As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, I want to reflect on a central image of Christian faith: God as Father.
Historically, Jesus was born into a culture in which even pronouncing the name of God was considered irreverent. Whenever the name of God occurred in scripture, the word “Lord” (Adonai) was read instead. In what must have seemed like blasphemous irreverence, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to “Abba,” not just “Father,” but “Daddy” (Matthew 6:9; Gal 4:6).
“Abba” was a familial and familiar term that scandalized religious leaders, as did much of Jesus’ teaching about God and God’s reign. Today we are so familiar with the Lord’s Prayer that we may lose touch with its radical proclamation of God’s closeness and compassion.
I sometimes use a trick question with church groups or youth to tease out the implications of our relationship with God as Father. I ask, “Who taught you to pray the Our Father?” Most people answer, “My dad,” “My mom,” “My grandma.” Of course, that’s true. These people taught us the words of the Lord’s Prayer, and many of them also gave us wonderful examples of what it means to love and serve God as Father.
But scripture says that it’s the Holy Spirit poured into our hearts in the name of Jesus that teaches us to cry out, “Abba! Daddy!” (Galatians 4:4-6; Rom 8:14-17).
What scripture means is that the words “Our Father” come to life only in a relationship in which we receive and live God’s love that is unconditional, nurturing and redemptive.
This is not a relationship that comes automatically with prayer or churchgoing. Galatians 4:6 says that the spirit by which we cry out “Abba!” also says, “You are no longer a slave, but a child of God!”
When we’re not ready to receive God’s unconditional love and share it with all, we can slip back into the slavery of trying to earn God’s favor or the idolatry of insisting on imposing on others our own criteria for who is worthy to enter God’s kingdom. The Spirit says, “Accept the Father’s unconditional love as gift, and let Son and Spirit teach you how to love unconditionally.”
• The Rev. Michael Walsh is minister of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Sermon notes is a column by ministers of the Patterson Ministerial Association.