Summit Presbyterian Church
July 17, 2011
Romans 8: 12-25
Waiting for the Inheritance
One of my guilty pleasures this summer was to watch, on Netflix, all seven episodes of Masterpiece Classic's "Downton Abbey" -- a soap opera that follows the lives of an aristocratic English family and their servants right before World War I. I call it a guilty pleasure because the politics of the show are somewhat reactionary - it's a romanticized view of the English Ruling class - and the costumes alone must have cost a fortune. (But guilt didn't stop me from watching it not just once but twice, as with all those English accents I couldn't understand half the dialogue the first time round ). The premise of the show is this: Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, is Lord of a huge estate -- a castle with enormous grounds - called Downton Abbey. But he has no son, only daughters, who cannot inherit. The estate must go to the next in line to receive his title, and as the show opens that's fine, because the next in line is a close cousin of the Earl whose son is already engaged to his eldest daughter. But also as the show opens, the cousins are killed in the sinking of the Titanic. The next heir is an obscure 3rd cousin once removed, a lawyer in Manchester named Matthew Crawley. No one at Downton Abbey has ever met Matthew, or even heard of him, so there's consternation on all sides. But Lord Grantham decides to make the best of it by inviting Matthew to the Abbey so he can groom him for the day he'll inherit. Matthew is a young man living a perfectly comfortable life with his mother - they have a cook, they don't do any cleaning - but it's a life far removed from the opulence and granduer of Downton Abbey. They're at breakfast when the post comes, and when Matthew tells his mother he's received a letter from Lord Grantham she asks, in surprise, "what on earth does he want?" Matthew replies: "he wants to change our lives."
And change their lives he does. They move into a house in the village near the Abbey, and the show follows their gradual adoption into the family. The Earl's oldest daughter complains that now her father has a son - and Matthew begins to learn the ropes of running this huge estate. It becomes his full-time job; he's given a valet (a personal servant) and learns how to treat him with the proper mix of grace and authority; he takes on responsibilities for tenants in the surrounding farms; and he and his mother slowly make their way into the affections of the Crawleys, although the resentments and power shifts of this new relationship fuel many subplots. Matthew is still waiting to inherit - title, money and land - but in the meantime his life has changed. He has a new purpose, a new family, new relationships with all the people - and the world - around him.
In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul uses the language of inheritance to describe the new life that we have in Christ, through the Spirit. Our inheritance, [I think this is what Paul is saying] is freedom and glory as joint heirs with Christ. Freedom from the power of sin and death to destroy life; although we still experience both, through Christ we know forgiveness, and will inherit the glory of eternal life. That glory will not only be seen and known in our redeemed bodies, but in the redemption of the whole creation, a creation that is also waiting, and groaning. This freedom and glory is an inheritance we haven't yet received -- the sufferings of the present time are proof of that - but in the meantime, our lives are changed. The promise of this inheritance brings new purpose. It brings a new relationship with God, who through the spirit of adoption we may now call Abba, Father or Mother. It brings a new family in the church, a new relationship with all the people we encounter, and indeed with the whole creation.
So, although we'll only know God fully - as we are fully known - in the life after death, Christ brings us now into an intimate and loving relationship with the God who knew and shared our human life in Jesus, including suffering and death. A relationship that we're invited to nurture in prayer, in worship, in reflection on the life of Jesus and in study of God's word. A relationship that changes our lives as we experience healing in body, mind or spirit. A relationship that changes our lives as God comforts, strengthens, and enlightens us. A relationship that changes our lives as we're called to new purpose: caring for the least of these, giving more generously of our time and treasure, inviting others into God's love. A relationship that changes our lives as we're drawn into this new family the church, where we learn to pray and care for one another, through grief and illness as well as joy, building a community of love.
And as we await our inheritance of eternal life, the whole creation waits with us. The redemption of creation has been described in the Bible as a time when God will wipe away all tears; when the lion will lie down with the lamb, when people will turn swords into plowshares; when the new Jerusalem will descend from the heavens, and the leaves of the tree of life will bring healing to all the nations. This redemption will bring judgement, but also peace, life and justice throughout the earth. We may have trouble believing in this inheritance: it seems even more incredible than an eternal life for souls in heaven. But like the inheritance of eternal life, the inheritance of a redeemed creation also changes our lives now. For if we're joint heirs with Christ, we need to start learning the ropes. We need to start learning how to live with enough and share what we have, for in the redeemed creation, children do not starve in Somalia while adults live in luxury around the world. We need to start learning how to make peace, for the in redeemed creation we can't reach for guns or bombs to get our way, or send young men and women to die in far off lands. We need to start learning how to welcome and celebrate the gifts of all peoples, because in the redeemed creation we won't have national borders and laws to keep people out. We need to start learning how to live in peace with all God's creatures, for in the redeemed creation the earth is not a commodity to be bought and sold, regardless of the people or plants or animals upon it. We're heirs of an inheritance that will come in the future -- but, like Matthew Crawley, we need to be preparing now.
I"ve placed two kinds of inheritance side by side: but of course there are many differences between inheriting an English Manor and inheriting freedom and glory in a redeemed creation. This is one: Matthew Crawley can see his inheritance of Downton Abbey. He can survey the grounds, he can admire the chandeliers and the tapestries, he can wander through the dozens of rooms. He is often invited to the Abbey for meals, where he has a foretaste of the many banquets he will direct as the Earl of Grantham. We, however, cannot see our inheritance. It's yet to be revealed. O we see signs, and know it in part: in the beauty of this world and in its many blessings; in the love we share and in the victories for justice that we have seen even in our lifetimes. Every time we eat the bread and drink of the cup in Holy Communion, we share in a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. But we can't yet see the redeemed creation: we have to wait for our inheritance in hope. In hope we were saved, says Paul, and who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
And so we are called to wait for our inheritance: with patience, in hope, but not passively. For what on earth does God want? God wants to change our lives.