Heirs of Our Heavenly Father

This is a recalled version of a sermon preached without notes on Sunday 15 May 2016

The Reverend Robert Hughes reflects on the joyful knowledge that we are children and 'heirs' of our heavenly Father.

A Pentecost Sermon

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. 13 For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. 14 For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. 15 The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” 16 The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. 17 Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. (Romans 8, v. 12 - 17 NIV)

Paul’s letter to the churches in Rome is perhaps the closest we get to hearing Paul’s theology worked out in one place. The church had rapidly spread west but none of the apostles had yet visited there. Paul was eager that the new churches should receive only the gospel handed down to them by the apostles.

He wrote in Greek. That may surprise you if you imagined that first-century Romans spoke Latin: they spoke a local dialect of Latin but it was very different from the ‘high’ Latin used for formal occasions. To be understood by outsiders they would have to speak everyday Greek—the heavy influence of Greece meant that the ‘lingua franca’ of the Mediterranean Roman Empire was Greek.

So Paul wrote in understandable Greek, and that is what has been translated into our modern English version. To the original hearers, and indeed to us, there is an odd word in the middle of this passage. Just as we do the Romans would have picked up on the word ‘Abba’. It is an Aramaic word, Aramaic being the local language around Galilee at that time. Abba means ‘Father’; there is no modern English word that quite translates, but we might like to think of the familial-informal name ‘Papa’.

Paul crafted this passage very carefully and he used Abba for a reason: it is how Jesus addressed his heavenly Father. ‘Teach us how to pray’ said the disciples: Jesus gave them what we know as The Lord’s Prayer, beginning ‘Our Father who art in heaven …’ He taught them to relate to his Father as Abba. For Paul, and for us, this has huge significance. Just think of it: we are taught to think of heavenly Father, not as some remote being, but with the respectful intimacy of Jesus!

Paul was convinced that to say Abba, and mean it, was a sign of having received a baptism in the Holy Spirit. (as opposed to saying the words without understanding). One could only ‘get’ what it really meant because of Holy Spirit at work within (v. 16). This is no quiet murmuring of the inner being but a shout of recognition—think of Archimedes and his ‘Eureka’ moment! There must have been many instances of this effect for Paul to mention it here. It was a sign of Holy Spirit at work within that led one to ‘cry, Abba’.

Look at v.14 and you will see this is precisely what Paul means. He chooses his words carefully: not ‘The children of God are led by the Spirit of God’, but  ‘Those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.’ This is not to say you have to ‘do works’ to show you are saved, rather than depending on ‘faith alone’: it is rather that Paul had witnessed passionate conversions, followed by a realigning of values, turned into action. Without such passionate commitment among new converts the church could not have spread. (See also v.9, 10 where Paul additionally shows that ‘the Spirit of God’ and ‘the Spirit of Christ’ are interchangeable.)

Some of us experience our baptism in the Spirit rather differently: we may be unable to point to the day, place, and time we were first aware of the Spirit at work in us. Or we may know it as a series of comings of the Spirit. Some of us experience the coming of the Spirit upon us as a fracture in our life before-after; others find it more of erosion. Yet the same Holy Spirit is at work in us every time we seek God’s guidance for our lives: all those times we find ourselves needing to think, and act differently because we follow Christ. Whilst this is nothing compared to the sufferings of Christ, and indeed compared to some persecuted Christians today, nevertheless we undergo a type of spiritual suffering every time we change our cherished thoughts and responses for the sake of the Gospel. As our lives change, so we show ourselves to be led by the Spirit.

Finally, look at v.15, ‘The Spirit you received does not make you slaves’. Slavery was an everyday reality for early Christians: even quite modest households would have at least one. The head of the household would be the man the family called Abba; but slaves were forbidden to use that word: it was family-only. If you were unable to call him Abba you were not ‘sons’ and ‘heirs’. Here it is necessary to keep the engendered language of ‘sonship’ because in Paul’s time only sons counted, and only they inherited: they got it all—and so do we, regardless of gender!

When we say the ‘Our Father’ we acknowledge that, by the grace of God at work in Christ, and at work in us by the Holy Spirit, we claim a son-and-heir’s full inheritance of the Father’s love and salvation as followers and ‘brothers’ of Christ.

Let us pray again the Collect for the Day of Pentecost:

Holy Spirit, sent by the Father, and the Son
ignite in us your holy fire;
strengthen your children with the gift of faith,
evive your Church with the breath of love,
and renew the face of the earth,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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