St Michael’s, O’Fallon—Romans 8:14–17
If you’re on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, you probably know what a “meme” is. In social media, a meme is a graphic image with a pithy saying or quotation overlaid on top of it. I would be willing to bet that, if we were to open the Facebook timeline of anybody in this church today, we wouldn’t have to scroll more than about ten minutes before finding a meme that uses the expression “child of God” or “children of God.” And I can virtually guarantee you that the assumption of that meme is that the label “child of God” applies to every single human being, because … of course all people are children of God, right? I mean, we just intuitively know that, don’t we? Everyone is a child of God … especially actual children. To say otherwise would feel almost … well, heretical … wouldn’t it?
Well, I’m standing before you today ready to be a heretic, ready to challenge that assumption. Not every person is a child of God. I say this with some confidence, however, because I believe I have a formidable ally in one no less eminent that St Paul the Apostle. Now, I’m probably being more provocative than I need to be, so stay with me, and we’ll get this straightened out. Just put the question on the shelf for a few minutes, and we’ll come back to it.
It should come as no particular news flash that most people in our society—which is to say, most people in the developed world, people who are at least “relatively affluent” if not “filthy rich” in comparison to most of this planet’s population—most people in our society suffer from chronic spiritual anxiety. This is my anecdotal experience, at any rate, not any kind of scientific poll. Most of us carry around some mixture of uncertainty and/or doubt and/or guilt and/or anger.
Even many professed Christians get caught up in this net, which is both interesting and troubling. Supposedly, faith should serve as a sort of hedge against spiritual anxiety. Faith should ground us in our sense of who we are in relation to who God is and make us feel secure when it comes to questions of meaning and purpose in life. Yet, many who consider themselves Christians don’t feel like they have such grounding and security. Why is that? Why is it that some people have faith that doesn’t seem to “work”? When a pediatrician sees a baby who is not gaining weight appropriately, not growing in the expected ways, the phrase “failure to thrive” is sometimes used. In my pastoral experience, I would diagnose many Christians whom I’ve met with “failure to thrive” spiritually.
I can’t stand here and tell you that I have the complete and unassailable answer to why some Christians fail to thrive. But I do have a theory, and I’m actually pretty confident about it. It’s a matter of not availing ourselves of the resources that are right in front of us. Too often, we are lax in our embrace of the Paschal Mystery, and in making ourselves available to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. We have a dim awareness of the identity we were given when we were baptized, that we were “sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.” We are blasé about our participation in the Holy Eucharist. We don’t attend to the scriptures that are read in the liturgy. We don’t notice the words of the hymns we sing, or, worse yet, don’t even sing them. In behaving this way, we are like a desperately hungry baby who simply refuses to eat. We effectively alienate ourselves from the presence and ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We cut ourselves off from the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit.
Fortunately, there’s another way to live. What are the habits of those Christians who seem to thrive spiritually, who have a robust faith, who, despite the challenges and roadblocks and trials that life sends their way, are able to remain centered and purposeful and … yes … even joyful in the midst of it all. These are Christians who regularly expose themselves to the ministry of Word and Sacrament. They embrace and configure their lives to the mystery that “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.” They don’t just coast spiritually, but are disciplined in their spiritual practice, with good habits of spiritual self-care. They are obedient disciples of Jesus, having come to the realization that they no longer belong to themselves, but have been bought with a price, the price of Christ’s blood. They are consumed with a passion for revealing and advancing the Kingdom of God. They suffer as much as, or often more than, other Christians, but their suffering is not meaningless; rather, it is redemptive, because their suffering is offered to and united with the suffering of the crucified Christ.
Such Christians are spiritually enlivened. St Paul, in writing to the Romans, says that the Holy Spirit “bears witness with our spirits that we are”—now, wait for it, because I told you I’d circle back—“that we are children of God.” In effect, Paul is saying that the Holy Spirit “sings a duet” with our own spirits. Think of Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole “recording” a duet together even when one of them was no longer physically present in this world—or Sonny and Cher, or Donny and Marie or … I’m sure somebody here can think of an example a little more contemporary than these!
When we are enlivened by the good habits of spiritual practice that are available to us, the Holy Spirit sings a duet with our spirit, bearing witness that we are children of God. The Holy Spirit persuades us of our status as children of God, which is not our default state. God loves every woman, man, and child who has ever lived, infinitely and passionately. Every human life is precious in God’s sight. I don’t want you to think I’m saying otherwise. But that doesn’t make all people “children of God.” To be a child of God is a status conferred in the waters of baptism and sealed by the Holy Spirit.
Now, to be uber-correct, the word Paul uses is “sons”—the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirits, persuading us that we are sons of God. Now, this isn’t casual sexism on Paul’s part. Rather, it’s a recognition that, in the ancient Roman world where Paul lived, only sons were legally allowed to inherit property. So what Paul is saying the Holy Spirit persuades us of is that all of us who are baptized into Christ, male or female, have a status in relation to God equivalent to that of a son in the Roman world. “And,” he goes on, “if sons, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.”
So … why choose to fail to thrive spiritually? It’s completely unnecessary. We have more resources for spiritual vitality right in front of us than we can even imagine. We have the riches of the Paschal Mystery at our fingertips. We need only partake. We are children of God, co-heirs with Christ, and the singing Holy Spirit tells us so. We need only rest in that identity.
Alleluia and Amen.