There are two parts to today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans that need some explanation.
First of all, Paul makes a statement that living according to the flesh leads to death. Whenever St. Paul uses the term flesh, we should understand that he is speaking of anything that leads us away from God. Conversely, whenever he uses the term spirit, he is speaking of anything that leads us to unity with God. If we remember that in the Scriptures, death means separation from God, it becomes clear that the deeds of the flesh are far more encompassing than our sometimes Puritanical notion of sexual or bodily sins.
Secondly St. Paul speaks of a spirit of adoption when he states that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.” We might be tempted to change the word “sons” to “children,” but we must remember that only sons could inherit in this culture. So while it surely does include both baptized men and baptized women, the metaphor doesn’t work if we change the word.
This notion comes directly from St. Paul’s education in Greek philosophy and culture as he refers to our relationship with God and Jesus being formed through a spirit of adoption. Adoption was not known in Jewish culture because of the family structure of that time. As I have written before, the male children of the family would bring their wives to the home of their father and live there with their children and their brothers’ children and wives. When the father died, the eldest brother took the place as the patriarch of the family. The female children would, conversely, go to live in the homes of their husbands’ father. Fathers and mothers, their children, with their aunts and uncles and cousins, would all live under the same roof. Consequently if a parent or parents died or were killed accidentally, the children would simply go on living with their uncles and aunts and cousins and grandparents. This was all dictated to provide for widows and orphans in the family structure of Israel.
However, adoption was known in the Roman and Hellenistic cultures of which St. Paul was familiar. Roman citizens oftentimes adopted a devoted slave or servant to replace a lost child or to give them an heir if they were childless. St. Paul draws upon this experience to explain how we have come to regard ourselves as children and heirs of the inheritance God gave to Jesus, his Son. Notice here that he does use the word “children” to include us all. “We are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if only we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
Aha! It is also important to notice that there is a condition stated in the adoption contract; namely, we must suffer with him in order to inherit the glory of the Resurrection. Once again, it becomes more than evident that there is no Resurrection without the Cross. No wonder, then, that in the Acts of the Apostles we hear of the apostles rejoicing when they were called upon to suffer for the sake of the Gospel.
As we gather at the altar this morning, we remember that Christ suffered for us and that we are called to unite our sufferings with his. As we receive his body and blood, the adoption contract is sealed and ratified. Blessed are we to be called children of God.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.