Godspeak: de-coding the language of the church. “The Father”

Sunday, May 25, 2008. Second Sunday after Pentecost.

Opening Prayer: Gracious God – revealed to us as one God in three persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer – the God of Israel – the God of all creation – we open ourselves to you and your purposes. We pray that your Spirit will work within us such that we may do our part to build your Kingdom – the Kingdom that the Christ revealed through his words and deeds. We pray that your ongoing work of creation will make the world anew – such that all people will know you and be treated with the dignity and respect due to those created in your very image. We offer this prayer to you, the Father, in the name of the Son and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

First Old Testament Reading:
Exodus 3:13-15

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Second Old Testament Reading: Leviticus 26:11-13

I will place my dwelling in your midst, and I shall not abhor you. And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people.

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.

New Testament Reading: 1 John 1:1-3

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life — this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us — we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

As we think about the ways in which the church has developed its own language – Godspeak – and the barrier that creates in communication, we have begun to de-code what it means to talk of God as Trinity. As part of that endeavor, we will try and answer a few important questions along the way:

• Can we talk about God without re-creating God in our own image?

• How can we find language with which to speak of the infinite?

• Do our descriptions of God limit our understanding of God?

• How wrong do we have to be about God before we aren’t talking about God any more?

Godspeak results from the challenge to find the least inadequate way to talk about God. The use of the term “Father” to talk about God is almost second nature in church communities, yet this brings with it two big issues:

• Our own images of a “father”
• Use of gendered language to talk about God

The first issue arises because fathers can be: Absent, Violent, Abusive, Controlling, Manipulative, Demanding, Uncaring, Unloving … the list goes on and on. And such images of a ‘father” bring us face-to-face with one of those questions we listed: Can we talk about God without re-creating God in our own image?

The point, of course, is not that God the Father resembles the fathers we’ve just been describing – in other words, God isn’t created in their image – it is supposed to be the other way around – fathers on earth are to model themselves on the Father in heaven. We are created in God’s image, not the reverse.

When we think about the use of gendered language to talk about God we have to recognize that Hebrew – the language of the Old Testament in large part – is a gendered language. So we might then ask why they opted to use “he” and not “she” to write of God? Often we might read that the society was patriarchal and that this explains the whole matter. But actually, it isn’t that simple. There were plenty of surrounding pagan cultures with goddesses. In fact, these were important in the worldview of those people for several reasons:

• Pagan ideas of gods and goddesses incorporated into fertility rites

• Pagan “origin stories” via reproduction of gods and goddesses

• Pagan ideas of creation as an extension of the gods and goddesses

The Hebrew ideas of creation as entirely different from God prohibit both ideas of creation via reproduction and ideas of creation as an extension of God. And for these reasons the patriarchal society chose to use “he” and not “she” in writing about God. We might ask why use “Father” as an image at all? You might take a moment for this quiz:

How many times in the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) – the Torah – is God specifically identified as “Father”?

Did you take a guess? Well, the answer is once. In Deuteronomy 32:6 “Do you thus repay the LORD, O foolish and senseless people? Is he not your father, who created you, who made you and established you?”

Although indirect references abound (e.g. Israel as “first-born son”, Exodus 4:22) there is just the one unambiguous direct reference.

In Torah, God is described using terms/images to show that God is:

• Transcendent (“wholly other”) yet also as personal (“fatherlike”)

• Self-existent (“I AM WHO I AM”) yet also the source of personhood

The term “Father” creeps in somewhat more frequently in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, but we REALLY see it come into use in the Gospels (but infrequently elsewhere in the NT). And why is that? It is that Jesus again!

Jesus refers to God as “my Father” or “the Father” often in Matthew and John, sometimes in Luke, rarely in Mark, but Jesus talks to other people about “your Father”. For example, John 20:17 “Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'”

Jesus speaks of “our Father” only once – in Matthew 6:9 “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” – and even then he is telling other people to use that expression!

It seems that Jesus used this my/your terminology to show that:

• He had a Father-Son relationship with God

• We have a Father-Son (Parent-Child) relationship with God

• These relationships are not the same

In fact, the concept of “father and son” in the ancient near east embraced not only a “personal” relationship, but also: (i) Obedience, (ii) Agency, and (iii) Inheritance.

We see the idea of the “personal” nature when Jesus speaks of the father as Abba, in Mark 14:36 “He said, ‘Abba, father, for you all things are possible…’”. Abba is the Aramaic term used much
like one might use “dad” in English (although it was also a term of respect used in reference to priests).

Obedience is shown in passages such as Matthew 26:39 “And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”

The idea of “agency” is that a son fully represented a father in that culture. A son sent by his father could negotiate contracts, enter into agreements and so on, just as if the father himself was present. This idea is portrayed in Matthew 11:27 “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Inheritance mattered in that society, with first-born sons having the key position in inheriting and carrying on the role of the father. This idea is seen in Matthew 25:34 “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…”

Last week we saw how de-coding the concept of Trinity led us to a model for life: Community – Diverse Community- Cooperative Community – Community in which each participates in the lives of the other – none is in isolation from any other. Now, as we look within the Trinity, we see the ideas of obedience, agency and inheritance contained within the broader picture. We could sum up these ideas like this:

• Obedience – Do no harm, do all the good you can (John Wesley)

• Agency – all it takes for evil to win is for good people to do nothing (act as you know God would want you to act)

• Inheritance – the Kingdom of God is a reality waiting for us to claim it

Previously we have asked if our descriptions of God limit our understanding of God? Well, yes, they can. Talk of God as Father needs to understood in light of Numbers 23:19a “God is not a man”! Once we embrace that, we can step back and see that the description of God as Father is a call to obedience, agency and inheritance. Each of these fosters the type of community revealed through the Trinity. And that is why it matters!

Thanks for visiting!