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s112e03 Lockleys Trinity Sunday 15/6/2003

"you have received a spirit of adoption " Romans 8.15

As I read Paul's words today, they remind me of the question "Do you want the good news or the bad news first?" There seems to be a mixture. There is glory but there is also suffering and we take this on board for we can't do much about either. Few people go through life without suffering, for indeed much of the grief and suffering we experience is but the other side of the love we once had for something we have lost.

Suffering and glory come our way unbidden, whichever path we take. It is impossible to find a path that doesn't involve some of each, so there is little point in worrying about which path to take. If we spend our lives trying to choose the path of least suffering &endash; we would be choosing the path of least love also &endash; and we would be missing out on both the love and the suffering as we spent time debating.

When I think about life, I am a practical person, and I look for the things which I can in fact change. So, theoretically at least, I do have the option to approach life fearlessly or cautiously.

But for me it is odd that it is good news that we don't have to fear &endash; we are not to be enslaved &endash; yet we have to be careful how we live &endash; lest we live according to the flesh. I have sometimes thought that living according to the flesh is about being reckless, carefree, occasionally irresponsible. And are not these things also associated with not having to fear?

We can read these words and think that we understand them, but we might well be deceived by their very simplicity. We can read these words and think that St Paul is giving us directions as to how to approach life &endash; fearlessly or cautiously - yet when one looks at them carefully, the answer, if there is meant to be one, is entirely ambiguous.

Perhaps there are some things about which we should properly be cautious and there are other things about which we needn't worry at all.

We are again called to think, because thinking is the highest expression of being human. It does not matter if we come to different conclusions &endash; we will at least be exercising our humanity to the full, and this is what God wants for us and for everyone. It is not that there is one group of people &endash; the intelligentsia &endash; who are allowed to think and everyone else is meant to defer to them. We are all meant to use our brains, exercise our imaginations and make our unique contribution to society.

The Spirit we have received is the Spirit of adoption &endash; so that whoever we are, whatever we have done or not done, however we choose to live our lives or not, we have been adopted. This is what God does &endash; bring people into relationship with the divine - whoever we are, whatever we have done or not done, however we choose to live our lives or not. The important thing is this relationship &endash; this ever-present invitation and welcome from God to us and to all of humanity. This is what the whole incarnation is about - it was this character which had Jesus crucified - it was this that death could not conquer.

But, of course, it doesn't stop with us &endash; this is precisely what God does for each and every individual. God is an adopting God, a far more pleasant picture of God than that of the hard taskmaster of Matthew 25.22. From the description in Exodus: "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin " Exodus 34.6 Even the awesome vision of God given to Isaiah, where the prophet realises his utter insignificance and sinfulness in the presence of the divine, is immediately cleansed and given a task. In doing this, God lessens the perceived distance between the divine and the human. It is not insignificant that the religious prophet mistakes the distance between God and humanity as a divine invention. God spends eternity trying to convince us otherwise &endash; God spends eternity adopting us all - not keeping any at a distance.

Indeed it is this that is the real source of God's holiness &endash; which we are apt to think implies distance &endash; when in reality God's holiness works to eliminate distance.

So if we aspire to be holy, we too are called to eliminate the perceived distance between God and others. Of course this immediately implies that the distance between others and ourselves is correspondingly eliminated. We are called, like John Bradford to say: "There but for the grace of God go I", and even more "There go I!"

If the Spirit we have received is a Spirit of adoption, then we are adopted and we are moved to adopt others. If the second doesn't come about then I suspect we have rejected the reality of the first.

One of the favourite sayings of Jesus is the parable of the good shepherd who leaves the ninety nine to search for the one that is lost. We always assume that we in the Church are amongst the 99 who are found and the one lost is that recalcitrant individual that doesn't come to Church. But of course the mathematics, if nothing else, is entirely the other way around. From a mathematical point of view the ninety nine are much more likely to represent those who don't go to church. The one who is lost is the one who has separated him or herself from the rest of humanity with pretensions of moral, ethical or spiritual elitism &endash; who needs to be found and brought back into God's flock of "ordinary" people &endash; if anyone can ever be said to be "ordinary". We are all extraordinary in God's eyes, for Jesus was crucified for associating with the likes of us and for all.

But, some may argue, we are Christians and by definition we must be different. We dutifully recite the Creed Sunday by Sunday, subscribing to it's truth. Others don't do this &endash; so how can they be as adopted as we have been?

Today is Trinity Sunday, and if you understand the Holy Trinity and the Nicene Creed you are a better person than I, and what is more, you can be sure that you are heretical :-) The Creeds of the Church were set out to oppose people who claimed they could understand God. It is the ultimate irony that we recite these words Sunday by Sunday thinking that we are supposed to understand them, and even pretending to ourselves that we do, when in reality they say that God cannot ever be described or understood.

What the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the Creeds are all about are a proclamation of the oneness of Father, Son and Holy Spirit &endash; and I suspect that this oneness is most clearly seen in the statement that God is an adopting God. Jesus came to adopt all people. He was killed because he wanted to adopt more people than some wanted. He was raised to life because that character of God the Father would not be thwarted by humanity. And the Holy Spirit is an adopting Spirit, that seeks out all people and incorporating all into the kingdom of God.

I was interested recently to have a conversation after a funeral. In fact it helped me in my own thinking. A mourner asked what are "archangels?" I explained "arch" means "chief" like archbishops and archdeacons. He responded by saying - oh there's even a hierarchy in heaven! This gave me the impetus to say that I really didn't think in these terms - that I'm pretty agnostic when it comes to such considerations of how heaven is structured. In the Bible the visitation of an angel is really a visitation by God. Jewish and Christian monotheism saves us from the spectre of competing gods as were in the traditional Greek and Roman pantheon. A person prospered or not depending on which horse he backed :-) In our faith tradition - angels and archangels become the vehicles for God's actions in the world, retaining the singleness of purpose that monotheism implies.

This singleness of purpose means that we can rely on it completely. God is not deceptive or capricious - God adopts people. In the end this is what God has been on about since the beginning of time - since the time when God had to search in the garden for Adam and Eve &endash; who had hidden themselves because they had perceived themselves as naked.

It is not insignificant that Adam and Eve hid themselves from God - when there was no need to hide at all. God accepts our sinfulness our limitations and humanity when so often we ourselves do not. There is no distance to be overcome. We are "natural" children just as we are. The barriers are ones we have put up, and God subverts them all The risen Christ came to the fearful disciples even in their locked upper room ... God likes us naked ... and clothed.

Jesus talks to Nicodemus about knowing and understanding - yet the words are veiled &endash; they hide as much as they reveal. There is both a certainty and that which is beyond comprehension. And it is not insignificant that the Spirit is described as a wind and "you do not know where it goes" &endash; except to say &endash; everywhere.

We can only know that we have been adopted by God, and that God continues to adopt others too. We are in the one sentence made at one with God and at one with one another - in both our insignificance and sinfulness as well as our importance and forgiveness.



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