Romans 6:1b-11 for Father’s Day
By the Rev'd David Warnes
“He’s the image of his father!” Those words are sometimes used by proud grandparents when they recognise that a new-born baby looks very much as his father did in early infancy. They pithily sum up the Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth’s important insights about the fatherhood of God.
Father’s Day challenges us to think about what it means to us to speak of God as Father. It is, like all the language we used about God, a metaphor, and metaphors can both illuminate and distort. Much will depend on our individual experience of being fathered, and whether that was intimate and affirming, distant and judgemental or even, in some tragic cases, abusive. For many, the metaphor will also be coloured by their experience of fathering, of the joys and sorrows, the commitment and vulnerability that parenthood involves. And this year the coronavirus has made Father’s Day particularly difficult, with so many families recently bereaved of their fathers and unable to say a final farewell, and with the painful separation of parents and adult children that lockdown has involved.
Barth, who wrote a memorable commentary on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, was well aware of the danger that applying the father metaphor to God might lead to misunderstanding and hurt. He wisely said that human fatherhood, however good, is a flawed, blurred and inadequate approximation to the fatherhood of God. There are a few passages in the Hebrew Scriptures where you will find God referred to as a father, but the fatherhood of God is a dominant theme in the New Testament. Jesus frequently refers to God as “my father”, addresses God directly as “Abba” (Father) and teaches his disciples a prayer which begins with the words “Our Father”. Karl Barth suggested that our ability to think of God as our Father came about because God fathered Jesus – “the image of his Father” - and that it is through Jesus’ life, death and resurrection that we are able to know and experience God as our Father.
In today’s reading from the Epistle to the Romans Paul writes about the way in which Jesus enables us to experience the fatherhood of God. It is a dense and difficult passage, filled with ideas as richly as a Christmas pudding is packed with fruit and, because of that, not easily digested. It may help to focus on just two of the words that Paul uses – grace and life.
By grace, Paul means the freely-given love and generosity of God the Father, a love and generosity made visible in Jesus, a love and generosity which we can experience in many ways, not least as forgiveness for our human errors and shortcomings, a forgiveness that is freely given and that can be transformative; the amazing grace of which John Newton wrote in a well-loved hymn.
When Paul writes of the life that Jesus lives as being “lived to God” he is reminding his readers that this is a life, a relationship with God, that is open to us; a family life into which all are able to enter. The implications of that life are profoundly challenging. Karl Barth put them like this:
“...we have to think of every human being, even the oddest, most villainous or miserable, as one to whom Jesus Christ is Brother and God is Father; and we have to deal with him [and her, he might have added] on this assumption.”
Recent events in America have reminded us of the evils of racial prejudice, and of the ways in which those evils can become institutionalised. For us in Scotland that has meant confronting the fact that the wealth of the merchants and aristocrats commemorated in some of our statues and street names was accumulated through their involvement in the slave trade and slavery. We have also been reminded that, after many centuries of accepting slavery as part of the status quo, Christians such as Thomas Clarkson, John Wesley and John Newton came to see that it was incompatible with the Gospel and began a campaign to abolish both the slave trade and slavery itself. The most powerful image of that campaign – its logo, to use a contemporary term – was a picture of a slave in chains, kneeling and saying: “Am I not a man and a brother?”
That John Newton became an abolitionist is remarkable, given that he had been the captain of a slave ship and thus directly responsible for the cruelty and inhumanity of the triangular trade. It was, as he himself acknowledged, an example of amazing grace. The fatherhood of God ceased, for him, to be merely a familiar and unconsidered Biblical phrase. He was enabled to grasp a richer measure of its meaning. That shift in his understanding was personally life-transforming and moved him to work for the transformation of society. He helped to open the door to the way of thinking that we now call Liberation Theology.
On the bookshelves in my study is my late brother’s copy of A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez. Father Gustavo autographed it for him when he came to speak to the Anglican Society at Aberdeen University. Gutiérrez understood that political and social activism, while necessary, is not of itself enough. All members of God’s human family are in need of the gift of Grace. He put it like this:
“Without liberating historical events, there would be no growth of the Kingdom [of God]. But the process of liberation will not have conquered the very roots of human oppression and exploitation without the coming of the Kingdom, which is above all a gift.”
The gift to which he refers is the gift of Grace. His words remind us of the imperative to work for justice and peace and also of the universal human need of the amazing grace that transformed John Newton and gave him a deeper understanding of the Fatherhood of God.