Sermon: Father Almighty
Scripture: John 14: 6-11
Date: June 17, 2018
I would compare preaching on Father’s Day to standing on a rock that is surrounded by quicksand. As long as I stay on the rock, I’ll be ok but if I take a step in any direction, I’ll be in big trouble. And that’s because we have so many conflicting emotions concerning the role of father in our culture. They run the gamut from Super Dad, who can do anything, fix anything, make things right no matter what. Can always be counted on. Who loves us no matter what we do. I’m sure that’s how Anna looks at me. But then there is the opposite of that. Father’s that society has labeled dead beat Dad’s. Never there for their children. Always looking for ways to shirk their responsibilities. Now for most of us our fathers probably fall somewhere in between on the spectrum. And then there are those who grieve the loss of their fathers and for whom Father’s Day is a bittersweet day. I really became aware of this delicate balancing act very early in my tenure at Eastern Kentucky University as Campus Minister when a young woman, a freshman who was knew to the Wesley Foundation came to my office and she said to me “Last night when you were praying you referred to God as Father. Why did you do that?” Now in seminary we had talked a lot about the use of inclusive, genderless language. There were professors who would not accept any papers or sermons that had non-inclusive language in them. But somehow I sensed that this was much more than a gender issue and so I asked her why she was so upset about that and she said this: “I haven’t seen my father since I was fourteen. That’s when he left us. But before He left, he abused my sister and me and when my mother tried to stop him, he beat her up. It took me a lot of counseling, and I have learned to deal with it, but I have a hard time understanding God as my father.” Now Growing up I was fortunate to have a wonderful Dad and lived with the mistaken assumption that everyone had that same experience. It really wasn’t until I started working with students that I saw a different reality for myself. I remember hearing a Father’s Day sermon in which the preacher talked about his relationship with his own father. He said that his father was a big man, tough and strong, a day laborer who earned an hourly wage that was enough to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table and modest clothes on their back, but they had money for little else. He was a good man but emotionally distant. He never hugged his children. Never displayed any emotion towards his wife. The preacher said they knew that he loved them only because he provided for their needs. But he never told them so. He was a stern disciplinarian and occasionally spanked his children as they were growing up. Not a lot but enough to get his point across that he expected well behaved children at all times. And the preacher confessed “As a kid I guess I was afraid of my father.” But the preacher recalled the day that all changed. His father was not a church man himself, but always encouraged his wife and children to go and when they came home he would ask them to tell him what they had learned in Sunday School.” And the preacher said this, “since he seemingly had no interest in church himself, I always wondered why he wanted to know all about Sunday School.” And then came the day, when at the age of 5, the young boy went to a revival at church and when the preacher gave the altar call, before his mother or anyone could stop him, the little boy went forward. And he was baptized on the spot. And He said, at first his mother was very upset but that by the time they got home, she seemed to be alright with it, though she kept saying, “you’re so young to make that kind of decision. Just wait until your father finds out.” So the little boy decided that it would be best to avoid his father as long as he could, and maybe his mom would tell him for him. But that very evening, as he was trying to sneak past his father’s room, his father heard him and called out, “Come here Son and tell me about church tonight.” So, knowing that lying would only make things worse, he told his father all about what the preacher said, “And when he asked for people to come forward and be saved, I went to the altar and I was saved and baptized right then.” And his father just stared at him for the longest time, didn’t say a word. And the boy was kind of suspended there wondering -fearing- what his father was going to do. And then his father leaned forward in his chair, and he figured this was it, a spanking – maybe worse. And then he noticed a tear forming in the corner of one of his father’s eyes. He had never seen his father cry and for the first time he could ever remember, his father reached out for him, and wrapped those big arms around him, and held him in a big bear hug and he said: “Well son, you are awfully young, but I reckon if it’s ok with Jesus, it’s ok with me.” And the preacher concluded his story with these words, “For the first time I understood that my father truly loved me, not just with a human love, but with the love of God.” And so there’s the dilemma in preaching on Father’s Day as captured by those two very different encounters, making the distinction between the love of our Heavenly Father and our earthly father. But it’s not a new struggle. It has really gone on in the church since the first time Jesus referred to God as His Father and Himself as the Son. In fact one of the things that turned the Priests and the Jewish leaders against him was His insistence on calling God Father.
And the truth is that many, when saying the Apostle’s Creed struggle with the first phrase, “I believe in God the Father Almighty”, because we naturally try to assign our human understandings and misunderstandings of fatherhood to what was intended to be more about the divine nature of God. In fact, I have had people tell me that they would not recite the creed and that we shouldn’t recite the Creed in worship because of the use of the word Father. And it’s not a matter of being gender neutral or politically correct, but rather a matter of dealing with the very real pain of broken human relationships and assigning that pain to our relationship with God. But to really understand what the writers of the Creed intended when they referred to God as the Father, we can not separate the first phrase, from the second. “I believe in God the Father almighty” was not intended to be a stand alone thought, but must be connected with the second phrase for it to truly be understood. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son.” What the Creed is implying is that we can’t really understand Jesus as Son, if we don’t understand God as parent.
Now a little background might help here. In the First century AD, after the Ascension of Jesus and the Day of Pentecost, there developed a battle for control of the church on several fronts. Between Jews and Gentiles. Between Paul and the other Disciples. Between the Roman government and the people of the way. And between the Apostles and a rising number of false Apostles. Paul talks a lot about these False teachers, who would follow him from place to place and when he would move on to the next town they would stay behind and spread their false teachings among those whom Paul had reached. And as is often the case their teachings were close enough to the truth that Paul had taught that some became followers. One of those teachings denied the human nature of Jesus. The teaching was that Jesus was all Spirit and that when He came to earth He did not become human but rather inhabited a human form. And so He did not die on the Cross, but rather departed His human host and that the post resurrection appearances were spiritual in nature not physical which explains how he could apparently walk through walls and doors and fly back into Heaven on a cloud. The point was to deny the humanity of Jesus because in their view, humanity was so evil and sinful that the perfection of Christ was just not compatible. Jesus could not have been human and perfect. These false teachings persisted throughout the first three centuries of church development and threatened the integrity of the faith. And so what was the church’s response. Well of course they convened a general conference, actually two, to determine the way forward. The first met in Nicea and produced the Nicean Creed and the second met in Milan and produced the Apostle’s Creed. These Creeds were written to be a faithful response to many of the heretical teachings that had creeped into the church by the fourth century AD. And the term Father was included in the Apostle’s Creed to address the nature of Jesus. Was He human or divine, or both as He claimed He was. Because the truth is, of course, that Jesus Himself was the first to advance the idea that he was both divine and human. He referred to Himself as both Son of God and Son of Man, divine and human. And in doing so, He testified to a God that was both beyond human comprehension (in the words of the Creed – almighty, creator, maker of the heavens) and yet also a God who was intensely personal, earthly. In the stories of the Old Testament, human beings are constantly trying to reduce God to human understandings. One of the questions that is constant throughout the stories of the Hebrew people is what does God look like. There was and still is this desire to look on God in ways that we could comprehend. But at the same time there was the belief that if you could ever gaze fully upon God you would die. I love the story of the little boy who was busy drawing a picture in School one day and his teacher asked him what he was drawing a picture of and the little boy said rather matter of factly, “It’s a picture of God.” To which the teacher responded, “But no one knows what God looks like.” And without missing a crayon stroke, the boy said: “They will when I get through”. And so in scripture we only have manifestations of God. Burning Bushes, pillars of fire and cloud, the wall of water in the Red Sea, the tumbling walls of Jericho. Manifestations that the Creed describes as almighty. I believe in God Almighty. And then He sent Jesus. God became human and dwelt among us. The maker of Heaven and also the maker of earth. The divine became human. The unreachable, untouchable, unseeable God now very reachable, touchable (remember how He invited Thomas to touch his wounds to prove he was indeed risen and alive) and seeable. (Show us the Father, His Disciples ask Jesus, and Jesus replies “after all this time we have been together, you still don’t get it, ‘when you see me, you see my Father’.) And so when the writers of the Creed describe God as Father it is not their words, but rather Jesus’s words.
It was Jesus’ way of describing His relationship with God. Christ was the first one to call God His Father and in doing so he was referring to the intimate relationship between the divine and the human that He experienced with Almighty God. He was describing an intensely personal relationship with God which was a complete contrast to the more distant relationship through which the Jews approached God. And the Pagans approached their gods. God is not an unreachable, unknowable God as the Priests would have the people believe. Inaccessible to anyone but the priests themselves. Instead our God desires to be in relationship with us. And we describe that relationship in human terms. We are His sons and daughters. His heirs to the Kingdom. Our identity. Our birthright. Even whatever spark of the divine that exists within us comes from the Father. When Jesus called Almighty God – Father -, He was not seeking to establish His humanity but rather He was seeking the Divine. Those around Him already knew He was human. Born like any other human. Tiny and vulnerable. Mary and Joseph’s son. He needed food to eat and liquids to drink just like they did. And when they flogged Him, the cat of nine tails pulled the flesh off of Him just like anyone else. And when they nailed Him to the cross, He died just like any other criminal and enemy of the church and state would. They knew all about the humanity that had come to Him through Mary and Joseph. What they didn’t understand was the divinity that came to Him through His Heavenly Father. When Jesus referred to Almighty God as Father, He was not placing God in Humanity but instead was placing His humanity into the divine. Whenever Jesus uses the term Father to refer to God, it is in reference to the divine nature of God. At twelve years old, when He stayed behind in the Temple rather than return to Galilee with Mary and Joseph and they come rushing back to find Him, “Why would you do this to us,” they ask. “Didn’t you think that it was time that I was in My Father’s House working on My Father’s business.” Working on the things of God rather than the things of man. Getting in touch with the Divine within me. And then eighteen years later, in the midst of one of His teachings, He talks about His Heavenly Father again. “Don’t spend your time worrying about who is going to take care of you in this world. Who will give you clothes and provide you food. Look around you at the beauty of this world. The flowers that are clothed in such splendor. The birds that have more than enough to eat. God is their Father who cares for their every need. And if our Heavenly Father cares for such as these in such a splendid way, then how much more will He care for us. He will never desert us. Never hurt us. Never leave us orphaned because we are all His children.” I wonder if when Jesus spoke those words He was remembering the pain, even the sense of being abandoned that He had felt when He lost his human Father when He was probably thirteen or fourteen years old. And then three years later, on the Cross, the Son once again talks about the Father. Appeals to the divine. “Father forgive them.” When all humanity has deserted Him, betrayed Him, hated Him, and placed Him there to die, abused Him, all that was left to Him was the Father. And His appeal was not that the Divine be taken from His humanity but rather that the divine save Humanity for all time. In the end it is forgiveness and grace that joins the divine and the human for all eternity. Because what happened on the Cross was not that the divine abandoned the human. No, what happened on the Cross was that the divine embraced humanity forever and ever even when no one else will. And so even when our earthly parents and children and friends and church are not there for us, for whatever reason, our Heavenly Father always is. I think that’s what a 5 year old Boy learned when His earthly father let go of his humanity and embraced that little boy with a love that would never let him go. In that embrace divinity and humanity merged in his life forever. And I can only hope that beautiful young lady who was struggling to reconcile the human with the divine, eventually experienced that same kind of embrace from her Heavenly Father. Because no matter what may happen to us on this earth, our Heavenly Father will never let us go. And that’s why we say as we affirm our faith – I believe in God, the Father Almighty.