The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      19th June 2019
Trinity Sunday and Father's Day
Andrew Penny

Today is not only Trinity Sunday but it’s also Fathers’ Day. Somehow I don’t think there’s much of a movement to insist on Fathering Sunday, which might be misinterpreted.  But the coincidence with Trinity Sunday is happy because of all the ways we think about God and different aspects of God, it’s as a father that is most common and perhaps- we’ll question that a bit- the most helpful.

There’s a topical example of this in something Pope Francis has said recently about the Lord’s Prayer. He wants to replace the words “Lead us not into temptation” with “Do not let us fall into temptation”, because, he says:

It [lead us] is not a good translation because it speaks of a God who induces temptation, but I am the one who falls. It’s not him pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen.

A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department”.

I don’t mean to argue about whether Pope Francis is right or wrong- I think he’s absolutely right about the fatherly nature of God , but I’m afraid he’s on shaky ground in criticising the translation. My point is that thinking of God as a father is a fundamental way of thinking about him.

The disciples, whom Jesus was teaching to pray, had been brought up on the Old Testament, so we might start by looking at the ideas about fatherhood that we find in the Old Testament, and an easy way of doing that is to look at how the famous fathers, in for example, the book of Genesis are depicted. Do the Patriarchs have much of the loving kindness which Pope Francis speaks of?

What about Abraham? His most notable characteristic is faith, a trust in God even when promised the impossible, told to do the incredible and the unthinkable in sacrificing his son Isaac

Isaac again is obedient to instructions but has a favourite in Esau whom he intends to bless instead of Jacob. Perhaps he never recovered from his near-death experience on Mount Moriah; it’s certainly difficult to think of a healthy father and son relationship surviving that episode.

Jacob is one of the most interesting characters in Genesis; like so many heroes of the Old Testament, he is deeply flawed, a trickster and tricked; you have to allow him persistence.

One might summarise these fathers as determined and inflexible, perfectionists in their way, determined to carry out their destiny as shown to them. They are not very human or at least not very humane, although capable of relenting. In all this they are shadows of God in the Old Testament. He has a creative purpose and is intolerant of the failings of his creation, prepared in sending the flood, for example, to destroy his creation (as Abraham was prepared to slaughter his only son and only chance of becoming the father of a great nation.) God does however come back from the brink of total destruction, as he saves Noah, and is argued out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. This perfectionism on the one hand and relenting on the other, are not at first sight characteristics which we associate with the Christian God, the God of the New Testament.

Jesus calls himself the Son of God and frequently refers to his relationship with God as with a father. Whatever thought one has about virgin birth and the activities of the Holy Spirit, the point of the relationship between Christ and God is surely metaphorical; what really matters is that Jesus the man shows us what God is like; he talks to us like god, he acts like a god fully engaged with his world.

So in his miracles, he puts right things that have gone wrong with the world, but in doing so he shows the power of God- the miracles are seen to prove his divinity, but rather surely they demonstrate that God is engaged in the world. They are often mixed up with forgiveness, because the things that go wrong with the world are things which men creation is not going right, God’s intentions are being ignored, or positively resisted. Sickness and disability are symptoms of sin- but they can both be healed.

So too in the parables, so often about a kingdom of God or Kingdom of Heaven which again show God’s faith in his creation and the ability of his creatures to heal and perfect it.

This God is certainly more the one who Pope Paul wants to see as the father in the Lord’s Prayer- and who would not? He is still a God of perfection, still a God who can be stern but one whose ability, indeed willingness to relent, comes from sympathy; the ability of his son, who is his alter ego, to feel human emotion because he is fully human.

So the father and son relationship gives us a fuller, more satisfying concept of God, one I think we can recognise through human relations without confining it to that human model- it gives us a good view but not the whole picture. For that we ned to turn to the wonderful words of Proverbs describing the wisdom that stood beside God as he created.  Here is real perfectionism abstracted from human failing. The word, the breath, the inspiration behind and through which creation, the realisation of God’s love, happens, is deeper than the family bonds of parent and child. It’s something ineffable, which we can only stand back and admire, and hope it will inspire us too. Amen  

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