A Sermon preached by Assistant Curate Rev Richard Hutchins on 16 June 2019
Today is Trinity Sunday – so it isn’t surprising to find the Curate preaching as I am told this is something of a tradition in Anglican culture! But it is also Father’s Day, and that is the focus of my short thoughts this morning.
I sense a degree of fear in many church circles about gendered language relating to God – or more specifically, gendered language that aligns God with maleness. The roots of this are deep, finding at their heart abuse of power, wrong relationships, unfairness – all sorts of social and cultural injustices towards girls and women over centuries.
But it is difficult to escape the fact that Jesus referred to God the Father – and this is a very distinctive description. It is part of our Gospel reading from John – “all that belongs to the Father is mine” – language of our belonging to Jesus, of being part with him through the Holy Spirit who brings truth. A book by Kenneth Bailey that looks at the Gospels from a Middle Eastern cultural viewpoint makes what is, in my view, a valid point – that if we cannot hold onto the gendered metaphor of God as Father then we also lose the other, feminine perspectives – of a mother hen brooding over her chicks in Matthew and Luke, or of a mother comforting her child in Isaiah.
What has gone wrong with our imagery, our understanding of the metaphor, that seems to make seeing God as male in some aspects such a problem? I suspect that the issue lies in our judging God by human standards borne of experience, tradition and history – rather than looking at who God says God is. Look at our reading from Romans. Paul talks of justification through faith; yes, faith is sufficient for our justification, our being made just before God – but look at some of the other words.
We have “peace with God” (that is God the Father) through Jesus Christ. Paul talks of grace, talks of hope; all relating to this God who is father. Paul talks of God’s love, poured into us through the Holy Spirit; a gift freely given by God so that our spirit can be in communion with our heavenly father’s. Peace, grace, hope, love – these are the characteristics of our Father God. Yes, Paul talks about his sufferings, but in the context of the hopeful fruit that comes as a result of them.
While I have been away in Armenia, I have had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the male aspect, the fatherly aspect of God – and how we form distorted images of it in ourselves and in others; because one of the teaching topics that I was privileged to deliver covered just this topic. From experience there as well as elsewhere (including in my own life) I strongly believe that we as human beings tend to impute our earthly experiences onto our picture of what God is like. So, if God is father then we reflect our perspectives of fatherhood from our earthly existence on to our Lord God Almighty.
What do I mean by this? Well for example, if our earthly father was absent in our childhood then we may view God the Father as distant, absent, rejecting us. Or if our earthly father was authoritarian, we may approach God as Father in a fearful way, believing that we are not good enough for God’s love. What about if our earthly father was passive, unfeeling? Might this lead to seeing God the Father as one that won’t bring protection, is not trustworthy. As father to my two sons I know that I don’t measure up to the amazing, infinite, utterly unconditional love of my heavenly father in my relationship to them – and this is likely to have formed, at least in part, their image of what God is like as father. Sadly, this image is a lie – an untruth that does not honour who God truly is.
At the baptism service later on I will share one of the dramas that we used on mission, a drama that tells the story of a man with two sons and who longed for the younger one to return home. You can probably guess which story it is – The Prodigal Son. This story was told by Jesus to characterise the love the Father God has for each of us – longing, passionate, active; always waiting for us to make the tiniest hint of a step towards and then running headlong to cover the remaining distance.
On this Father’s Day I would like us just to spend a few quiet moments before we continue towards our Holy Communion. I will invite Father God to reveal to each of us, through the Holy Spirit, where we hold a distorted view formed by our earthly experience of fatherhood – and also where we have been part of forming a flawed view in others in our lives. My invitation is that we carry these with us to lay down through Jesus Christ as we come to confession; to regain a right perspective on the Fatherhood of God – our father of peace, grace, love, hope.