Saturday, February 20, 2010

Our Father -- One In Whom We can Trust

I begin tomorrow a sereies of six sermons on the Lord's Prayer.  I had originally intended to end the series on Palm Sunday, but I needed to vacate the pulpit one Sunday, so we'll end on Easter.  As I begin the series tomorrow, we will lift up the opening phrase:  "Our Father, Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name."  The opening words, "Our Father" ( πάτερ ἡμῶν) sets the town and has nuances that need to be explored.  As I noted in a posting yesterday there is much scholarly debate about how the word Father is used in the Gospels.  In both versions of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9ff and Luke 11:1-4), the Aramaic Abba is not present.  Rather it is the Greek pater.  To argue theologically from Abba is to argue from silence.  Anyway,  as I'm thinking through this text, I've been dabbling a bit into John Calvin.  Calvin has a bad rap, but he has much wisdom to impart, if we're willing to work through the difficult and challenging parts. 

As to this phrase "Our Father," he notes that by inviting us to share this phrase, Jesus is signifying our adoption as children of God.  But what does it mean for us to have this opportunity?  Calvin writes:

Therefore God both calls himself our Father and would have us so address him.  By the great sweetness of this name he frees us from all distrust, since no greater feeling of love can be found elsewhere than in the Father.  Therefore he could not attest his own boundless love toward us with any surer proof than the fact that we are called "children of God" (1 John 3:1).  But just as he surpasses all men in goodness and mercy, so is his love greater and more excellent than all our parents' love.  Hence, though all earthly fathers should divest themselves of all feeling of fatherhood and forsake their children, he will never fail us (cf. Ps. 27:10; Isa. 63:16), since he cannot deny himself (2 Tim. 2:12).  For we have his promise:  "If you, although you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 7:11p.)? Similarly, in the prophet:  Can a woman forget her . . . children? . . . Even if she forgets, yet I shall not forget you." (Isa. 49:15p.)  But a son cannot give himself over to the safekeeping of a stranger and an alien without at the same time complaining either of his father's cruelty or want.  Thus, if we are his sons, we cannot seek help anywhere else than from him without reproaching him for poverty, or want of means, or cruelty and excessive rigor.  (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3:20:36)

Although the idea of a child-like intimacy that was perhaps envisioned by Jeremias may not be present in the text, there remains a strong sense of intimacy here in any case.  For as Calvin suggests, from whom can we expect greater love than from God our Father.  Now, again, there is an issue that must be acknowledged.  Addressing God as Father carries with it certain patriarchal nuances that we must acknowledge and wrestle with.  Nonetheless, Calvin does remind us that we are children of God and that this status -- not of birth but of adoption is important.   

10 comments:

John said...

"Addressing God as Father carries with it certain patriarchal nuances that we must acknowledge and wrestle with."

For me as a man addressing God as Father never presented gender issues. Initially, I assumed that "Father" was exactly what Jesus meant, in gender specific terms.

As I became more aware of the complexity of God I came to credit Jesus (and God) with a more nuanced perspective (ignoring the fact that he was a 'fully human' male raised and acculturated in a very patriarchal society) I assumed that Jesus use of "Father" surely meant a more gender neutral "parent" and that this term was used to teach an understanding of God as an archetype of the perfect divine mother/father figure, projected by God, through the words of Scripture, as a progression away from the autocratic figure as Lord and Master.

Then I began to understand that regardless of what the Gospel writer's (and Jesus) initially intended, Scripture, as the living Word of God, speaks to each new generation and indeed to each new person, with a new voice and a new intonation if not a new language. The meaning and intent of the original writer, while valuable, was but one interpretation of the words which must be considered - though not necessarily controlling. The meaning of Scripture is not about what we read, but about what we hear - how we interpret the words, allowing ourselves to be open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the process of interpreting the text which God has preserved for us.

I learned that from a feminist's perspective that when she hears the word "Father" this can be a stumbling block, challenging her to work through the nuances which she understands from her hermanuetic, to reach past the gender curtain imposed by patriarchy and see an aspect of God not previously known. Not being a feminist, my personal responsibility in such circumstances is not to guess what a feminist might encounter, but to listen to her and hear her in her own words share what she found, not only in terms of the previously unheard message from God, but of the previously unrecognized burdens and stumbling blocks which the unbridaled power of patriarchy has placed in the path of women. ("Unbridaled" - now there is a pregnant word for me to choose.)

And I know that God thought it was particularly important for me to listen to the feminist message, as God gifted me with a household filled with eloquent feminists - and while everything else on my body might be falling apart, my hearing remains unimpaired!

John

Anonymous said...

That was amusing John, but I'll bet you have some hearing loss. Ouch. David Mc

OneSmallStep said...

Bob,

**Nonetheless, Calvin does remind us that we are children of God and that this status -- not of birth but of adoption is important.**

In this viewpoint, if God is the adoptive Father, who's considered the "birth" father?

John said...
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John said...
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Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

If God is the adoptive father, then who is the birth father? Good question.

I believe that if we look at the biblical view, which I think Calvin has in mind, the adoptive father's choice trumps all other choices.

I think of the scene in Ben Hur, which I refer to in the audio version of the sermon this morning, where Judah Ben Hur becomes the adopted son of the man he had rescued, freeing him from slavery.

Again, I'm not sure where Calvin would be on this, but if the Roman Emperor is the Great Father of all, by becoming children of God by adoption, does that not change one's allegiance?

John said...

For me the picture of God as "patron" which finds support in Scripture by Jesus' several parables which refer to the "master" of the household, is ultimately trumped by the description of God as "father" and God's people as "children". It may just be my own bias but envisioning God as patron just doesn't work for me. Too distant, too disconnected, and too dispassionate. And as a believer, I cannot generate much internal passion about the absentee master.

By the way, I wonder if you factored into your analysis on adoption and empire, the fact that Augustus, the 'great father' of the Roman Empire and the first Roman emperor to be called the 'Son of God,' whose death preceded Jesus by but a few years, was the adopted son of Julius Caeser?

John

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

John,

Yes, I thought about the fact that the emperor was both the son of a god and the great father.

What I believe the point in the passage here is that we are children of God, who is our patron and provider. I don't think that rules out other images or interpretations. I simply want to get at the point of the text -- which I think is adoption. The patron needn't be distant. In the story of Ben Hur, the relationship between Arius and Judah isn't distant. Though Judah ultimately must choose between his loyalty to Arius and his loyalty to the Jewish people.

Anonymous said...

"If God is the adoptive father, then who is the birth father? Good question. "

Well, DNA paternal testing is what, $150? David Mc

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

David -- metaphor, metaphor!!!