Adoption and inheritance 

September 23, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Ephesians 1:1-14 at Choral Eucharist with Baptism on Sunday 23rd September 2018, the 17th Sunday after Trinity.

Have you ever wondered how the letters of St Paul and the apostles got to their destination, given that there was no postal service? The simple answer is, by courier. In the case of Paul’s letter to the Romans, a trusted disciple was tasked with making the long journey of 765 miles from Cenchreae on land and sea, and this courier was a rich woman and a Deaconess, a female benefactor and leader of the church who was trusted commended and praised by St Paul. Her name… was Phoebe.

As little Phoebe is baptised today she is following in the footsteps of an amazing saint. We may not know much about Phoebe the deaconess, but we do know that if she had not fulfilled her duty to carry that letter to its destination we would not have such wonderful words as “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)

Little Phoebe, like all of us, has been called by God and has unique gifts and tasks that she alone can fulfill within God’s eternal plans for the universe. Today’s bible reading reminds us that even though our Phoebe has only just appeared on this earth God chose her before the foundation of the world, and today wants to adopt her (in the ceremony of Baptism) as his beloved daughter. Now the thing about adoption in the Roman Empire, was that it was not a secretive thing and was commonly practiced so that every family could have a male heir to inherit the family fortune. The adopted heir would have all the rights and privileges of a biological child, would take the name of the parent, and would inherit the family fortune. It was used in the case of many Roman Emperors to ensure a smooth transition of power. This offer of adoption is made by God himself to us. We are given the opportunity to become members of God’s royal family and heirs. Taking the name of Christian, but not relinquishing our natural family ties. Thankfully this offer, unlike that of ancient Rome is open to daughters as well as sons and it is a free gift, entirely bestowed by the grace of God. The riches we are promised within this life are spiritual riches and graces, but we are also promised physical eternal life and an undoing of the decay of death through God’s resurrection. The copious running water of the baptism liturgy poured and splashing upon the font reminds us of the living water of the holy spirit, and the generousness of the water reminds us of the generosity of God’s grace, splashing and pouring down on Phoebe’s head. As Katie prayed in the opening prayer today “As children of God, we have a new dignity and God calls us to fullness of life.” We can walk tall with confidence (literally con fides; with faith or trust) knowing that we have that dignity; that we are loved and claimed by God. The water, as well as washing, is a symbol of that fullness of life to which we are called. Our bodies are composed of 60% water and we cannot live without it, water brings us life in the desert but also so much more, the splashing of waterparks, and the teeming life of the oceans.

Baptism itself is a complete initiation in itself. It does not need confirmation to complete it, which is why some Anglican churches have begun to admit children to communion, after some preparation, but before Confirmation, leaving confirmation as an adult commitment of faith. The promises that Phoebe’s godparents made today are promises of things to come. Phoebe has an inheritance, but she has not yet claimed that inheritance. That will come later, as she grows and learns more about God and herself, and makes the baptismal promises her own. It is at that point, when she is ready,  that she will unseal the love letter delivered not by a courier, but by God specifically to her, and claim the eternal joy promised to her today. May we all, as we hear the baptism promises this day, have a renewed sense of these treasures that are promised to us in Christ, as heirs to his kingdom.