Orphans No More
There comes a time in every child’s life when he or she entertains two possibilities. One: your parents are from Mars. Two, you must have been adopted. Usually these revelations occur in tandem . . . after a huge fight with Mom and/or Dad; or after a sibling beats us up or puts us down. It dawns on us that no way could we really be related to such mean, bossy, completely opposite people.
We must be adopted.
Remember when adoption was a highly confidential, even secretive, process? That made it a great source for childhood fantasies. “Closed adoptions” were the norm from the 1920s through the 1960s. The birth mother didn’t know and couldn’t know who the adoptive parents were. The adoptive parents didn’t know who the birth mother was. The adopted child didn’t know anything — especially if their adoptive parents chose not to tell them. Even if they were adopted.
In the 1970s, the legalities behind adoptions began to change. A massive shift toward what are now called “open adoptions” took place. In open adoptions all the parties know who they are dealing with. And at least hypothetically, there is the possibility for communication and connection at some later time.
As with every other social scenario in the last ten years, science and technology have changed everything. Nobody respects a “legal screen.” Nobody has to live with no information about their past. The advent of Facebook has allowed thousands of birth parents and adopted children of all ages to search for and connect with their families of origin. The birth of DNA testing enables uncertainty to be eliminated.
In fact, almost all officials in the hierarchies of state and federal adoption laws admit the same thing: “the jig is up.” Adoption information and biological identities are no longer capable of being protected in any way, shape or form. For some adopted children and for some biological parents this is a great advance. For others, it is hard knocks and heartbreak.
Almost all ancient religions and cultures had legal means whereby orphaned or abandoned children could be legally incorporated into a new family. Both the law-loving environments of first century Judaism and the Roman empire had a laundry list of adoption laws, policies, rights, and regulations. Whether it was done for economic, political, or emotional reasons, in the world Paul inhabited, “adoption” was a well legislated procedure.
So when Paul used the language of “adoption” to describe the startling, new relationship enjoyed by followers of Jesus, he was speaking to an educated audience. First-century Romans, Jews and Gentiles knew what were the privileges and perks that came with the status of being legally “adopted.” Proclaiming Jesus’ disciples to be true “children of God,” and including them into the scheme of God’s salvation by virtue of a “spirit of adoption,” had hard-face, legal realities for Paul’s audience.
These “adoptions” were “open adoptions” because those being adopted, and the one doing the adopting, both knew who they were. The “adoptees” definitely knew their own backgrounds. Whether Jews or Gentile, saint or sinner, they all had recognized their inability to live up to the standards demanded by the law.
They all knew that their “flesh” — that is their life lived in the midst and miasma of this world and all its temptations – was falling far short of God’s requirement for righteousness.
Paul’s Roman Christian audience knew they were spiritual “orphans.” They met Jews as “orphans.” They embraced a new possibility and a new family of faith. Paul’s news about their complete and utter “adoption,” about their transformation into genuine “children of God,” was “good news” — a “gospel,” indeed.
If first-century Christians could “get it,” why can’t we? Why is it that we pray to God as “Our Father” but we behave as though we were abandoned and unloved orphans?
Charles Dickens’ classic tale of an orphan’s life was exposed and exploited in his novel Oliver Twist. Orphaned Oliver’s naive, plaintive plea to the abusive authorities is famously remembered as, “Please sir, may I have some more?” The “world” the powers and principalities that Paul calls in today’s text “the flesh” says “No! . . You are inferior, unacceptable, unredeemably bad.”
Jesus said something else: “Yes! You are loved, forgiven, and redeemed.”
Jesus spoke “Yes!” with his whole life encouraging the weakest, healing the most sickly, inviting the most “sketchy” (sketchy fishers, sketchy tax collectors, sketchy single women, sketchy crazies, sketchy Roman authorities, sketchy lepers).
To every orphan who asks, “Please, sir, may I have some more?” Jesus speaks these words: “Yes! Ask for more.”
Everyone Jesus encountered, everyone Jesus spoke with, he treated like an “orphan” who needed “more.”
They were “orphans” in that Jesus took no notice of their social or economic, or physical rank in society.
There were “orphans” in that Jesus had no interest in where they had been or what they had done.
They were “orphans” in that Jesus took no interest in their pedigree or ancestry.
They were “orphans” in that Jesus only took an interest in their destiny.
We too are orphans: we approach the amazing new reality of God’s forgiveness with absolutely no resources to redeem our request for forgiveness.
But we are orphans who have been given our “adoption papers.” Isn’t that what the Bible is: our “adoption papers?”
So why, even after we receive our “adoption papers,” do we continue to behave as if we are still “orphans?” Why is it so difficult for us to admit that our “adoptive parent” has been revealed? And our “adoptive Parent” is our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer?
Most of us spend our lives in a kind of Machiavellian march. We operate on the principles of “scrounge, struggle, survive.” Not a bad instinct if you are a gazelle or leopard, or an orphan. Not a good decision if you have been offered the alternative reality of being one of the “children of God.” Not a good decision if you have received the inexhaustible inheritance that is ours as “adoptive children of God.”
The greatest gift — knowing you are a “child of God” — offers a gift of never knowing abandonment. As a “child of God” your “parent” is always and ever present. I have talked to many adopted people over the years, and there are many here this morning. One story I have heard over and over again is that when as a child you were feeling especially alone and lonely, right before bed you would imagine God hugging you. And that hug from your adoptive parent, the only Parent we all get to choose, gave such a sense of safety and security that sleep came quickly.
That’s a hug we all need to feel, for it’s a hug that God gave on the cross as he chose every one of us to be sons and daughters: For God so hugged the world.
These days it seems we are quick to “orphan” people. We reject the odd, routinely ignore the unusual, redefine the acceptable, and are repulsed by those out of the ordinary. We “orphan” the poor. We “orphan” the odd. We “orphan” the elderly. We “orphan” the addicts. We “orphan” the unchurched. We “orphan” all those who do not comfortably conform to our definition of a “child of God.”
Jesus wasn’t so picky. Jesus invited the wildest and weirdest to join him on his journey towards the kingdom. Jesus offered open adoption. I know who you are; I know what you’ve done; I know you . . . and I still choose you to live in and through by the power of the Spirit.
Talk about open adoption: We have a Father who operates out of a huge, open-ended, never-ceasing, Spirit of adoption.
Christianity is a perennial “open-season” on “open adoption.” All are welcome. All are offered the complete package of acceptance, forgiveness, and new life. All approach without hope. And all who confess Christ and embrace the “Spirit of adoption” and the “Spirit of Christ” are filled with new hope, with new life, and are re-born as “children of the heavenly Father.”