SERMON ~ 04/16/2023 ~ “Abba, God”

04/16/2023 ~ Second Sunday of Easter ~ *Acts 2:14a, 22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9;
John 20:19-31 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE:

Abba, God

“Blessed be Abba, God of our Savior, Jesus, the Christ, who with great mercy gave us a new birth: a birth into a living hope which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, from the dead;…” — 1 Peter 1:3.

On April 13, 1970, 53 years and 3 days ago, the Apollo 13 mission, on its way to the moon, was rocked by an onboard explosion. The command module went dark. Astronaut Jim Lovell radioed mission control: “Houston, we have a problem.”

And so, “Houston, we have a problem” became a cultural touchstone. Books, movies, sportscasters, politicians, plays, novels, use or paraphrase these words as shorthand for saying something has gone terribly awry.

Except… except… astronaut Jim Lovell did not say that. No astronaut on Apollo 13 used those specific words, “Houston, we have a problem.” So, that is not just one of the all-time great misquotes. It is a cultural myth.

First and to be accurate, astronaut Jack Swigert, not Jim Lovell, did say something. But what was actually said was a little more prosaic. (Quote:) “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

Now, that’s not a big difference. But it is different. As I said— more prosaic. It’s slower and in a different tense. So from where did the idea that Jim Lovell said “Houston, we have a problem” originate? (Slight pause.)

If you guessed from the movies you would be both right and wrong. In the movie Apollo 13 Lovell was played by Tom Hanks. With Hanks playing that part, no other actor would be allowed to say it. This was certainly one way the world became infected with one of the most used catchphrases ever.

In explaining the change, William Broyles, Apollo 13 screen writer insisted you can’t say something has happened. If it has happened it’s over, done. That may be true but it’s not dramatic. This was a suspense movie. Suspense needs to be continual.

But also in 1983 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, used “Houston, we have a problem” as the title of its weekly program about… space history. So not just the movies are to blame. It’s NASA, itself. (Slight pause.)

There are all kinds of cultural myths, things into which the culture buys, things to which we become emotionally tied, which are simply not true. And yes, the culture imposes all kinds of myths on Christianity.

Here’s an example. The iconic image of the cross widely used in and by the culture has a central vertical beam transected by a horizontal beam about a third of the way down— like this one in front of the pulpit. (The pastor points to a cross.)

But crosses Romans used had a different construction than this common symbol. The cross on which Jesus was executed probably looked like a capital ‘T’— a vertical element with a horizontal beam on top. Executioners would tie a victim to a beam and then raise the person being murdered to the top of a pole already in the ground.

Here’s another myth along the same lines. Rumor to the contrary, the cross was not a symbol used by early Christians.

The archeological record says the symbol of a cross was virtually non-existent before the mid-fourth Century of the Common Era. And depictions of Jesus on a cross did not occur with regularity until the 6th century. When these images first appeared, the Christ was depicted as a monarch dressed in royal garb— Christus Rex— and levitating off the cross so it looked like Jesus was not nailed to the cross.

In short, it’s 400 years into the Christian era before the image of a cross becomes common and 600 years before the crucifix— a cross with a body— becomes common. And then it is at least another 100 to 200 years before a partially naked, blood soaked body on a cross, an image often seen today, becomes common.

But myths— myths meaning falsehoods in this case— myths imposed by a culture long after New Testament times insisted the image of a cross should be paramount. That might lead us to question what other cultural icons we still use today have no relation to how things looked and were looked at when Christianity first took hold. (Slight pause.)

We find these words in First Peter: “Blessed be Abba, God of our Savior, Jesus, the Christ, who with great mercy gave us a new birth: a birth into a living hope which draws its life from the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, from the dead;…”

First Peter is one of the so called ‘general epistles,’ not attributed to Paul, not addressed to a particular church. One commentary says this letter is written for churches alienated from the surrounding society.

Put differently, this is clear: the early church is a counter-cultural church. The early church does not buy into the dominant culture of Rome, does not buy into imposed cultural myths.

Now, an older translation for this passage says (quote:) “Blessed be the God and Father of Jesus Christ.” But if the churches to which this letter was sent did not buy into the dominant culture, did not acquiesce to imposed cultural myths, they would never have referred to God as Father.

Why? Only the dominant culture of the era, the Romans, would have referred to God as Father. God referred to as father was a common reference used with the pagan god of Roman culture, Jupiter.

Further, you can search all of Scripture and you will not find God referred to as “Father” in the original languages anywhere in Scripture. To call God Father is simply an imposition of Roman pagan culture on Christianity.

Jesus does, however, call God Abba, which means “Daddy.” This is and is meant to be an intimate term, a term which stresses relationship.

All that brings me to some the key questions raised by this reading. Who is Abba, God? And what does Abba, God have to do with resurrection? (Slight pause.)

Well, having said God is relational, let’s take that a step further. In the Congregational tradition we often use the term covenant. Covenant is meant to have familial, relational understandings, meanings.

Since God is a God of covenant, the claim made in Scripture and by our predecessors is simple. God adopts us as God’s own— a relational concept. (Slight pause.)

I want to unpack all that because I want to illustrate that this epistle is, in its own way, quite counter-cultural. So let’s turn to the words Savior and salvation both used in this passage.

At the beginning of this reading the word Savior is applied to Jesus. But we need to realize Savior is not an exclusively Christian term. Savior is applied to God in the Hebrew Scriptures constantly. Hence, in using this term, the relationship of Jesus and God is here intertwined in an intimate way.

Now, turning to the word salvation, it has a very specific meaning in the context of Scripture. And this passage says (quote:) “…you are receiving the outcome of your faith— salvation.” In the context of Scripture salvation means freedom.

This is no secret: the dominant cultures in many societies oppress specific groups. Hence, throughout history oppressed groups have turned to this and other passages in Scripture as they seek an understanding of themselves and who they are called to be by God, despite the oppression imposed on them. I don’t presume for a minute I need to name for you the groups who have been outcast, oppressed in our society, our culture.

This passage, therefore, offers a very specific, very direct message. The resurrected Jesus is a sign from God that the promises of God are real. This passage says the freedom God offers is real, that God wants to be in an intimate relationship with us.

Additionally, this relationship is not a transaction, something paid for, bought. That a relationship with God can be relegated to a transaction is, I believe, a cultural imposition placed on Christianity.

And the culture, our culture, thinks there is a cost for everything. Everything can be bought or sold. But this passage tells us God willingly, freely, graciously wants to be in relationship with us now and forever. In short, this passage is counter-cultural.

How do I know we Christians are or at least should strive to be counter cultural? Well, the last time I looked we believe, we trust that God— God and no one else— offers freedom. We believe, we trust, that peace is possible, hope is real, joy abounds, love lasts forever. And we believe God gives all this to us freely. No transaction is involved.

Indeed, the last time I looked that kind of trust— trust in the realities of freedom, peace, hope, joy and love— is in short supply in the culture around us. Therefore, by definition, I’d say we Christians are or should be counter cultural. That us because we believe there are no strings attached to the freedom, hope, peace, joy and the love of God. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “When it comes to being counter cultural, we live in a society that both functions in a top-down manner and seeks top down leadership. We constantly ask ‘who will lead us?’ But we congregationalists think bottom up is the way things should be. We believe leadership comes from the bottom up. So even if we do not acknowledge it we are, by definition, counter cultural.”

BENEDICTION: Go out in the strength and love God provides. Praise the deeds of God by the way you live, by the way you love. And may the steadfast love of God and the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

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