not only a way of swearing allegiance to their new master but giving up any allegiance to the old one. Saying “Jesus is Lord” was another way of saying “Caesar is not”; it was a radical, counter-cultural confession, and the complete opposite of the love affair some Christians seem to have with Caesar these days.

And then they would be dipped down under the water, washed, perhaps even “buried” before coming up to a whole new life. They would rise from the river like Jesus coming up out of the grave, and put on a new white robe as a symbol of their new life in Christ. And then (Meeks wasn’t sure about this) the congregation may have begun to sing and celebrate, and the newly baptized Christians may have been lifted up like the bride and groom at a Jewish wedding, which would have been the perfect opportunity for them to shout out the word Abba! meaning “Father!” as a sign of their adoption into the family of God.

            If you can picture that scene in your mind you can see what a meaningful ritual it might have been, and how Baptists might have been inspired to name themselves after it. When I was talking to that Episcopal priest last week I said, “For you it might be communion, the Holy Eucharist, and if you had to come up with a new name for yourselves it might be Eucharisteans.” But for Paul it might have been baptism. It was the initiation ritual of the early church. It was how those pagans to whom he was preaching, and those Gentiles he used to refer to as “dogs,” became his brothers and sisters in Christ. And that’s what you may have missed in today’s Epistle reading.

Paul doesn’t say he’s talking about baptism, but if you were familiar with that ritual and the way it was practiced in the first century you might know exactly what he meant when he wrote: “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear.” He meant, “When you were baptized you did not receive a spirit of slavery.” No, he might have said, “When you were baptized you received the Holy Spirit, and when we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”

            And that opens up a whole new topic.

            If you’ve been following this series you know that Paul spends the better part of seven chapters in Romans talking about sin, and how it separates us from God, and how we need to be justified by the grace of God, through our faith in Christ Jesus, in order to have peace with God. But once that happens there is “no longer any condemnation” for those of us who are in Christ Jesus. We don’t have to worry about that anymore. We can turn our attention to other, better, things. And what Paul turns his attention to is the fact that when we are baptized—whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female—we are baptized into the family of God, and when we cry out, “Abba! Father!” it is the Holy Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are God’s children. Which is an incredible thing for Paul to say!

He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin. He was circumcised on the eighth day as a sign that he was one of God’s chosen people. For Paul to say that anyone could now be a member of God’s family simply by trusting Jesus was incredible, but for him the Holy Spirit was proof.

You may remember that story from Acts, chapter 10, where Peter is preaching to Cornelius and his family when the Holy Spirit falls on them and they begin to praise God. Peter, who had just reminded Cornelius that Jews and Gentiles have nothing to do with each other, now turns to his colleagues and says, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Paul seems to believe that these two things go together: baptism and the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12 he writes, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ without the help of the Holy Spirit.” And in Romans 8 he writes, “When we say ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.”

The Spirit knows; the Spirit has arranged our adoption; the Spirit has brought us into the family.  And that’s why, as Paul says at the beginning of today’s passage, we are indebted to the Spirit. But then he says something even more incredible: he says that if we are God’s children then we are also heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ. Which means that along with Jesus, his beloved Son, we Christians stand to inherit every good thing God has to give.

In this series I’ve been saying that peace with God may have been what Paul was looking for his entire life. In many ways it is the good news of his gospel. But this is pretty good news too, isn’t it? It’s like Paul is holding up a picture of the universe and saying to the church, “Someday all this will be yours.”

Last Tuesday afternoon I bumped into Donna Earley in the hallway. Donna is our Director of Stewardship and Development. She showed me a check she had just received for $126,000. It was because one of our members had decided to write the church into her will years ago, and when she died there was more money there than she had probably ever imagined. The ten percent that she had promised to First Baptist Church turned out to be $126,000 and Donna was very grateful. That check was good news indeed!

Can you imagine Paul saying to you, “Oh, by the way…in addition to having your sins forgiven, and in addition to having peace with God, and in addition to having the prospect of eternal life, you also stand to inherit every good thing God has to give? That’s good news! But it reminds me of that thing people sometimes say: “If you’re so smart, then why aren’t you rich?” I can imagine someone looking at Paul when he was locked up in the Philippian jail, beaten and bloody, and wondering, “If you’re a child of God, why should you have to suffer?” But Paul knows: the beloved Son of God had to suffer! That’s just how it is now. The whole creation is groaning now. But one of these days all that will be behind us, and just as the broken body of Christ was raised on Easter Sunday, so, too, will all creation be redeemed.

I think of this as the mission of God—the missio Dei. In fact I often say it this way, that “the mission of God is the redemption of all creation.” And if that’s true, then it is very good news indeed. Because we live in a broken world, don’t we? As I speak wildfires are raging in Canada. Plastic debris is swirling in the North Pacific Ocean. The Colorado River is drying up. New England has been swamped by floods. And that’s not to mention the famines and earthquakes in other parts of the world, the conflicts and wars. It’s not to mention the trauma experienced by plants and animals, fish and fowl, around the globe. The whole of creation is groaning, Paul writes. Suffering. And if we are sensitive to that suffering at all we feel it. We feel it for the world. We feel it for ourselves. What we want—what the world wants—is redemption. We want God to put us back together again, to help us, to heal us, to make us whole.

Well, it’s coming, Paul says, but it’s not here yet. We have to hope for it, we have to pray for it, we have to work for it. And maybe that’s why I’ve been thinking about the old, medieval cathedrals. It started last Saturday when I was having breakfast with Daniel Hocutt, our Deacon Chair, but I’ve talked to a number of other people since. I’ve been thinking about how the citizens of a French village might have gotten together during the Middle Ages and decided to build a cathedral, but how they must have known that such things take time. It could take a hundred years to build a cathedral. The people who drew up the plans and laid the foundations would die before they ever saw it finished. Another generation would come along to put up the buttresses and walls. Another generation would come along to put up the rafters and the roof. And maybe another generation would come along to install the stained glass windows. Meaning that most of the people who worked on that cathedral would never see the finished product, but I’m guessing that all the people who worked on it saw that vision in their heads.

The vision of the completed cathedral was what kept them working in the same way the vision of a redeemed creation is what will keep us hoping. We have to hold it right here in our heads—that image of clean oceans and lush prairies, and happy well-fed people living at peace in every part of the world. It’s one of the reasons I love the song, “America the Beautiful.” It’s aspirational. It doesn’t so much describe the reality that exists as the one we hope for:

O, beautiful,

For spacious skies

For amber waves of grain

For purple mountain majesties

Above the fruited plain.

America, America,

God shed his grace on thee

And crown thy good with brotherhood

From sea to shining sea.

And what about the verse that says:

O, beautiful for patriot dream

That sees beyond the years

Thine alabaster cities gleam

Undimmed by human tears

America, America

God mend thine every flaw

Confirm thy soul in self control

Thy liberty in law.

Maybe it’s that sort of vision that will keep us working to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. We know it’s not here yet. We can see that God’s kingdom hasn’t come. But here in our heads we can see what our city would look like if God’s will were done on earth, as it is in heaven, and so we keep on working toward that, hoping for that, believing that someday all this will be ours and wanting it to be, O, beautiful!

—Jim Somerville © 2023

[i] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: the Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale, 1983), pp. 150-157.