It was one of the hardest transitions this family had ever known. In fact, it was so hard at one point that they wondered if they should have done it at all. They were friends of ours who lived in the wine district of the Western Cape in South Africa in the beautiful town of Wellington. What made this family so special is that most of them worked in a winery. One day they heard that a man who worked at the winery for a long time had died from an overdose of alcohol and narcotics, but really he died of a broken heart. It was years before that his wife passed away and left him as the sole provider for their young boy. He was so overwhelmed by the demands of it, so full of despair at the loss of her, so incapable of coping with life challenges that eventually he wore himself out and he died, leaving his young son with no one to look after him.
Young Nico was an orphan, but the family that I knew decided that even though they had four children of their own, they would adopt Nico. It was one of the hardest transitions imaginable. You see, the problem was that Nico was a nice lad, but for years he had been neglected. His father had been working or drunk, and never spent any time with him. He had to fend for himself, cook for himself, and take care of himself. He spent most of his time alone on the farm. He had no etiquette, no grace and did not know how to relate to siblings. He didn’t understand parental authority. He was like a wild child, as his adopted mother called him. To try to integrate young Nico into the family with the four other children who had experienced incredible love, and support, who had been part of a system of care and management that had made them into delightful children, with his aggressiveness, his lack of etiquette, and inappropriate behavior was horrendously difficult. But our friends tried everything!
They tried so hard, but it clearly wasn’t working. One day they took him out on their own for the day. They sat him down and said, “Look Nico, you have to understand now you are with a new family, you are with a new community. What we do, we would like you to do. How we behave, we would like you to behave. We want you to be part of the family, and to enjoy the relationship of the family. We know you might not have had this before, but now you belong in this family, and this is how you should live. It was a wake-up call for Nico. The story of Nico’s life is one that hardly anyone could imagine, because it went from strength to strength to strength. He was appointed as a new member of faculty in one of the universities in South Africa just recently. The story of Nico touches the heart because of the way that he was adopted into his new family.
The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Romans, was writing about something very similar. He was saying, “You are now adopted into a new family.” You have been encountered by the grace of Jesus Christ. You have been touched by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not that you have done anything to earn it; rather you have become someone because of it. In other words, it is God who has called them. That is the essence of Paul’s theology in the Book of Romans. It is God’s divine call, God’s initiation, God drawing the Gentile world into God’s covenant with the people of Israel, God bringing Israel into the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah. For Paul, it was bringing the Jew and the Gentile together, the non-believer and the believer coming together through the grace of his son, Jesus Christ.
Paul saw these Gentiles as being similar to young Nico. They came full of their sinfulness, avarice and greed. They came with their own self-assuredness, their idols and their blindness to the law. Because they had none of these things, Paul says that the Spirit in a sense deals with these things for you. The Spirit gets rid of the things of the flesh, gets rid of the things that you formerly held on to as you enter into this new being, this new covenant. You have to be transformed by the power of the Spirit from following what Paul calls in Greek sarx, which means “flesh” living in a raw, sinful state to come into and to join the people of the law and of the Covenant of Jesus Christ. All of this involves the power of the Holy Spirit; all of this is a fulfillment of Pentecost. It is God drawing people into his presence by the power of his grace.
There are within this passage two very powerful motifs. The first is the image of family. Paul says that our spirit bears witness with God’s Spirit, and that we are the children of God. Through the Spirit we become sons of God, and all of this is through our adoption. In other words, God enables us to join in his family. You can’t really understand the power of this in the Book of Romans unless you understand Roman law at the time it was written. The language is steeped in Roman tradition. The Roman tradition was known as patria potestas: the father’s ownership or rule over a child. It was very much a patrilineal society based on fathers owning children. Oftentimes, the fathers would have the power even of life and death over their children, so great was patria potestas. In other words, if a child was adopted by a new family, then there were a whole set of procedures clearly delineating how you move from one family into another.
There were many reasons why people would be adopted into a new family. For example, a young person who had been born in the family of a slave could in fact join the family of a free person, of a Roman citizen. If a child’s father was killed in battle with the legion, then they would be adopted by another family, or it might simply be that one family could not care for a child anymore and another family would adopt that child. Regardless of the reasons for adoption, there were two steps to follow. The first was known as emancipatio, emancipation as we know it. Emancipatio is where one family, one father would purchase the right to the child from another. It all sounds very crude and materialistic, but it was really symbolic. It was like the weighing of copper scales. It was really nothing important in terms of the physical exchange of money, but it implied that the family receiving the child was willing to pay the cost of adopting that child, and so through a series of transactions and ceremonies a person, a boy or a girl, could be moved from one family into another. It was very simple, very straightforward, and emancipatio was that process of the exchange. There was also vindicatio, and this was the vindication or the corroboration of what went on, involving the magistrate. The magistrate would ensure that the proper procedures of moving a child from one family into the other had taken place.
All of this is absolutely essential for understanding what Paul is talking about in terms of the Holy Spirit and about the adoption of Gentiles into the Covenant of Israel through Jesus Christ. Why? Because a newly adopted child would no longer receive the inheritance of their old family; they would only receive the inheritance of their new family. Any debts that they had from their old family would be wiped out by the new family. For the Apostle Paul, this is exactly what happens to the Christians, to believers. Our emancipatio is based on the grace of Jesus Christ and his Cross and Resurrection. We are adopted into his covenant through his sacrifice. He has paid the debt for us to be a child of God. He wiped the slate clean; debts are forgiven. We say that, or certainly the Presbyterians do, in the Lord’s Prayer “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” A cleaning of the slate when we become a child of God. But the vindicatio, the witness to all of this, is the power of the Holy Spirit. It is as if the power of the Holy Spirit is the magistrate, the one who has witnessed that we have become the children of God. Listen to the language of Paul again, “Our spirit bears witness with God’s Spirit that we are the children of God.” It is spiritual. We become new people, belonging to a new covenant, because of the grace of Jesus and the power of the Holy Spirit.
This applies not only to the Romans in the first century, it applies to every believer. We are believers by virtue of the power of the Holy Spirit confirming what Jesus Christ has done for us. That is what I tell a lot of people. I say to them, “You know, already by God’s grace you have been saved; already by God’s grace you have been accepted into the household of God. Already that has happened.”
They say, “Yes, but how do I know that? How do I experience that?”
That is when I say, “Open yourself to the power of the Spirit, who witnesses with your Spirit that you are a child of God.”
When that happens, people are overwhelmed by the sense of acceptance of God.
We are looking at this as a two thousand year old tradition, and thinking: “How utterly barbaric this is! The exchange of ownership of a person from one family to another. What about our rights? What about freedom of the individual? How archaic! How outdated such a concept is!” But that is only looking at one side of what Paul was saying. He made it abundantly clear that we have not received a spirit of slavery, but a spirit of freedom. We are, in fact, free when we become children of God. We do not become inhibited, we become free. Look at the time when Paul was writing. Nobody was really free. Slaves were owned, members of the legion had to pay homage to the Empire, and members of the Senate had to pay homage to the Emperor. No one was free. Everybody, even those who were called the free people still had obligations. There is no such thing as perfect, pure, absolute freedom anyway. It doesn’t exist. There are always obligations and constraints.
Even in our world, where we talk about ourselves as a free society, and we look down our noses at ancient feudal systems, we are not as free as we tend to tell ourselves that we are. We are still constrained by our own mortality, by the law, by social convention. We are not free from the tyranny of modern communication and the demands it places on our lives. We are not free from our obligations to our parents, our children, our workplaces. It is a myth, an absolute myth, to say that we live in a complete libertine freedom. We don’t! Paul looks at freedom in a much more holistic way. It is our freedom of knowing that no matter what it is in life that you are dealing with, you know in your heart, you know in your spirit that you are a child of God, that someone has adopted you, and given you the power of the Holy Spirit to live in that freedom. Just like the people of Israel when they left Egypt and the tyranny of the Pharaoh and went to the Promised Land. They were given law, and had to live under its constraints. Nevertheless, under that law they were free from the tyranny they’d lived under.
The language Paul uses to describe what we are free from is fascinating. He said that we are free from fear and despair. Fear was very much a driving force in first century life. But fear is an integral part of the whole of our human existence. The great philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard suggests that there are two things that tend to cause us to have fear and despair: One of them is when we are not actually true to ourselves. He makes the quip that deep down we all want to be Caesar and nothing but. In other words, we want to be the top of it all, and until we are the top of it all and have complete power, then we are not happy. But Kierkegaard says that is not the pursuit of a person who moves away from despair. A person who moves away from despair finds their authentic self.
He also says that the person who avoids despair does so because they learn to rest in the one who established them in the first place. Notice his language: “to rest in the one who established them in the first place.” What Kierkegaard was getting at was the peace – the opposite of the despair – of knowing that you are a child of God and resting in that reality, so you are at the same time authentically yourself, not just simply wanting to live by everyone else’s conventions or the will of the mob or the will of the crowd or the will of society. You are authentic to yourself, but also resting in the knowledge that you are a child of God, and you are free because you know the One who established you in the first place. How many people need to be freed from their fear and their despair in this world, and to know that at the bottom of it all they are children of God?
One of the most moving things I have read in recent years is by Joan Chichester on hope. In the final chapter of this incredible book, the author talks about hope and fear and the spirit. She tells the story of the 27th of May, 1992, in Sarajevo. Of course, at that time Bosnia was in absolute chaos. The different religious traditions were fighting amongst themselves, new nationalisms were arising, and it was a violent and a deadly place. One day, a musician called Vedran Smailovic, a well-known cellist, who played in the Sarajevo Opera Theatre was in his room looking out to the street below. People were lining up outside a bakery to get their bread. People were living in hunger, and their hunger was driving them to line up throughout the night for a loaf of bread. When it got extremely crowded, a bomb went off, and the shrapnel killed 20-30 people – right in front of his eyes! Absolutely horrified, he saw rubble and dust everywhere, bodies mangled and twisted amongst it all.
The very next morning, he saw that people were once again lining up at the bakery, and decided to do the one thing that he could do: He couldn’t bake them bread, but he could play the cello. He took a chair and his cello and placed it right in the middle of the crater the bomb created, with all the rubble, and as the people lined up, he played an adagio. For the next fourteen days, every day, despite the danger, Smailovic continued to play the cello. He gave such hope to people! He gave them such a sense of defiance! The cello and the chair were symbols of all that he loved and all they held dear. Years later, in recognition of all that he had done, President Clinton had him play at his inauguration. When they signed the peace treaty in Ireland, Smailovic played his cello. Years later, in my hometown of Manchester, Yoyo Ma played a piece of music in honour of the cellist from Sarajevo.
He became world famous. But that was never his intention. His intention was to bring hope in the midst of fear and despair. Chichester suggests, It is almost as if he was moved by and was like the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit had come into the midst of the despair of the world and brought a defiant peace. She concludes her chapter by writing the following, and it is epic stuff:
Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better; it is about getting better inside about what is going on inside. It is about becoming open to the God of newness. It is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see, all the time trusting God and in his Spirit. Despair is more likely a spiritual state than a psychological one. It doesn’t rest in our genes; it rests in our valuation of life, of God, of the honing instincts of the self. It burns out under the grace of certain belief in the ultimate goodness of God, who is here but not visible, present but not controlling, the one permanence in our changing lives.
You see, hope is the last great gift to rise out of the grave of despair, and hope comes from the Spirit. The hope is that the whole world might know, and the whole world might be embraced, and you will recognize when your spirit witnesses with Christ’s Spirit that you are a child of God. Amen.