My point is this: heirs, as long as they are minors, are no better than slaves, though they are the owners of all the property; but they remain under guardians and trustees until the date set by the father. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Do you ever watch the quiz show ‘Pointless’? If you do, you’ll know that occasionally they have a round based on the names of the chemical elements in the Periodic Table. Sometimes it’s clear that the contestants have attempted to learn the more obscure ones in preparation, and come out with answers such as Livermorium or Oganesson (and yes, I had to look those up.)
It used to be thought that these elements are the most fundamental building blocks of the world, and cannot be split up into anything smaller. But ever since Ernest Rutherford proved the existence of the atomic nucleus in 1911 we know now that this isn’t true.
Going further back in time, in the ancient world there were considered to be just four elements – earth, air, fire and water – and it was believed these in combination accounted for everything in the universe. This might be what Paul refers to when he writes of ‘the elemental spirits of the world’. For Paul, these things enslave us. Only in Christ are we are no longer slaves, or children controlled by a guardian. Nothing is more fundamental than our identity as Christians.
Therefore, to be free we must move beyond the idea that the word is divided into fundamental elements or categories. As he has already said, in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female. We need to move beyond dividing people into such categories, or thinking that our cultural constructs are truly fundamental. Being free in Christ means looking past what we sometimes think is fundamental to see there is a new world beyond them, just as beyond the elements there is a mind-boggling sub-atomic world of tiny particles which behave in peculiar and confusing ways.
Loving God, we thank you for the freedom that you give us, freeing us from the things that divide us from from you and from each other. Help us to see that you are the true ‘elemental spirit’ of the Universe, and help us not to value our assumptions about the world above your all encompassing love. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Nicholas Jones is minister of Heswall URC & St. George’s URC, Thornton Hough.