"Child of God"
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Matthew 17: 1-9
When I graduated from Union Seminary in Richmond VA in the late spring of 1985, my parents paid for my graduation robe. It was black, with three stripes on its arms, signifying that I was graduating with a Doctor of Ministry degree. It meant a lot to me, but it also meant a lot to my parents. My dad was provost of Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. He himself had a doctorate in European history from the University of Virginia. He also had a robe with three stripes on each arm, that he’d worn to receive his diploma over twenty years before I’d received mine. My dad was proud of me for getting an advanced degree, but I think he was especially proud that I had the stripes.
For my part, I was then and have remained quite aware that while I’ve got the stripes, they are frankly not as impressive as his stripes were. When it comes down to it, a professional doctorate like mine just doesn’t seem as impressive as a doctorate from an elite university worn by a man who received a Fulbright Scholarship. Or maybe it was just that I have been so in awe of my dad that I just couldn’t imagine myself as his equal.
Time passed. My seminary robe is now, ahem, 35 years old. Where does the time go? While I of course have aged hardly at all, the same can’t be said for my robe. It’s developed holes on the insides of the sleeves. It’s not surprising if you think about it: I’ve worn it once a week, and sometimes two or three days a week, every year for thirty-five years. These things just don’t last forever.
The other day I was putting on my robe and my arm disappeared into a hole on the inside of my sleeve. It was just gone, like it was swallowed up by a black hole. It didn’t come out the other side and I couldn’t figure out which hole it had got lost in. Eventually I recovered my arm fully intact, but I began to think, I need to fix this. I thought about taking it to the tailor. But then I had another idea. My dad died about five years ago. I wondered if my step-mother Debbie had kept his robe. Wouldn’t it be cool to wear my father’s robe? Even though it was older, dad had really only worn it once or twice a year to graduation and special events.
In retrospect, two things. Number One, why didn’t I think of it before? The answer: intimidation. Somehow it just never occurred to me because I didn’t feel as impressive as my dad was. Number Two: Well then, what changed? I’m not sure. Maybe my years of experience have now made me feel worthy.
Whatever the reason, I asked Debbie if it was okay for me to wear it and she was delighted. I think maybe I was afraid she’d think it was presumptuous, but of course she didn’t. Within a couple of weeks I had a box on my doorstep with my dad’s robe dry-cleaned and pressed, along with his cool hat thing and his hood. I had wondered about his hood. The hood is in the school’s colors. Would my dad’s distinguished hood from a bastion of academia be done up in glaring Cavalier Orange? Turns out, no. It’s a more distinguished burnt shade of orange. Of course, I don’t wear that; I have my own hood from Union.
Debbie enclosed a note: “Your dad would love that you’re wearing this. He was so proud of you.”
And so today, for the first time, I am wearing my father’s robe.
In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus puts on his father’s robe. He has ascended a hill in Galilee with three of his closest disciples and a cloud has descended and Jesus has been bathed in light and is suddenly flanked by two of his Jewish predecessors, Moses and Elijah; and a voice comes from the sky and says, “This is my Son, the Beloved—with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” It is the voice of God, of course. The story reminds us of Moses, who led the children of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt: how he ascended the Holy Mountain and was wrapped up in a dark cloud and flames for forty days and forty nights. Now Moses is here with him as if to say, “Jesus is my true and legitimate successor.” But the real power of this moment comes from the voice that proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved—with him I am well pleased!” In this moment, Jesus is dressed in the robe of his heavenly Parent. He is the human presence of God on earth.
This moment matters. After this event, Jesus will decide that he must go to Jerusalem, where his enemies are, and while he’s there, he will be tested; he will be arrested; he will be tried and sentenced; he will be tortured; and he will be killed. If there’s anything that will test his confidence that God is on his side; if there is anything that will test his disciples’ confidence that God is on Jesus’s side; if there is anything that will test your and my confidence that God is on Jesus’ side; it will be the events that take place during that dark time in Jerusalem. They will culminate in Jesus’ tortured words from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus himself will be tempted to doubt that he is God’s son or that God is well pleased with him.
And so it is vitally important—for him, for his disciples, for you and for me—that God assures him and them and us that Jesus is wearing his father’s robe—that he is God’s dear child, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.
Not all of us experience the affirmation of a loving parent. And many of us, even though we may have family who love and affirm us, have a hard time believing that we deserve it. And so for us, it’s so important to believe that we, too, are children of God. But it’s hard to believe it sometimes. We can look at Jesus and say, “Well, of course God affirmed Jesus—he was Jesus! But I’m not Jesus. Why would God want me for a child?”
There’s a doctrine that we Presbyterians affirm called “adoption.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism, which is a question and answer book about Christian belief that was written in the fifteen century, says that “Adoption is an act of God’s free grace,(1) whereby we are received into the number, and have a right to all the privileges of the Children of God.(2)”
The catechism then references a couple of bible verses that back this up. I John 3:1 says, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” And the Gospel of John 1: 12 says, “But to all who did receive him, swho believed in his name, the gave the right uto become vchildren of God…”. Scripture tells us that we are adopted by God as God’s beloved children, viewed in God’s eyes as, get this, equal to Jesus. So whether we understand it or not, whether we think we deserve it or not, it remains true: by God’s grace through Jesus Christ we are children of God. And if you think you aren’t deserving, well, none of us are deserving. God doesn’t adopt us because we are good. God adopts us because God is good.
I came to understand the doctrine of adoption in a new way about twenty-four years ago when I was teaching a confirmation class for teens. I was trying to explain the doctrine of adoption to the kids and not making much progress until one of kids raised her hand and said, “I’m adopted.” Her name was Lauren, and she was a bright, energetic, kind and athletic young woman who sometimes babysat for us. I hadn’t known that she was adopted. She told us that she and her brother were adopted by their parents when they were infants. And she told us through tears, “I love that I am adopted. It means that my parents chose me. They chose me before I could prove myself to them. They chose me and chose to love me even though they didn’t have to. I wasn’t theirs; they MADE me theirs. And that means more to me than anything.”
That’s what adoption means. It means that God has chosen us, has chosen to love us, has chosen to be our parent, God has freely made us God’s children, regardless of anything we could do either to earn it or to thwart it.
Lauren’s story doesn’t end there. Lauren is now a grown woman in her late thirties, an established and successful professional. A few years ago she discovered that she was pregnant. The father, as is all too common, didn’t want to take responsibility for the child, so Lauren just moved on without him. Not everyone is at a point in their lives where they can do what Lauren decided to do next; but she was financially secure and had a strong support system. So she went ahead and had the baby and is raising him now, with the help of her own adoptive parents.
It seems like single parenting is more common these days. And you know, this is the sort of thing that people often think you shouldn’t talk about in church, but I am talking about it because this is an amazing act of faith on Lauren’s part and we should celebrate it. She believes that she was blessed to have loving adoptive parents and that it is her responsibility to pay that love forward. She’s always been that way, helping charitable causes and serving on non-profit boards. She is one of the most loving and giving people Margaret and I know. She is loved and she loves in return. It is a love that is courageous but that also reflects that she believes in God, she believes in love, and that she believes in herself. The affirmation that her parents have given her has also given her the inner strength to do this. She knows she is a beloved child of God and she’s raising her son to know that he is a beloved child of God.
That same affirmation is there for us all in the love of God, who has adopted us and claimed us as God’s children, capable of spreading the love we’ve received into the world around us. How blessed we are to be children of God. How important it is to let others know that they, too, are God’s children, beloved of God. And how important it is for each of to take on that robe of adoption that God offers us through Christ, and to trust God’s voice that says, “With you I am well pleased.”