X May I speak in the name of God – Abba – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The letters of Paul are extraordinary. They set out to express the inexpressible. They try to address some of the deep questions which arose in the first years of the infant church. They do so by plumbing the experience of Paul himself as one who felt he had been touched directly by Christ, though he was not of the apostles. He could therefore speak for and to all the millions of people to come who would be moved by Jesus’ story and the story of God’s love for his people – all his people. The letters are poetic, inspiring and sometimes, frankly petty. Their very humanity is entirely convincing: this is a flawed human being, like us, who nevertheless is moved to heights of vision beyond words by the one he encourages us to call “Abba”. Above all, he convinces us that this message really, really matters.
In looking up the derivation of Abba, I came across some other interesting words (as you do in dictionaries). Words for me are like culinary flavours to other people: I savour them, I love them. So bear with me while I share two that I found – I promise the threads will all come together. The word for son in Hebrew is בן (ben) and probably comes from the verb בנה (bana) meaning to build, such as building a house or bridge. A verb which is related only alliteratively (but that’s enough for anyone who loves poetry) is בין (bin), literally meaning being able to see a difference; perceive or discern. A derivative from this is בין (bên), meaning between. What a satisfying collection of meanings to attach to the Son of God: the son who builds his father’s house, who will discern our qualities, and who, having become human, stands as a bridge between the Father and us, his intimate knowledge of human life allowing God to know his creation fully.
Then there’s רוה (ruach) which means spirit or breath. I just think that’s a beautiful conjunction of meanings. Hold on to those two words as we go on.
The word “abba” in the New Testament is a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word for father. A lot has been made of the fact that Jesus used it when addressing God in Gethsemane, and that the Aramaic is closer in meaning to an affectionate, almost babyish “Daddy” rather than a formal “father”. It was certainly striking enough to the early Christians to preserve the Aramaic word when writing the Gospels. It was meant to alert us to the special nature of Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: the son begs the father to relieve the need for his suffering, in the knowledge that this was what he was sent for – and then asks that his Abba’s will be done.
The Hebrew use of “av” throughout the Old Testament gives “father” the meanings we still attach to it, especially in the church: biological father; a male who acts in that rôle; a male who has authority. Isaiah and Hosea also use it to mean God. In Hebrew prayers it surfaces in phrases like מַלְכֵּנוּ אָבִינוּ – avinu malkenu – “our Father, our King”. The added perspective of affection for the father who receives Jesus’ obedience is what is surprising in Jesus’ use of Abba – why did it take us so long to hear what he was saying?
I tend to look to the psalmists for convincing human attitudes to God in the Bible. In times of stress or danger, the psalmists appear to ask Him what he is playing at, then acquiesce and praise Him. They’re addressing a father who simply has power over us. Jesus, in the light of the phrase “the Father and I are one”, tells it how it is, yes – the fear and human desire to be spared – but then asks that his father’s will be done. This is different from just putting up with it, or praising God for his greatness, which might sound like attempting to flatter Him. This is a conversation between equals, who have put together a plan which one of them has carried out, both knowing what the costs may be. Although he may be saying “Daddy”, Jesus’ affection is that of the grown, adult child.
When Paul says we have, through Jesus’ actions, become adopted children and heirs of God, just as Jesus is, then this is the equality we are offered. The right to follow Jesus on the path of love, that joyous, life-giving emotion which we all desire, but which entails also loss and pain. If you are sitting here today, you have already decided that the love is worth the loss and pain.
Paul says it is the Holy Spirit in our hearts which cries “Abba, father!” This is the Spirit which Jesus said could not be released to us as our helper and advocate, unless he shared our suffering and death, and returned to the Father, bridge built. All three persons of the Trinity are at work in their dance of love and outpouring – to each other and to us – in the way they urge us to prayer. When we cry to God in extreme moments – whether our own Gethsemane or the sight of a stupendously beautiful tree – we are joining that dance. And we make that moment sacred, however small, however appalling. It really, really matters, to us and to God.
In those moments, we stand with the son before the father and we breathe his spirit in our prayer. We are children, heirs, experiencing God’s creation as he did, and turning to him not just in childish trust or fear but in full confidence.
For which, thanks be to God: Abba, Ben, v’Ruach. Amen.