Friday, September 05, 2008

The Diminution of God as Father

Shrimp here, wondering why it seems that items like the following are published by ELCA Bishops only after they have left that office? Shrimp out, Bansemer in.

The Diminution of God as Father
(And his Holy Pronouns)

by Richard Bansemer, Salem, Virginia
(Bishop Emeritus of the Virginia Synod, ELCA)

It is right to say that we are neither male nor female in the sight of God.1  In the world to come, we neither marry nor are given in marriage.2   We are simply children...children of the resurrection3,  and I think it is safe to say, children of the Heavenly Father, for "When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God."4  The word "children" implies fathers and mothers, just as fathers and mothers imply children. There is the rub. The overwhelming Scriptural witness and church tradition make it clear that the first person of the Holy Trinity is God the Father, and he has a Son, whose name is Jesus, and, come the day of resurrection, we will be newly spiritually bodied,5  but still children of this God.

Since we who read articles like this are still in the body, we are part of the Church Militant. We are not yet fully into the Church Triumphant, though we can sense it at times when we sing with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. While still in our flesh, we need persons unlike ourselves to balance us, persons who make us whole. Perhaps the first and most unselfish thing we ever say to ourselves is, "I am not enough by myself. I need, I want, a helpmate." Even this is not enough. We need to belong to and join in the chorus of angels and archangels. We need and want to be like the threefold cord (spouse or friend, self and God) that will not be quickly broken.6   Mystery upon mystery, we need God the Father every bit as much as God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.

The movement in the church to reduce God pronouns (usually with the obvious exception of God the Son) is an attempt, I think, to make sure that none of us think of God as a male or a female, as we know "male" and "female."7   And that is good. Yet, in the attempt to define God as neither male nor female, in essence we have dehumanized God the Father, as though the incarnation was beneath him, and "Father" no longer applies. Therefore, his deep and personal love for us is abusively diminished, and Collects and prayers directed directly to him in public worship are rare. Even as we found it hard to love a Holy "Ghost," and changed the "Ghost" to "Spirit," loving a God the "Father" who cannot be personally addressed by name, effectively makes God the Father not the first person of the Trinity, but simply "the deity," the "O God," or the "God's Self," (whatever that means) without power and without benevolence, and most importantly, without persona. In short, without gravitas.

For Jesus it was otherwise. "Father" is the name for God on the lips of Jesus from childhood to the cross and beyond. Of him he was not ashamed. Jesus taught us to pray to the Father, in both the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew.8   The very first recorded words from the lips of Jesus were spoken as a boy in the temple about his Father's house.9   The John 17 prayer on behalf of us, his disciples, was directed to God the Father. His Garden of Gethsemane prayer, asking that the cup may pass from him, was directed to God the Father.10   At least two of his prayers from the cross contain the word "Father." The first spoken words of Jesus to the disciples after the resurrection mention his pending Ascension to the "Father."11  At the resurrection tomb, the first words out of the mouth of Jesus were words about the Father: "Jesus said to her (Mary), "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.'"12   On that same day of resurrection, in the evening, Jesus first met with his disciples and referenced the Father with words of peace: "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. Jesus gave us the Great Commission as recorded in the very last two verses of Matthew with the explicit direct instruction to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.13

In the Gospel of John, which is undeniably God the Father dominated, "Father" appears approximately 112 times. Other references to fathers include regular earthly fathers, including father Abraham, and a single reference by Jesus to "your father the devil." It is a telling passage:
"Jesus said to them, "If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now I am here. I did not come on my own, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot accept my word. You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies."14
So, there is such a thing as a father devil, and this reality, I suspect, is what belies the need for so many to diminish God the Father. But if we do that, if we succumb to the worst of fathers, then the worst of fathers wins. And we are no long Fathered. We are simply a child of "O God," whatever that means.

Recall these passages from John regarding our God the Father:
  • "The Father loves the Son and places all things in his hands."15

  • "But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him." 16

  • "Jesus said to them, 'Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise.'"17

  • "No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day."18

  • "Then they said to him, "Where is your Father?" Jesus answered, "You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also."19
Of course, the argument against all this quoting and prose is simply to respond by saying that we do not deny a word of what has been written above; we worship the Father as ardently as we ever have. To that possible response to this article, I can only say "Thank you, but I wish it were clearer to me. I wish you were as clear as Jesus." And, I might add, with tongue in cheek, that I have yet to read a single "correction," or complaint, about calling the devil a "he!"

Once this church was able to hold on to a mystery and a paradox without blushing, but now the mystery of God as principally Father has become an issue. G. K. Chesterton wrote: "Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity." He went on to say that ordinary folk are mystics, because they permit twilight. If two truths stood in contradiction, both were accepted and we lived with it.

The "morbidity problem" of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America church could very well be partially related to our language for God. In short, we have injured ourselves as a church, causing a disunity through stilted and sterile language for God.

Once we could call God "Father" and think nothing at all about human fathers and their many foibles. We must learn to do it again. We should be like the child in the lap of Jesus who becomes the example of how we receive the kingdom of God. For those who have had an abusive father or mother, or have been one themselves, there can be great comfort in Jesus' words: "The Father and I are one."20

Though it is easy to find voluminous references for Jesus calling God "Father" in the New Testament, what is often overlooked is the simple profound fact that when the Father speaks in the New Testament, He is calling Jesus "Son."21  More specifically, it is "My Son."22  More specifically yet, "My beloved Son."23  It is out loud and personal both at the baptism of Jesus and on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. The relationship of Father-Son is reciprocal. So it is with us, as Father-daughter, or Father-son. Deny it and we worship a lesser God.

Luther would complain vehemently, I think, about this deliberate but theologically careless development in our church. He wrote these familiar words regarding the first article of the Apostles' Creed:  I believe in God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
What does this mean?

Answer: I believe that God has created me and all that exists; that he has given me and still sustains my body and soul, all my limbs and senses, my reason and all the faculties of my mind, together with food and clothing, house and home, family and property; that he provides me daily and abundantly with all the necessities of life, protects me from all danger, and preserves me from all evil. All this he does out of his pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness on my part. For all of this I am bound to thank, praise, serve, and obey him. This is most certainly true.
There is no easy way to proceed unless we "go back to the future," reclaim our heritage and identity as astute and precise theologians, or simply depend upon the rest of Christendom not to follow where we mislead. God the Father should be lifted up as the God who creates, sustains, provides, and protects us, as in the creed above, and who sends us his beloved Son in love.

God the Father is the only perfect Father that has ever been, and he is unlike any father or mother we have ever known, or any parent we may have been. He precedes us, with the Son and Spirit from the dawn of creation. He demands a loyalty from us unequal to all others. He has a holy name, which we dare not disregard or diminish, except at our own peril of having a lesser God than the one Jesus called "Father."

God the Father forever needs and desires us as his very own "beloved." This God is filled with Fatherly Goodness and mercy, worthy of pronouns by the millions, the one to whom Jesus in his great prayer for us in John 17 ends with these words: "I made your name known to them (Father), and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them."

1  Gal 3:28

2  Mt 22:30

3  Lk 20:36

4  Rom 8:15-16

5  1 Cor 15:44

6  Ec 4:12

7  An apophetic approach

8  Mt 6:6, Lk 11:2

9  Lk 2:49

10  Mt 26:39, 42

11  Lk 23:34, 46

12  Jn 20:17

13  Mt 28:19-20

14  Jn 8:42-44

15  Jn 3:35

16  Jn 4:23

17  Jn 5:19

18  Jn 6:44

19  Jn 8:19

20  Jn 10:30

21  Jn 3:17, Mt 17:15, Mk 9:7

22  Lk 9:35

23  Mt. 3:17, 17:5, Mk 9:7

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