December 29, 2019 – Christmas 1A
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
When I was a seminarian in Cambridge, most of my academic work took place at the University’s Divinity Faculty, where I attended lectures and studied in the library amidst undergraduate and graduate theology students. In my second year, I decided to run for a student position on one of the department committees and was elected. At my first meeting, I found out that there wasn’t much to it. We made our way through a brief agenda, noting without much discussion what classes would be taught and who would teach them. No one asked me for my input, and I didn’t have any to offer anyway, and, when the meeting finished, I left with a sense of empty fulfillment. I had a place at the table, but it didn’t seem to be worth much.
At my second meeting with the committee, that all changed. Again, we went through a short agenda without any room for my input, but, when we finished all of the items on the agenda that I had been sent by email, everyone at the table turned and stared at me. I froze. Quickly searching my mind for all the reasons they might be looking at me—was there some strange piece of Oxbridge etiquette I had missed that required junior committee members to offer to fetch a bottle of sherry before the meeting could be adjourned?—but I could think of nothing. The chair cleared his throat and, staring at me, announced, “That is the end of the open meeting agenda.” I nodded at him, trying to will myself into understanding what he meant. Finally, he leaned in and said to me directly, “It’s time for you to leave.”
As I collected my things, I glanced over at the agenda of the person next to me and noticed that hers was a good bit longer than mine and included things like “faculty evaluations” and “tenure appointments.” I went downstairs and stopped by the reception desk, where I explained to a member of the support staff how awkward it had been not being told that there was a second agenda for those parts of the meeting that a student representative couldn’t attend. “I felt like a red-headed stepchild,” I told her, but my British friend just stared back at me blankly. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I mean a ginger-headed stepchild,” but, she still just stared at me with a confused look on her face. “Do you not have that saying in England?” I asked. She shook her head. “What do you mean by that?” she asked. “Well, you know…,” I tried to explain, “how sometimes stepchildren aren’t accepted by their stepparents and that, presumably, that’s more obvious when the kid has ginger hair.” Tears formed in her eyes. “My son is a ginger, and I’ve remarried. Are you saying my husband won’t love my son because he has red hair?”
Sometimes language fails us when we try to describe the relationships of a blended family. Sometimes stepparents are more important to us than our biological parents, and other times they represent the antithesis of a parental relationship. When a grandparent cares for a child whose mother or father isn’t part of the picture, is it wrong for the child to begin calling that grandparent “mom” or “dad?” When a stepparent goes through the process of adopting a stepchild, do you call start calling him the “real father?” In that case, what does “real” even mean?
The apostle Paul uses the language of adoption as an image for our relationship with God in Jesus Christ, but what did he mean by that? It would be nice if there were other passages of scripture in the Old or New Testament in which the relationship between God and humanity was described as one of adoption, but Paul is the only biblical author who writes about God adopting us. There are plenty of passages about us being God’s children and about God marrying and remarrying God’s people in covenant love, but only Paul tries to frame our relationship with God as one of adoption. And I wonder whether my poorly-timed (some might say perfectly-timed) reference to a red-headed stepchild is evidence of why Paul’s image is particularly hard to understand—because many of us hear “adoption” and focus on what isn’t true instead of what is.
In the birth of Jesus Christ, we become children of God not only in metaphor but in a complete and total way. Jesus isn’t merely God’s representative here on earth, nor is he the personification of God’s spirit in human form. He is the infinite, eternal, almighty God who becomes as finite, limited, and vulnerable as any of us. He comes into this world just like the rest of us—born of a mother—yet his birth or, more accurately, the Incarnation is the indivisible union of God’s nature and our nature. That union is the means by which the incompatibility of divine perfection and human inadequacy is overcome. In him, human nature itself is transformed—burnished—by union with the divine, so that we, too, might be united with God—so that we might become fully God’s children.
In Jesus Christ, we are not merely claimed by God as “sort-of” children. In him, we become partakers of the divine nature, full children of God. In the middle of the two sections that make up our reading from Galatians, Paul writes that because we belong to God in Christ, “there is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female” (3:28). In other words, the most basic elements of our human identity—ethnicity, heritage, class, and gender—no longer apply. For Paul, the supersession of our earthly identity is foundational to the Christian faith. Because we belong to God as children, we are set free from any need to try to define that relationship on our own terms and through our own effort. As God’s children, our relationship to God is no longer defined by how we behave—our accomplishments, our faithfulness, our religiosity or our lack thereof—but by the adoption God has enacted on our behalf.
We have been adopted. We have become God’s children. In the birth of Christ, God dwells in us so that we might dwell in God. As Christians, we claim that incarnate identity for ourselves through Baptism. As we emerge from the baptismal waters—even as infants—we undertake the transformation which that union with the divine entails—the burnishing of our imperfections through the indwelling of God’s holiness. That’s what the life of faith is all about. We spend our lives as sort of spiritual adolescents—as individuals who wrestle with our true identity as we mature into the people we have been reborn to become. And all of that begins with the miracle of Christmas. At Christmas, we celebrate again God who dwells not only with us but in us so that we might become God’s children and dwell with God forever.