May 27, 2018

FATHERLY GOD,
MOTHERLY SPIRIT,
BROTHERLY CHRIST

(Trinity Sunday)

BIBLE READINGS
John 3:1-17

Romans 8:12-17

REFLECTION

If you are like me and my wife, you would be excited with the recent wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Both of us waited with anticipation for the wedding. And on the night of the wedding, we had a special dinner date as we watched the wedding on television. Well, it wasn’t the exact kind of dinner date that we were hoping for as our 16-month-old son was with us. But we did have a nice family time together.

The wedding itself went without apparent glitches. The only biggest disappointment was the absence of Meghan Markle’s father in the wedding. But Prince Charles did a great job stepping in and walking Meghan down the aisle. He did that with a class that only a Prince could do.

And the fact that it was Prince Charles who walked her down the aisle, and not her own father, served another purpose. Many people consider it as a nice gesture from the royal family to welcome Meghan into their midst.

Indeed, the wedding and the whole excitement around it can be put down into the fact that the bride would come as Ms. Meghan Markle and leave as Duchess of Sussex. She came as a commoner, albeit a successful one, and left as a member of the British royal family. And that membership comes with all its privileges, including her own coat of arms that depicts her Californian heritage.

And her background is not fundamental to her acceptance into the royal family. Leading up to the wedding, her estranged extended family made so much noise about her. Her half-brother wrote an open letter to Prince Harry, telling him that he was making a mistake by planning to marry her. Her half-sister called her Princess Pushy. Many negative comments have also been made about her bi-racial identity.

But none of these matters in the eyes of the royal family. For them, Meghan is now a part of their family. That is what truly matters.

The theme of being accepted into God’s family is also a major theme in Christian faith. Christianity was born from Judaism. But unlike Judaism, it embraces all people, Jews and non-Jews alike.

As such, early Christian writers, like the Apostle Paul, likened Christians with God’s adopted children. Even though we are not born as Jews, God has adopted us as God’s children. So we are God’s children not by flesh, but by the Spirit.

But being adopted children does not meant that our status is lower than the status of the natural children. In the Roman society, adopted children had the same rights and privileges with the natural children.

In some cases, adopted children were to be preferred because, unlike natural children, they could be chosen. The rich and powerful could choose whom to adopt as their children to inherit their title and possession. In the Roman Empire, adoption was the common way for people to become Emperors without the use of force. In the first 200 years of the empire, it was a common tradition that Emperors adopted sons to be their successors.[1] The most famous Emperor who was adopted was Augustus, considered as the most successful Roman Emperor.

Likewise, as God’s adopted children, we are not second-class citizens. As God’s adopted children, we are fellow heirs with God’s only Son. Just like Meghan Markel receives the privileges as a member of the royal family, we too inherit the entitlements of God’s Kingdom as members of God’s family.

Indeed, our adoption means that we can call God as Abba, Father. The New Testament authors, like the Apostle Paul, liked to put the word Father after Abba...

The word Abba is Aramaic. In the early Christian church, it was widely used in worship to address God. But when the Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, the Aramaic language had not been used as widely anymore. That’s why Paul had to put the word, Father, to help his audience understood the meaning of the word Abba.

But Abba was less formal than Father, at least Father in English. Abba came from the word Abb in Aramaic, which also meant father. But Abba was more informal than Abb. Abba was the word used by children in homes. Then and now, children find it easier to pronounce two syllable words than one syllable word. So Daddy is easier to pronounce than Dad and Mommy is easier to pronounce than Mom. Likewise, Abba is easier to pronounce than Abb.[2] So to call God as Abba or Daddy means that we have an intimate relationship with God. We may have been an outsider once, but we now truly are a member of God’s family.

Let me tell you a little bit about my son. He is sixteen months old now and he is getting smarter and smarter every day. But he hasn’t fully developed his language skill. He mainly uses body and sign language to express his need.

And boy, he really knows how to tell his parents what he wants. But he expresses his needs mainly with us, his parents, and with the people he is familiar with. He doesn’t do it with strangers. Even little baby knows that when you’re with strangers; you can’t be as free as when you are with your parents. (Apparently, in developmental term, that’s a sign that a baby is growing well emotionally – so he’s all right.)

That’s the main thing about being a member of a family, especially for children. With our parents, we can be free and confident to be our self and to express our needs. It is the same in our relationship with God. In his introduction to the Lord’s Prayer, the German church reformist, Martin Luther, says that:

“... God wants to attract us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father  and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with  complete confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”[3]

[Friends, God invites both men and women to join God’s family. Paul may have written the sons of God in his letter to the Romans. But Paul lived in a male dominated society and using the word sons may have been appropriate in his time. But he clearly had both men and women in his mind. He clearly meant children of God instead of only sons of God. It’s like the word mankind in English. Most people who use the word think of mankind as including both men and women (although humankind would be more preferable than mankind nowadays).

Jesus himself used a very family oriented language to describe the relationship between God and the believers. We may have missed it (or chosen to miss it), but Jesus painted the Spirit in a very motherly image in John’s Gospel. “Those who want to join God’s Kingdom,” he said, “must be born of the Spirit.”

Nicodemus, the Pharisee, didn’t miss Jesus feminine language. “Can someone reenter his mother’s womb and be born again?” he asked. Jesus didn’t deny his sentiment. Of course, Jesus didn’t talk about being born of the physical womb of one’s mother for the second time. Jesus talked about being reborn spiritually.

But Nicodemus got it right. Jesus indeed likened the Spirit to a mother who gave birth to her children. And everyone who wants to enter into God’s Kingdom must be born from the ‘womb’ of the Spirit.

This is a powerful image. Jesus invites us to be born again of the Spirit into the family where God is our Father and Jesus is our Brother.

So here we have two powerful images in the New Testament that talk about our inclusion into God’s family. We are either adopted or being born again into the family. Whichever image you prefer, both images speak about our undeniable identity as members of God’s family.

[And God’s Spirit plays an important role in both images. To be adopted or born into God’s family, we are to be led by the spirit. We are to put aside our self interest and follow the Spirit’s guidance in our life. Being members of God’s family is not only about rights and privileges, it is also about responsibilities.

On her 21st birthday on April 22, 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth made a speech in South Africa. In the speech, she committed her entire life to the service of the Commonwealth.

“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong,” she said. To belong to the royal family, in the eyes of the future Queen, was about duty and service first of all. Likewise, becoming members of God’s family has its own duties and responsibilities.

Friends, today is the Trinity Sunday in the church calendar. Today is the day when we celebrate God who has revealed God-self as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But celebrating the Trinity is not mainly about affirming a particular doctrine in the Christian faith. Celebrating the Trinity is about affirming that loving relationship is at the very heart of God.

We are the inheritors of this love as God’s children. Celebrating the Trinity is about celebrating our true identity as a member of God’s family. We are not outsiders, but insiders.

And with this identity comes great privileges, but also great duties. May we all have the courage and the strength needed to live up to our identiyy as legitimate members of God’s family.

Amen.

[1] Adoption in Ancient Rome, an article in www.wikipedia.org

[2] Arland J. Hultgren, Commentary on Romans 8:12-17, on www.workingpreacher.org

[3] Quoted from Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006), p. 1163 on Arland J. Hultgren, Commentary on Romans 8:12-17, on www.workingpreacher.org (May 31, 2015)