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Politics of Scripture

Living the Legacy

Jesus’ work becomes our own through this adoption, and we are entrusted with God’s legacy to embody, to live, to pass on.

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are obligated, 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 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 we in fact suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Romans 8:12–17 (NRSVue)

Christianity is a legacy passed down generation to generation. It is the Gospel, the good news, kept alive in people witnessing one to another their experience of the movement and activity of the Spirit of God. Again and again in his letters, this is what Paul offers his correspondents—what has been passed on to him. His words sit at the center of Christian liturgy, in the consecration of the eucharist: “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you…” (1 Corinthians 11:23). Paul, who never knew Jesus in this life, still heard a call and took on the role of apostle in the Christian community to pass on this legacy. Through the Christian community, he was so grafted into the faith that “adoption” became for him a central metaphor for identity and participation in this faith.

In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul invites those in that community to embrace their adoption, as he embraced his own. Writing to this church that he did not found, to people he never met, he dons the mantle of the apostle to teach and exhort. He knows his audience; a largely Gentile group with a Jewish minority. Emperor Claudius in 49CE had expelled the Jews from Rome due to conflicts around acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Gentiles who had joined the Christian fellowship under the leadership of Jews were left, after nearly two decades of their leadership, to keep faith alive.

Paul writes to this community as the Jewish Christians make their way back to Rome. The edict exiled them for five years before Claudius died. Paul’s letter comes at this time of reintegration. Paul is aware of the situation and has met with some of those exiled, including Aquila and Priscilla (as noted in Acts 18:2). His letter is both introductory and conciliatory, seeking to offer a narrative that can help reknit connections and rebuild community. Paul, in subtle and direct ways, speaks to these “brothers and sisters” as one.

Paul’s use of the “spirit of slavery” and corresponding “fear” conveys his knowledge of the church and would have struck a chord with both Gentiles and Jews. The former were most likely “low status individuals: slaves and freed-persons,” and the latter mostly immigrants “who settled in Rome around the second century BCE [who] were originally brought in as slaves when Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63BCE” (John B. Song, “Adoption in the Roman World”).

Chapter 8 is the heart of this letter, and in five dense verses (12–17), Paul, the master rhetorician, gets to the point of his argument. While the world has relegated these brothers and sisters to the margins of society, by the Spirit of God they are adopted as children of God. This sets the foundation for his clear and concise conclusion laid out at the end of the chapter: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

To convince his readers that this is true, Paul draws to their attention their experience in baptism that validates and confirms their status as children of God. In that act, the baptismal cry of “Abba, Father!” from Gentile and Jew alike, from the Romans and from Paul, adoption is made complete. With these distinct words, one being the intimate name Jesus used for God in prayer—“Abba”—those who are baptized acknowledge their true parentage. This is the one who has adopted them, in whose family they now and forever more will reside. All other gods, distinctions, concerns are left behind as this faith calls them to a new identity and new life.   

The metaphor Paul uses to concretize this process is the “spirit of adoption.” Adoption that is offered and made manifest by the Spirit of God creates a community of equality in which all are moved beyond “ethnic, familial, imperial, and legalistic boundaries.” (Robert Brian Lewis, Paul’s ‘Spirit of Adoption’ in its Roman Imperial Context, 23). All, including Paul, are truly made “one in Christ.” As Jesus promised in his final discourse in John’s gospel (14:18): “I will not leave you orphaned…” and it is the Holy Spirit that comes as advocate and comforter to adopt them.  

The rhetorical foundation for this argument is found in the Roman imperial use of adoption, with which Paul and his correspondents were intimately familiar. The end of the edict removing the Jews from Rome came at Claudius’ death with the ascension of Nero, his step-son through adoption. At Jesus’ birth a similar imperial transition took place when Augustus, then Octavian, was adopted at age 18 to succeed Julius Caesar, and in doing so took the title “Son of God” to add legitimacy and secure his authority.

For Paul and his readers, using the term “adoption” (Greek: huiothesía, meaning “placing as a son,” which occurs only five times), would have brought these moves to preserve the Julio-Claudian line to mind. Lewis writes: “Using the term ‘spirit’ with adoption would have also evoked an image from Imperial propaganda where the numen, divine power, was celebrated and venerated throughout the Empire through the sacrifice to the Emperor’s genius or guardian spirit/ family spirit” (2). In this way the assimilation through adoption is complete—the spirit of the adopter has been taken on and is being lived out through the adoptee.

For Paul this is true for those adopted through baptism into faith. Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, is the “Son of God” who confers his spirit, the Spirit of God, upon all who believe. Every one of Paul’s readers is a child of God by virtue of this action of God to offer adoptive “sonship” to all. Not limited to those in power or to any ethnic group or bloodline, or gender, or any other distinction, this adoption is for all who will place themselves under the authority and care of God as their one parent, so all are brothers and sisters, children of God.

Again, this echoes John’s gospel  where Jesus, as the Good Shepherd says,  “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16). God through Christ calls Gentile and Jew together in one community that is not of their making; membership chosen by the adopter. Lewis notes that “God was unwilling to be the Father of an only Son. God was unwilling to be the Father of one group to the exclusion of another. This was the plan from the beginning. The family of God was to be expansive and universal in scope. God is willing to adopt to achieve these purposes” (17).

This adoption reorients those in the church, offering them legitimacy and freedom and agency outside the strictures of Roman society. No longer does participation in the civil religion of Rome bind Christians, they need not worship the Emperor as “the Son of God,” for through the Spirit of God’s grace, they have been adopted into the family of God. Through this adoption into a lasting legacy of power that defies even death, these ordinary people have parity with the divine ruler of the Roman Empire. This is the extravagant self-giving love of God who chooses us as partners in the work of redeeming the earth: bringing God’s reign here as it is in heaven.  

So, this adoption issues a call; rights and privileges and responsibilities that flow from participation in the Spirit that animated and guided Jesus. Like him, those in the church in Rome, are full heirs of the legacy of faith. With this comes both glory and suffering, the latter described in subsequent verses as Paul writes about the struggles involved in birthing a new, redeemed creation.

Jesus’ work becomes our own through this adoption, and we are entrusted with God’s legacy to embody, to live, to pass on. As Teresa of Àvila (1515-1582) put it:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Regardless of  who one is in the eyes of the world: cisgender, transgender, male, female, non-binary, whatever race, whatever culture, whatever sexual orientation, whether a citizen or not, homed or not, rich or poor, whatever one’s abilities, God offers intimacy and belonging to all. This is how God’s legacy is passed on, the good news conveyed, by those willing to be adopted as children of God. 

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