The "power greater" who is named Abba

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He or She or It?
Male dictator of the early Old Testament? Goddess who is life and rebirth and renewal found in very ancient times before the Bible—Goddess of seed into grain into bread? Ground of our Being or Ultimate reality of modern thinkers? Or more personally: Ground of our Being Herself as personal as Jesus. Gender or no-gender? Or the synergy of female and male; of both parents?

Are all words for God metaphors: describing the One who cannot be described?

Jesus consistently addressed this One as Abba-Father in a patriarchal society. But in our egalitarian life feel free to think he or she or it. Feel free to say and think Mother or Parent or Holy One. A Christian wrote, "God…is both mother and father to me and so much more. I have come to sense the joy of all creation and the unconditional love of my Creator."

But 'Father' is often a loaded word. We have an epidemic of fatherless children! Some were abused by fathers, or father was feared or distant. Hopefully your father was warmly personal. Was father interested in your feelings? Think about adults who cared for you, who were mentors — who gave positive and healthy support so you felt like leaning on them, depending on them, trusting them, sharing your feelings. Think of these as Father God and/or Mother Goddess.

This One “is as much Mother as Father, as much Child as Parent, as much Godhead [mystery] as God [history], as much beyond all beings as in all beings” from the web site of Trinity Methodist in Austin.

Jesus called God 'Abba'
The Apostle Paul and the Gospel of Mark — our two earliest witnesses — tell us that Jesus used the word "Abba" when he prayed. In Jesus’s native Aramaic you said "Abba" for father in-the-family, but when you talked about any one else’s father you used a different word, like 'dad' for your's and 'father' for your friend's. Jesus addressed God as Abba, and told us to think of God as Abba — the One with whom we want to relate and relax in comfortable, challenging trust and love.

We can visualize family scenes that would have been familiar to the historical Jesus. His culture and religion were family centered. Their most critical act of worship, Passover, was a family meal with teaching, remembrance, and worship. Jesus learned his father’s trade in Joseph’s carpentry shop, and working with Joseph would have met many of the men of that village. Jesus as oldest son helped Joseph craft farming tools, including yokes. And at least once in Jesus’s youth, a revolt against Roman rule was put down several miles away, and the Romans conscripted carpenters to erect crosses to crucify hundreds of the rebels. So Jesus’s youth was a combination of long walks with his father on the way to carpentry jobs, working with him as an apprentice carpenter, and unforgettable horrors from the Roman occupiers. Jesus also was part of the family as oldest child in talk, meals, and all the activities of a family. From this environment and experience Jesus tells us to think of the Almighty as Abba – the in-the-family word for daddy.

This one is father/mother relating to the mature child—a teen learning to be a responsible adult or a middle-aged child sharing with parent ideas, feelings, insights.

Father has many different meanings today. Father is sometimes an easily tricked pushover. Father is sometimes strict or rigid. But Abba of first century Nazareth was none of these. He taught his elder son the craft of carpentry in which walls must be straight and roofs must drain rain. As eldest, he helped care for younger brothers and sisters. Passover and reading the Scriptures in synagogue school made an impact that Jesus showed in his teachings. Abba father required accuracy, care, compassion, and much more.

Once Jesus started teaching he used many images of his family; consider these:

  • "Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? … How much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!"
  • "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the (untrusting) who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things."

Re-read these two teachings. Use the word Abba every time the English translation has the word Father, thinking about Abba as the in-the-family intimate word — the parent who nourishes. Or say Mother or Goddess.

Families and friends are meaningful as we trust one another. Deep friendship in which people have shared experiences and depended on one another are built on trust and develop growing trust. Couples whose relationship grows and flowers depends on trust and builds deeper trust. This interpersonal trust is the heart of our relationship with Abba. We learn to depend on Abba and to lean on Abba and this deep relationship grows and strengthens. The doctrines you believe are unimportant compared to trust that we experience between friends and within couples.

Abba graces us with care and concern. Abba calms us during rush hour traffic. Abba deepens our trust in friends. Abba adds to the joy of music and art. Abba is with us through the triumphs and tragedies that life hurls at us.

Which is more miraculous?
Jesus did miracles of many different kinds. One is particularly pregnant with meaning – the feeding of the multitude. In each report Jesus has been teaching and tried to get away for some re-charging of himself, but the crowds pressed him. After a full day of awe of Jesus' teaching, everyone is far from home and Jesus is reminded that people are hungry. Notice Jesus does not have some supernatural awareness, but needs to be reminded. So, Jesus tells the crowd to sit in small groups on the green grass. He takes the meager food the disciples have, blesses it, then tells them to share it. The Gospels skip to say there was food left over. Imagine this scene! We know that in this barren, arid land "you never leave home without" some bread or salted fish and water. Jesus seated people in small groups, so they were looking at each other; did they start talking? I think when Jesus told his disciples to get out the food in their garments, Jesus blessed it, so people began to reveal their most precious treasure to share it with one another. Which is more miraculous; food multiplying from heaven or we share our private treasures?

Notice that before Jesus tells his disciples to share their hidden rations, he holds the food high, and blesses it! Blessing is similar to thanking, and the Greek word for thanking is Eucharist! By blessing, he invited the people around him to bless–and share–their hidden rations — the ultimate covered dish meal! Many miracles teach us! So many children lack food and medical care, while others have so much. What about the dis-equality of nations using resources of God's creation?

Healing a demoniac
Mark tells us (in 5.1-20) of a man possessed with a legion of demons who lived among tombs, naked, screaming. Jesus sends the legion of demons into a herd of pigs nearby who stampeded into the sea. What does this strange healing say? Here are facts. The only legion were the hated Roman soldiers. Jews never raised pigs, except to feed the hated legions. Jews avoided nudity and tombs. A man is so ill mentally that he lives naked in the tombs, screaming. Jesus cleans him of the madness, Was the herd so shocked by a sane man, they stampeded? Is Jesus teaching about legions of military and their supporting pigs? Ponder this with Jesus’ clear teachings to turn the other cheek and love neighbors. And the prophets' turn swords into plows. Many healings are like parables teaching!

Women
One other fact about Jesus reveals Abba God. The Gospels are clear that Jesus treated women just like men (Mark 15.40-41, Luke 8.1-3). Given the sexist and patriarchal of his culture and religion, this may be the greatest teaching miracle. We have work ahead of us to match his nonsexist care in today's church and world. Consider the song Mary Magdalene sings, "I don’t know how to love him" from Jesus Christ Superstar for deep insight. (Lyrics by Tim Rice, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber)
The church in the first century had many women leaders, some called Apostles!

Jesus wanted his listeners to think. Many of his teachings and healings are questions to make us think and talk about them. He wants us to think about what we do and why.

Vengeful?
Some people think God is vengeful. They think of God as keeping records of what we do in two columns — good and bad. God for them is judging. Jesus talked about judgment — for those who did not trust in God. While Jesus painfully died on the cross, he promised life eternal to one of the thieves crucified with him, because of a glimpse of trust and insight the thief showed. The New Testament says, leave judgment to God. Jesus warns that when we judge some fault of another person, we often have something far worse (Matt 7.1–5).

In the first few centuries churches changed trust to believe — one-on-one trust in Abba was replaced by words, creeds, things you believe. Here is a useful time line of the many changes during that tumultuous time. Elaine Pagels' book Beyond Belief can help you understand these profound changes and their implications.

Over the centuries God came to be understood in legalistic images and ideas. Perhaps that’s not surprising since many early churches were former courtrooms, known as basilicas. The head dominated the heart; leaders of the church were thinkers whose abstractions were sometimes hard to understand and difficult to relate to life. One of those ideas was the trinity: father, son, & holy spirit to explain many ways we know the One. For trinity I think of our Parenting Creator who is Liberating (Gal 5.1,6) and Advocating for us.

Reformer & mystics
Reformers tried to change that.
Mystics such as Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, and many others showed God's presence. Martin Luther re-affirmed trust. John Wesley in the 1700s taught grace and trust, started support groups, began orphanages for homeless children, and worked to reduce physical and social ills. His brother Charles wrote many of our hymns. Here is part of one:

Unite the pair so long disjoin'd,
Knowledge and vital Piety:
Learning and Holiness combined,
And Truth and Love let people see,
In those whom up to thee we give,
Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.

This Abba reaches toward us, so we may experience trust and love. Jesus talked about Abba, and came among us so we might have life richly and abundantly. To find that we may need to find a support group, dance troupe, or team.

The Abba that Jesus talked about may be largely forgotten, Jesus’s actions for the poor and outcasts may be overlooked, and Jesus’s actions that welcomed women slip from memory. Contrast this Abba of Jesus with other views of God.

Is your God someone you would want to meet in a dark alley?

Copyright © 2007, 2012 John F. Yeaman