May 26, 2024 Sermon

The Rev. Joseph Farnes

Trinity Sunday, Year B

All Saints, Boise

In the 1970s, a German scholar by the name of Joachim Jeremias suggested that the Aramaic word “Abba” was what a young child would call their father, like “daddy” or “papa.” In a time when so many people felt that God was so distant, so formal, this felt so radical, so transgressive, so intimate, so liberating.

But, linguistically, it isn’t really true that “Abba” is what only little children would call their father. The evidence is as thin as Saran wrap. And like Saran wrap, it clings. People really wanted it to be true, because it made God feel much closer. It was something that felt like it should be true. Perhaps it was because so many had grown up with distant fathers that calling God “Father” didn’t feel affectionate or close. It felt cold. So, yes, we wanted “Abba” to mean daddy. We wanted that affection, that closeness. We wanted proof that God cares that deeply for us, that God sees us. People latched onto that idea and held it closely. The fact that the Greek word that gets translated as “Father”, pater, means “Father.” Ancient Greek did have words for “Daddy” such as “tata”.

But even so, there is an important reason why this not-quite-accurate interpretation of “Abba” caught on. It spoke to that desire for closeness with God. We know instinctively that we are meant to have a close relationship with God.

We should remember that our relationship changes over time. I think of my relationship with my own father – how it changed over time. When I was a child, my relationship looked very different than it does now. I have a self-awareness that I did not have as a kid. I also see his humanity in a way that I did not as a kid – I know some of what made him the way he is, I see him as his own person. As I grow up, my relationship with him grows and deepens.

St Paul’s Letter to the Romans is using “Abba, Father” not as a way of making God into “Daddy”, but rather to show how constant this relationship is, how it grows over time, how it deepens. The relationship is not frozen in time with us as little kids, but something that gets deeper over time.

So, what does this mean for how we talk about the Trinity?

The language of the Trinity, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, shows us how God is also relationship. God is relationship, connection. No person of the Trinity is an island off by itself. And what we call “person” of the Trinity because Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all one God, but Father is distinct from Son is distinct from Holy Spirit.

The “doctrine” of the Trinity is only hinted at in the Bible. The word Trinity never appears, and it took a few centuries for the church to give language to what we were experiencing. We experienced the work of the Trinity far, far earlier than we had language for it. We experienced this living relationship of God. The Father loves the Son, the Son is the Beloved, the Holy Spirit is the love outpouring. That creating, healing, sanctifying power of God is dynamic, moving, and it draws us in.

The “doctrine” of the Trinity is not about abstract ideas of God that were written down because a bunch of bored priests had nothing better to do or because a bunch of bishops really wanted to control what people believed. The doctrine is trying to explain the deep mystery of God. We experience the mystery, and we want to talk about what we experience, but words fail. To be in the presence of God is to be in the presence of the One who is greater than all words and language. The closest we can get to really understanding is to abide in the presence of God.

Nicodemus wanted words to make sense of the experience of God. Isaiah was in the presence of God. Nicodemus isn’t wrong for wanting words and logic to explain how God works – it’s normal, it’s good. And yet we must be open to abide with God, to abide in God, to let the mystery of God be, and to let our relationship with God deepen and grow over time.

My relationship with my dad, my abba, and my mom, my amma, have grown and deepened over time. My understanding of who they are has deepened over time since I was a kid. And yet – there is more to them than I can understand. I could gladly spend all day talking about them, but what brings me the greater joy is to be around them, to be with them, to be their son. No matter how old I get, I am still their son.

And thus for God – we could spend hours and hours talking about the nuances of our theological language around the Trinity, and that would be time well-spent because God is worth knowing. And, at the same time, what is a greater joy than to be with God, God who is relationship, God who draws us in deeper as we grow, God who delights to claim us as children – children of every age and every kind – and who we delight to call our Father, our Abba. Amen.