Sunday, June 3, 2012

Abba: It Wasn’t Just the Name of a Band

Abba: It Wasn’t Just the Name of a Band

Romans 8:12-17

First Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, Washington
Trinity Sunday, June 3, 2012

When we cry, “Abba! Father!”

I am pretty sure I am showing my age when I come up with a title like the one for today’s sermon; that is, until I opened the New York Times not long ago and read an article titled, “While in Surgery, Do You Prefer ABBA or Verdi?”[1] Not that it’s all that pertinent to today’s message, but the article discussed the differing musical tastes of physicians populating operating theaters. For those among us who don’t connect the name ABBA with music, they were a Scandinavian band whose disco-style music was on the pop charts for an impressive 10 years from 1972-1982. They have been called the most popular musical group ever to come from Scandinavia, though I have to say, I don’t think there’s a crowded roster of contenders, no offense intended.

Now, if you still can’t recall who ABBA was or what their music sounded like, that could well be an advantage in understanding today’s scripture without getting distracted. I recall struggling through Bible studies and cofirmation classes with young people in the churches I served during the years of ABBA’s popularity. In those days, when we came to this word abba that both Paul and Jesus used for our Heavenly Father, the discussion inevitably would take a wrong-turn and there was no rescuing it from animated conversation about this or that song from what was then a popular band.

So, I want you to know, if the word abba in Paul’s letter to the Romans distracts you with thoughts of a glittering disco dance floor, please remember that the name of the band was simply made up of the first letters of the first names of each of the four people in the band. Paul’s use of abba refers to an Aramaic word that Jesus employed when speaking of God. It was also a word that Jewish children would have used to address their fathers in a familial way, it could as well be translated “Daddy” as “Father.”

When someone says to us, “We plan to treat you just like family,” would we be likely to respond, “Fine, do you mind if we drop by your attorney’s office in the morning to make sure that your estate planning has provision for me along with the rest of the family members”? Not likely! When someone wants us to make ourselves at home, it’s just a figure of speech, a manner of telling us they want us to be comfortable, to relax. There is little chance that they literally hope to adopt us into their family, to make us heirs along with their own children.

At the beginning of today’s passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul called us brothers and sisters, which, after all these centuries, seems a natural enough way for church members to refer to each other. I remember a funeral director in Port Arthur, Texas who always referred to me as “Brother Elder,” as in, “Let’s have Brother Elder stand over here by the flowers.” And he wasn’t even a standard issue Southern Baptist, but a Lutheran, albeit a Texas Lutheran. “Brothers and sisters in Christ,” seems a gentle enough way to refer to those who are related to each other through their common church affiliation.

Even so, Paul was just getting warmed up with the family metaphor when he began by addressing us a siblings. He goes on to say that all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. I recall many Sundays throughout the course of my ministry when I have held a child up before the congregation, saying, “See how God loves us, that we should be called ‘children of God.’” It is a powerful claim to make, that we are the very children of our creator. I remember one little tike I baptized over 25 years ago who grew to 6’7”, and played collegiate basketball. I would definitely need help holding him up in front of a congregation today, but he is no less a child of God for that!

Logically enough, this idea that we are God’s children leads Paul to the affirmation that if we are brothers and sisters, and children of God in the Spirit, then God is our abba, the old Aramaic word for “Daddy.” He tosses in the word, “adoption,” and then reasons that those who have been claimed as adopted sons or daughters can lay claim to the status of heirs. This means that somehow we have been entitled to an inheritance, since that is what being an heir is all about.

Finally, comes the crowning declaration of this escalating use of familial language: “and if [we are] children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

This, then, caps the passage. Christ, whom we declare to be the only son of God, has effected our adoption so that we stand not under him, or near him, or slightly behind him on faith’s family tree, but right alongside, joint heirs, truly brothers and sisters not only with each other but with Jesus. Amazing! Christ has gone beyond our most fabulous experiences of human hospitality, treating us as family, as heirs on a par with those who are verifiable members of the family. Now there is someone who treats us like members of the family!

Now, to back up a bit, what do you suppose Paul meant when he said we are children of God as we are led “by the Spirit of God”? How are we made into a family, exactly? This is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar, which is the traditional day for preachers to try to help their congregations make sense of the doctrine of the Trinity. That’s assuming preachers have made sense of it for themselves, which might be a pretty big assumption for some of us!

Probably, most Christians are happy to talk about God having redeemed us through Jesus Christ and leave it at that. But Paul claims that the work of the Spirit brings us into the family of faith. God as Father, Son, Spirit, it gets confusing. Why can’t we just say God or Jesus and leave it at that?  I recall the memorable words of one theologian on this complicated matter of the Trinity: “We need to respond to God as [God has chosen to be revealed] – not invent simple ideas of God which, although much easier to believe, do not actually correspond to God.”[2]

It may be easier to believe in a God “up there,” and leave it at that. But if we do that for very long, while we may wind up with something religious-sounding, it certainly won’t be Christianity. The most basic of Christian affirmations is that God became human, became a person named Jesus, lived among us, and after he was crucified and raised from death, his followers continued to sense the presence and ministry of God among them. A God who is “up there,” beyond space and time cannot know us or become self-disclosing. We certainly cannot be said to be the children of such a God in any way. This would be a God who created but cannot redeem, bearing no resemblance to “the God who [is made] known to us through scripture, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and through Christian experience [in the continuing presence of the Spirit] – in short, [no resemblance] to the God of ordinary Christian piety and simple faith!”[3]

When we talk about God, who are we actually talking about? The God about whom we share, week after week in this church, is the God who created the world we know, the God who claimed a people who came to know themselves as Israel, a God who helped to rescue them from enslavement in Egypt, who moved with them to a land of promise amid signs and wonders, a God who accompanied these people when they went into terrible and painful exile in Babylon, who inspired prophets to map the course of return to covenant faithfulness for them, a God whose messenger angel visited young Mary one night with the news that she was to give birth to a son, to name him Joshua – or Jesus, which meant “God saves,” because that is what Jesus would do. It is the God who then raised this Jesus from death when he was murdered. And announced the purpose in doing so, for “God so loved the world that God sent the only son...”[4] This same God has raised up in each generation new believers to carry the good news of the gospel, and in the process, lives have been changed, hospitals built, universities established, missions carried out, all in the name of the God about whom we speak.

Now, when we talk about God, who are we talking about? When we say, “God,” hasn’t it become a shorthand way of saying all that we believe God has done for and among us? For Christians, isn’t the word “God” shorthand for “the one who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead,”[5] and made preachers out of fishermen at Pentecost, but including all the rest, from “the one who brought Israel out of Egypt,” down to “the one who gives us strength to hope in life after death, even after we have watched death take away the ones we love”?

When we say we believe in God the Abba, Son, and Holy Spirit, it is a shorthand way of summarizing the high points of salvation history, of God’s dealings with his people, of God’s mad lover’s quest for us.

·    If God were just a deity in heaven, we might be likely to think of God as a distant and far-removed creator of the world, like a general directing the front-line troops from the safety of a far-off bomb-proof bunker. But Christians know God isn’t like that. Christians believe in a God who is involved in our lives.
·    If God were just a “son,” a man namded Jesus, we would have to think of God as identical with a single human being. We would have to think of the eternal God as concentrated in a single person, like a billion gallons in a one quart jar. But Christians know that God just isn’t like that. Jesus wasn’t talking to himself when he prayed. The New Testament is most careful to insist upon a distinction between the Abba God and the Son.
·    If God were just “Spirit,” we would have to think of God as contained in our own experiences of the world. The Spirit inspires us, but beyond our own experience of the Spirit, and that of others we know or know of, we can’t say we know. To believe in a God beyond our own experience of him, we must believe in a creator, in God the Abba. And so, we cycle back to the beginning of the Trinity.

Paul has affirmed that it is the Spirit of God that moves us to become fellow heirs with Christ. All three persons of the Trinity in one passage, at work in making us members of the family of faith, children of the God who created us. Understand the Trinity? We may never fully understand it, but then most families don’t fully understand each other. They just live together in love. As Augustine once wrote, “Wherever there is love there is a Trinity: a love, a beloved, and a spirit of love.”

Dear brothers and sisters, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” We’re all children of God. Welcome home!

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “While in Surgery, Do You Prefer Abba or Verdi?”, by Daniel Wakin, The New York Times, June 10, 2006.

[2]  “Making Sense of the Trinity,”  by Alister McGrath, Princeton Seminary Bulletin, 2/91, p. 2.
[3] Ibid.
[4] John 3:16.
[5] Romans 4:24.