Sunday, May 1, 2011

Christ's Resurrection and You: Noblesse Oblige

Texts:    Romans 8:9-25; John 20:19-23

        ALL OVER THE WORLD THIS PAST FRIDAY, PEOPLE were glued to coverage of the royal wedding.  Even we Americans find the British monarchy fascinating.  And I'm wondering, how would you feel, how could you act, if it could be proven that you were the direct, legitimate descendant of royalty?

    The other night, I was doing some genealogical work online.  I think it'd be fun to give my mom an updated version of her chart for Mother's Day, and I was trying to see how far back I could get.  Well, I hit paydirt with a website that had page after page of information on a branch of the family I hadn't researched much before.  I identified my three-times-great grandmother, and on her "Person Page" the notes said that, according to a book called Royal Descents of 600 Immigrants, she was the direct descendant of Edward I of England and Robert II of France.

    Wow, I thought.  Wow.  I'm descended from kings and queens!  Immediately I began to sit a little taller.  Instantly I felt more responsible, more capable.  I was filled with a sense of noblesse oblige, the conviction that I had a duty to do great and good things in my life, and not only that, that I had the ability to do them.

    There was one problem.  The fourth or fifth cousin who published this website had inserted a question mark in the middle of this note.  Oh-oh.  So I dug further.  And it turns out that this claim to royal blood came about because great-great-great grandmother Sophia's great-grandpa Matthew ran around colonial Maryland claiming to be a younger son of a certain duke or earl back in England.  There's no mystery about that; it's well-documented that that's what he alleged.  Trouble is, the records in England say the nobleman's son named Matthew died as a young boy, and the family coat of arms our Matthew sported in the colonies wouldn't have been the proper style for a younger son, even if the duke or earl had been his father.

    Oh.  So much for my royal ancestry.  It was inspiring for the half-hour it lasted!

    But then it hit me-- I am related to royalty!  And so are you!  And our relationship to the King is a lot closer than thirty or forty generations back.  And we've got a lot better proof of it than what we read on some website or in somebody's book or what some ancestor bragged about four hundred years ago.  You and I are children of the great Monarch of the universe, God Almighty Himself, and the guarantee of that relationship is the resurrection of our Elder Brother Jesus Christ and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit.

    See what it says in Paul's letter to the Romans.  If we'd had time to read the whole eighth chapter, we'd see that it begins and ends with God's solution to our sense of condemnation over our sins.  There is now no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ, and because Christ is for us, no one can bring any charge against us; we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  The second part and the next to the last part tell us what life is like for those who are still under condemnation and those who through Christ are conquerors over sin.  And the center of it all shows us how we are more than conquerors.  Verses 14 through 17 assure us that we're not just victorious warriors in God's army, we are sons and heirs in God's household!

    How do we know?  We know it by the power of the Holy Spirit in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Verse 14 says that those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.  Verse 16 assures us that  "The Spirit of God testifies with our spirit that we are God's children"!  Up in verse 10, we are assured that by His Spirit the risen Christ is living in us, making our spirits alive because of His righteousness, even while our bodies are effectively dead because of sin.  This Spirit living in us is the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead, and He will also bring about the resurrection of our mortal bodies.  Christ's resurrection makes ours possible; more than that, it guarantees that we, too, will rise.

    Can we believe that?  Yes, because we are children of God, sealed with His Spirit.  And as it says in verse 17, "if we are children, we are heirs--heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ."  Titus 1, verses 5b-7 say that "He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life."  Our inheritance is first and foremost eternal life!  When Christ arose, He proved that He has eternal life to give.  He showed that because we are in Him, we now share the deathless life that He displayed outside the tomb that first Easter morning.

    It's important for us to keep the "sons of God" language in this passage.  In ancient Greco-Roman society, daughters did not inherit the estate from their fathers.  Of course, neither did servants or slaves.  Nor, ordinarily, did boys born out of wedlock.  It was legitimate sons who inherited their fathers' possessions and power.  And adopted sons could inherit as well.  And so Paul writes that we all have received the same spirit of sonship through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Jesus Christ alone is God's Son by substance and nature.  But through His blood we have been legally adopted by God. All the good things that are coming to Jesus are also coming to us.  We all will share in His glory that will be revealed at the last day, when He comes to judge the living and the dead.

    We will share in His glory, that is, if indeed we share in His sufferings.  The earthly life of an adopted royal son is not one of indulgence and ease.  In verses 5 through 8 of this chapter Paul talks about the low, deadly, hostile, and rebellious life and attitude we find in someone who isn't controlled by God's Spirit.  It makes sense that someone like that who's outside of God's favor is going to suffer for it.  But in verses 18 on, we see that we who belong to God's household by adoption can expect to suffer in this life, too. 

    Of course we can say that people who reject God suffer from His wrath, while God's children suffer from the wrath of the world.  But that's not where Paul takes us in the next part of chapter 8.  No, he seems to be telling us that just as we are bound up in Christ and share His sufferings and His coming glory, so too is the creation bound up in suffering with us and waits to be brought to glorious freedom when we are fully revealed as God's beloved sons.  We represent creation, and only with us will it be freed from its bondage to death and decay.

    So in this life we still struggle against the effects of sin, our sins and the sins of others.  We still experience the disruption of creation brought about by the Fall, we're still subject to calamities like earthquakes, floods, and deadly storms.  As children of God these disasters make us long for the day when God's purpose will be fulfilled and the promise of Christ's resurrection will be made perfect in us.  Paul writes that when His glory is revealed in us, every bad thing that has ever happened to us will be seen to be nothing, in comparison to the glory we will inherit.  But right now we're still in the middle of the war.  Our adoption as sons is not yet complete; it won't be final until our bodies are redeemed, resurrected, and renewed to be like the body of the risen Christ.  At that time all creation will be redeemed and renewed with us.

    Still, even now the Spirit testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God.  Therefore, what should be our attitude?  Since the royal shed blood and triumphant resurrection of Jesus Christ have given us life, how should we behave?

    The term was "noblesse oblige."  It literally means "nobility obliges."  Verse 12 tells us, "Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation-- but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it."  Being a child of Almighty God does not give us the right to sin up a storm on the basis that Jesus paid for it all.  It does not give us license to look down on unbelievers as if it was some virtue or attractiveness in ourselves that made Jesus save us.  Being related to God the Father by the royal blood of Christ does not entitle us to condemn others as if we ourselves did not deserve to be condemned.  That is living according to the sinful nature, and if you do that, you will die.

    No, rather, because God has made us His children through the resurrection of His Son, we struggle to put to death the misdeeds of our sinful flesh.  By the Spirit of God we do this; not on our own: He causes us to cry out to our heavenly Father and depend on Him alone.  By His Spirit He makes us more and more like His Son Jesus Christ.

    As the Spirit leads us, we grow to do the deeds that befit our status as royal children.  I think my response of responsibility and capability when I thought I might have royal ancestry was the right one, even though, I admit, it was rather silly even if it had been true. As beloved sons in the household of our heavenly Father, we do have the responsibility confidently and ably to represent our Lord wherever we are and to whomever we may meet.  A tall order for weak, sinful mortals like ourselves-- but God through His Spirit gives us the capability to do all He asks.

    When the risen Christ appeared to His disciples in the Upper Room the night of His resurrection, John says that "he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.'" This was a foretaste of the great outpouring that would come forty days later at Pentecost.  But it's important what our Lord says to them next.  He says, "‘If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.'"

    I hope you understand what a weighty obligation that puts on you.  It applies especially to us pastors and teachers, who have the responsibility of opening the word of God and declaring Christ's forgiveness out of it.  But you, the Church; you, the individual Christian, also have a noble obligation in the power of the Spirit to declare the forgiving gospel of Christ to those around you.  You have an obligation to be the face and form of the Body of Christ to those whom you meet every day.

    It's a formidable responsibility.  In our weakness we fail at it all the time.  But you are not alone.  You have God's Holy Spirit living in you, proving to you that you are His child, demonstrating that your lineage through the blood of Jesus Christ is true.  You have the power of Christ's resurrection in you, giving you life and sustaining you with His promise through all the struggles and sufferings of this life.  You have this holy Supper, where you may see, touch, and taste, and have the promise of His everlasting life confirmed to you.

    The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the risen Lord, and  we will share their jubilation when He returns with all His saints when He comes again in glory.  Until then, stand tall, walk by the Spirit, and remember who you are.  By the resurrection of your Lord Jesus Christ, you are a child of God. You are His heir, and a co-heir with Christ.  May God work in you and in all His children what is pleasing to Him, to the glory of His name.  Amen.

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