“My Abba-my Father God-is very fond of me.” Photo: Juha-Pekka Kervinen
Brennan Manning tells a story about Edward Farrell, a priest from Detroit, who went on a two-week vacation to visit relatives in Ireland. His one living uncle was about to celebrate his 80th birthday.
On the great day, Ed and his uncle got up early to walk along the shores of Lake Killarney and stopped to watch the sunrise. They stood side by side for a full 20 minutes and then resumed walking. Ed glanced at his uncle and saw that his face had broken into a broad smile. Ed said, “Uncle Seamus, you look very happy.”
“I am, lad.”
Ed asked, “Want to tell me why?”
His uncle replied, “Yes, you see, my Abba is very fond of me.”
Abba is the Aramaic word for Father that Jesus uses to address God. “My Abba-my Father God-is very fond of me.”
On this Father’s Day, here we have the experience of what it means to be a Christian-to know in the most personal, intimate way that you are unconditionally loved by a God who in some mysterious sense is your Father.
The writers of the Old Testament certainly believed in the fatherhood of God, but they saw it mainly in terms of a sovereign creator to whom they owed their existence. In fact, God is only referred to as Father 14 times in the 39 books of the Old Testament, and then rather impersonally. God is Israel’s father, not the father of individuals. Neither Abraham nor Moses nor the prophets ever addressed God as “father.”
That’s why Jesus’ use of the word “Abba” to address God is so revolutionary. All his prayers addressed God as father. In fact, he never used anything else. The four gospels record him using father more than 60 times in reference for God. No one in the history of Israel had ever prayed to God as father like Jesus. No one!
But this amazing fact is only part of the story, because the word Jesus used for gather was not a formal word. Abba was a word that a child would use to address his or her own father. It has the connotation of intimacy, tenderness and trust-like running into a parent’s arms without any hesitation or fear.
As I say, Abba was a common, everyday word, but it was never used for God, under any circumstances. You simply did not refer to God as your “Abba”-which meant something like “daddy”-but probably would be better translated “Dearest Father.”
Today, the church’s emphasis on inclusive language has expanded how we refer to God, and that is good thing. God is Mother, Creator, Provider, Sustainer, Holy One, and Gracious One…the list goes on. And yet, every time we recite the Apostles’ or Nicene Creeds, and every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, and every time the priest celebrates the Eucharist, we address God as Father. Although we can and should use other words to address the mystery of God, the term “Father” remains normative. Why? Because in addressing God as his Father, Jesus transformed the relationship with God from a distant, formal experience into an intimate, one-on-one bond, and he taught us to pray with that same intimacy.
When I studied philosophy in college, I became fascinated with the God of the 18th century Deists-the Creator of the universe but not personal or caring or benevolent. This was the God of natural law who ordered the world and gave us the rules by which to live but did not much care whether we obeyed them or not. This was a “live and let live” God-a God who showed no mercy and gave no grace because this God really did not care about us. So with the God of Deism we are on our own, left to our own devices, struggling as individuals to survive as best we can.
But when I rediscovered Christianity and encountered the loving, saving God of Jesus, I knew in my heart as well as my head that God was not just Creator but Father – not Father in some authoritarian, heavy-handed, patriarchal way, but Father as the Abba who loved me and cared about me more than I ever could love or care about myself.
Years later as a young priest I came across these words from the Anglican theologian Dr. J.I. Packer. He writes: “If you want to judge how well a person understands Christianity, find out how much he makes of the thought of being God’s child, and having God as his father. If this is not the thought that prompts and controls his worship and prayers and his outlook on life, it means that he does not understand Christianity very well at all. For everything that Christ taught, everything that makes the New Testament new, and better than the Old, everything that is distinctly Christian as opposed to merely Jewish is summed up in the knowledge of the Fatherhood of God. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.” (2)
So what can the “Fatherhood of God” say to us today? St. Paul tells us in Galatians 4:6, “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” Romans 8:15-16 says much the same thing: “…but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Do you see what Paul is getting at here? When we call God our Father, we are acknowledging that we are God’s children, part of God’s family, and called into God’s fellowship.
Visualize in your mind that the wealthiest person in the world comes to you and says, “I have decided to legally adopt you.” Then the person adds, “That means that someday everything I have will be yours.” Think how your life would be changed. Now imagine that the Lord of the universe comes to you and says the same thing. But that isn’t a dream; that has actually happened to us. Through Jesus you and I have been adopted into the family of God. We are God’s children and God is indeed our Father.
When my daughter Allison was a teenager, we would often go out together on a Saturday afternoon for some father-daughter time. One day as I was driving the car and Allison was in the passenger seat, she said to me, “I want to drive a car.” I turned to Allison and gently said, “You know why you can’t drive, don’t you?” Allison replied, “Yes, because I have Down syndrome.”
When we got home that afternoon, Allison was in one of her funny moods and kept saying, “I am special. I am special.” And I said, “Yes, Allison you are special. You are God’s beloved child. God loves you and will always love you, and that makes you very special.”
Yes, dear people: Allison is special because she is God’s child, and so are you. God loves us as our Dearest Father. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like, God loves you. God loves you and will love you no matter what. You could not make God stop loving you even if you were to try. God loves you even when you slip up and mess up and feel like a failure. God loves you even when it seems you can do nothing right. God loves you even when you make the same mistakes over and over again. If there is ever a reason not to give up on life or not to lose hope, it is this: God loves you as your Dearest Father.
On this Father’s Day, that’s good news for all of us: God is our Abba – our Dearest Father. Believe it; it’s true. God loves you just as you are. God loves you in the morning sun and in the evening rain. God loves you without caution, regret, boundary, limit or breaking point.
Yes, Uncle Seamus had it right: “My Abba is very fond of me.”
Dr. Gary Nicolosi
June 19, 2011
Text – Matthew 28:16-20
Trinity Sunday / Father’s Day
1. Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child (NavPress, 2002) 64.
2. J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1973) 182.