Children of God
So after all his talk of grace taking the place of law in control of our lives and our destinies, after all the talk of freedom from addiction to sin, and from the condemnation that is the logical consequence of the harm that we do one another and the world – after all this talk of freedom, suddenly Paul changes tack.
“Brothers and sisters, we are debtors”
But not – he immediately adds – to your old master. Not to the ‘flesh’, the sinful nature and instincts that you have so often found yourselves enslaved to – and still find yourselves struggling with.
For a Roman audience the idea that having been a slave, but set free, one might still owe a debt to your former master was absolutely natural, normal. A slave who received their freedom did so at a price, and that price would frequently remain as a debt to be paid, tying the slave yet to the former master.
Indeed, as is terribly still the case today, many are kept in effective slavery by crippling, unrepayable debt; living ‘free’ but with no freedom.
But no, Paul says, that is not the debt that you owe. You did not receive the spirit of slavery, to fall back into fear. The debt you owe is not to your sinful self, the habits and failings of your past. Those things do not hold you any more. You are not bound into egocentric looking out for number one; you are not enslaved to those habits of life you long to leave behind; you are not in debt, even, to your past decisions – though you may still bear the consequences of some.
You are not still bound by the chains that used to hold you.
For you have not just been set free: you have been adopted.
That Spirit that you have received; the free gift of God; that is she who calls out within you “Abba, ho Patēr”
Now “Patēr” was a word that Jesus used all the time in reference to God – it’s in all four gospels, pretty much every letter, it comes up over 400 times in the New Testament. And that fact itself is pretty striking – in the Old Testament the equivalent word is used of God only about a dozen times, in exceptional circumstances (referring to God as David’s father, for instance, in justification of his ascent to the throne despite not being the heir of Saul). But for Jesus, it is simply the normal, default, form of address. And most famously, of course, it is the form of address that he teaches his friends to use of God: “Our Father in heaven”.
Patēr was a fairly formal word in first century Greek. It spoke of respect, of status, of hierarchy. A servant would refer to their master as Patēr, in the same way a Downton Abbey servant might speak of “His Lordship”. It was a positive word, which spoke of belonging, of identity, but a word that at the same time spoke of duties and responsibilities and ordering of authority.
Abba, on the other hand, was a very unusual word to use of God. Used only three times in the whole Bible – twice by Paul; here, and in the letter to the Galatians, where he says almost exactly the same thing as here in Romans (“the Spirit cries out in our hearts, Abba, Father”).
And once by Jesus.
In the garden of Gethsemane.
“Abba, if it is possible, take this cup from me”.
There’s no good word in English. It’s not the babytalk of ‘dada’ or the child’s ‘daddy’ (though perhaps that’s close); it’s not the informality of ‘dad’. It is ‘Abba’; a relationship word, speaking of dependence and confidence, of affection and trust. It is the child’s address to the father which isn’t about authority or duty, about doing, but about being.
The Spirit calls out within us to God who is our Abba and our Patēr, declaring that we are children of God.
And if that were not enough; to the formal relationship language of Patēr and the affectionate confidence and childlike trust in a parent of Abba, Paul then adds a legal status to our relationship with God: “If children, then heirs; heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ”.
Heirs – as our passage goes on – of the creation which is groaning, suffering, waiting for the children of God to take their inheritance and treat it with the honour it deserves.
This is the promise of God, the promise of the Spirit who calls from within us.
That we are in every sense, children of God.
That God is our Patēr, the parent to whom we look with respect, with honour, with humility.
And God is our Abba, the parent to whom we run with affection, with trust, the parent we shout “catch” to as we jump off the wall, absolutely confident in that they will catch us.
And we are heirs of the creator, inheritors of creation, gifted and commissioned with its care.
Children of the God who made and owns it.
But now we need to loop back to the start of our reading. Paul says that we are debtors – and we’ve established what that debt isn’t, but what is it?
Our debt is to God; for it is God who has done all that is needed, God who has saved us, God who has promised us eternal life, God who has moved us from the transaction of sin to the gift of grace, God who has gifted us with the spirit of adoption, God who inspires us to name God as Abba, Patēr.
And how does one repay such a debt?
How do you repay your debt to a loving parent? For surely, those of us fortunate enough to grow up in the safety and security that comes from having a parent or parents that we knew we could trust, rely on, go to, would say that we are ever in their debt.
Of course, whenever we say such things, we also recognise that that is not the experience of all; that for some their experience of their parents is not of trust and security but distance, of abandonment or abuse; that for too many the language of God as parent is painful and difficult – to you I can only say that God names herself as the adopting parent; the one you wanted and needed but perhaps never had; the one who wanted you not because of their needs but because of their love.
And how does one repay the debt of love, to the parent, biological, adoptive or spiritual?
Well, turn the question around.
How would you have your children repay their debt of love to you?
Those who have kids – I’m sure you’d answer that there is no debt to pay. That your love for them is simply for them, for that is the nature of love, to give without demanding return.
But stay with it. How might your kids best repay the love you have shown them?
Surely there is no better way than by loving others in turn. Paying it forward. Living lives that are spectacular not primarily in what they achieve, but in how they give, how they care, how they love.
If that is what we, in our best moments as parents, want of our kids, then the declaration that we are God’s children encourages us to believe it is how God would have us be. And indeed, it is the answer that Paul will give – right towards the end of the letter, in chapter 13 “Let no debt remain except this: love one another”.
For love, as Jesus said, is the fulfilling of the law.