In the Ephesians reading we just heard, God’s relationship to humankind is compared to the idea of adoption, and there is a strong emphasis on this image of adoption throughout the passage: there’s talk of blood, there’s an inheritance we take on, and it is an inheritance that is “marked with a seal.”
Normally, when I think of adoption, I think of children. I think of Annie, Oliver Twist, the TV show Parenthood, or more creepily, The Handmaids Tale. Maybe you have friends who have adopted children from other countries. Odds are if you know people who have adopted or have been adopted themselves, the process happened with a child.
But there’s also this bizarre phenomenon in Japan that I heard about a couple years ago where the majority of adoptions are adult adoptions. While Japan and the US both have the highest number of adoptions per year, only 2% of all of Japan’s adoptions are children. The other 98%, I’m not kidding, are men between the age of 25 and 30. These men are adopted because they are meant to “scions.” They work for a family business and the owner of that family business, rather than pass it down to his own heirs, his own sons or daughters, has chosen a more worthy candidate to carry on the job once he’s gone. He passes down the family business to his adopted son, and the business gets to keep its name.
I’m just throwing this out there, but hey, I just entered my thirties. I’ve got a lot of talents and if there are any hedge fund guys out there, any real estate tycoons, I’m your orphan! I do have a dad, so you’ll have to talk to him, but I am totally up for adoption. I promise I’ll make you proud.
Seriously, though, can you imagine how this must make the blood-heir child feel? The way one story puts it says, “adopting a scion is similar to a hostile takeover. Blood heirs are under the constant pressure of knowing that if they under-perform, they’ll be replaced.” Ouch. Makes you wonder who is the orphan and who isn’t…
In our lives, we don’t often see ourselves as orphans in need of adoption, but the language of adoption is really about belonging. Who is accepted and who is rejected. Who is in the family and who is out. And despite how crazy this Japanese idea of adoption may sound, it is definitely the way we often think about how belonging works, with each other and with God. Even with the people we spend the most time with in our lives, belonging can feel less like “being yourself,” and more like a subtle art of persuasion, of convincing our “adopters” that we’re worth it.
Brene Brown is a social worker we talk about a lot because her work is all about this idea of belonging. She says belonging, this need to be adopted, “is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it.”
So, in Japan, an adopted son is adopted because has a proven track record to perform. He only belongs–his adoption is really only secure–so far as he performs to the degree he’s expected. And who doesn’t feel this every day to some degree? Moments when we’ve walked into a room and immediately feel like you didn’t get the memo. Or people in our lives who, no matter how hard you try to connect with or make inroads with, it just doesn’t happen–it’s always awkward. Or there are the qualities of belonging you have absolutely no control over, like the question of where you come from: are you a native Virginian? Are you a Southerner? What’s your ancestry? In the end, it doesn’t matter. You can be in the inmost ring of all the concentric circles of belonging, but you’re still an orphan somewhere. There’s still one club you aren’t a part of. You may be an orphan of good breeding, but you are an orphan nonetheless.
If there was one place where I always wanted to belong and yet was never invited–there are a lot of those places–the number one that has wounded me most would undoubtedly be… Hogwarts. I grew up with Harry Potter stories and am continually revisiting them. And let me be clear: I love my life. I like my job, my boss isn’t too bad, my marriage is great, but if I received an owl in the mail that held my invitation to Wizarding School, you better believe I’d be gone faster than you can say Quidditch and Crumple-Horned Snockack. Just saying…
The reason the Harry Potter story is so captivating is this notion of belonging, of feeling left out and then being chosen for just who you are. Poor Harry is living with his terrible aunt and uncle, sleeping in a cupboard beneath the stairs, and is suddenly bombarded with news he can’t even imagine. He is invited into a world he has never heard of and, what’s more, in that world everyone knows his name.
Even in Hogwarts, though, you find out there is a hierarchy of those who matter and those who don’t. There are those who have the right kind of blood, the purebloods, and then there are mudbloods, those wizards who don’t come from purely magical families. Of course, Harry Potter is borrowing from an age-old story…
Jesus saw the same dynamic at work. He is adamant throughout the New Testament that blood, legacy, or really any membership card anyone carries, is invalid in God’s eyes. God holds no quarter based on blood or merit. And almost to prove his point, Jesus selects an “insider group” that is completely made up of orphans–he takes in the children, the lepers, the Samaritans, the sick. It is his way of saying “your circles of belonging mean nothing. They will not save you. If you want everlasting belonging, if you want righteousness, you must be born again from above. You must take on a new name and be adopted into a new family.” In other words, he says, if you want to have pure blood on planet earth, you have to take the heavenly blood that is in these veins.
This is what the Ephesians passage is getting at today: first, that contrary to what you may think of your life circumstances, you are an orphan. No amount of striving or people pleasing or good parenting is going to make you completely at home in this world. But second, the passage is saying that God has signed the adoption papers. And this adoption is signed under no conditions that you remain well-behaved or grow the family business. You have been adopted because it is his GOOD PLEASURE to do so: because he loves you. That’s the only reason: it is you he loves.
This is what J.K. Rowling is getting at the end of the first Harry Potter book. Harry is asking the headmaster Dumbledore why everyone finds him so special, why he was somehow not killed by the evil Voldemort when he was a defenseless baby. Dumbledore tells Harry that, besides the scar on his forehead which Voldemort gave him, there is another mark on him–this one invisible– that his mother gave him when she died. Dumbledore says this:
If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark…and will give you protection forever. It is in your very skin.
This invisible mark, left by the loving sacrifice of Harry’s mother, is just the tiniest glimpse of the seal that marks you. You also have an invisible mark, “in your very skin,” from the love of God in Jesus, who the scripture says became “obedient to death” for our sake, even death on a cross. His loving sacrifice lives in our very skin today, and gives us protection forever. We are marked with his death. It is the seal of your adoption, the mark that makes it all official. And it is not just yours. The Ephesians passage tells us it is his plan for “gathering up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” This is his vision: A whole world full of orphans drawn into God’s household.
So, what does adoption feel like in God’s family? Well, if it can be described, it certainly isn’t contingent like those adult adoptions. It isn’t predicated on your skills or your potential, and you are never in danger of being replaced or found out. Upon adoption, you don’t have to “fit the part” to stay–in fact, if the New Testament is any indication, God’s family is full of those who never fit the part. There are runaways, sociopaths, and gluttons. And their seal of adoption is as secure as ours.
The closest thing I can come to is that maybe it feels like Harry, sitting in that cupboard, getting that letter from God only knows where, inviting him home. It is a place where he isn’t forgotten, but a place where he belongs.
There’s a Mary Karr poem called “The Like Button” that also bring this home. In it, she is describing how social media allows us to dole out attention and approval, and inevitably those blips of belonging go to the rich, the powerful, the sexy. She wonders, then, what it might look like if all that changed, and belonging was bestowed on everyone else. This is how she imagines it:
the smart, the brave,
the strong will take their turns,
but what if we start to like,
say, the stout, the schlubby
neighbor raking leaves or that
subway sleeper who’s woven
yellow crime scene tape into
a jock strap…
till all the undeodorized,
the unloved all their lives, start to feel
their foreheads blip
and blip as it becomes hip
to love the oddest, the most
perilously lonely. Imagine
the forever dispossessed
transforming as they feel the thumb
of yes impress itself
into the very flesh.
This is God’s seal of adoption offered to his dispossessed misfits. It is sealed, written into law, unimpeachable. Despite all our failures to measure up, despite our inane miscalculations about what matters, despite our continual struggle for meaningless approval, God in Christ has seen us as the children we are, and has given us a home. WIth his own blood the thumb of yes has been marked into our very flesh forever.