Tonight, we continue our 7-week series on The Apostles’ Creed. Last week, we asked what we mean when we say “I Believe,” and this week, we start getting into the specifics of what we believe. Tonight: “I Believe in God the Father.”
Some of you may have rolled your eyes at the Scripture selection for tonight—the parable of the prodigal son, again?! Fair enough. I have preached on this numerous times. But the fact is, this story from Luke 15 offers us perhaps the best image of God the Father that we have in the Bible.
And perhaps an image is precisely what we need. I’m getting fancy on y’all tonight, using the projector for the first time ever at this service. This is a painting by Rembrandt called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” I’m going to leave it up for the rest of our service and refer back to it later, because it illustrates some important things about God the Father that we’ll get to soon enough.
But I want to start by acknowledging the fact that referring to God as “Father” can be problematic. First off, God is not male; Jesus was male, sure, but God as a divinity does not have gender. This seems like a pretty obvious statement to me, but it has been a stumbling block for the church for centuries.
Some theologians, both historical and contemporary, have suggested that God made Adam in God’s image—male—and then made Eve in Adam’s image, making women a step removed from the divine purpose. I’m sure many of you can guess how I feel about that interpretation.
But calling God “Father” is not just problematic because of our gender constructs. It is problematic because very few fathers, if any, mirror to us the fatherhood of God. The song “Cat’s in the Cradle” illustrates one such difficult relationship. If your father was absent or cold, harsh or uncaring or even abusive, it might be very hard indeed to call God “Father.”
Even those of us who have wonderful fathers can’t simply map our experiences of that parent on to God and say we know exactly what God is like. I have an incredible father—all my life, he has been present, engaged, supportive, and loving. He has, indeed, given me some measure of understanding as to what my heavenly father is like. But he is not perfect, and he is not God.
So how are we to understand God as “Father” when even our best examples in this world don’t quite measure up? The creed itself tells us a little more about this “Father” God—first, that God the Father is almighty.
So perhaps God’s almightiness is what defines his fatherhood. God’s power—that’s what God the Father has that earthly fathers do not have. God is all-knowing and all-powerful, which makes him the one true Father.
Going on in the creed, we see that God the Father is the “creator of heaven and earth.” There we go—more all-knowing, all-powerful God. But there is an extra clue here that we can miss if we are not careful. Because what truly makes God our Father is not God’s knowledge or power. It is God’s love.
An all-powerful God can also be absent. An all-powerful God can be the watchmaker some Deists have described, saying he set the world spinning and then walked away. But the question, of course, is how an all-powerful and all-loving God can allow his children to suffer. Frederick Buechner wrestled with this question when he thought back on his own father’s suicide:
“…to say that God is mightily present even in such private events as these does not mean that he makes events happen to us which move us in certain directions like chessmen. … For instance I cannot believe that a God of love and mercy in any sense willed my father's suicide; it was my father himself who willed it as the only way out available to him from a life that for various reasons he had come to find unbearable. God did not will what happened that early November morning in Essex Fells, New Jersey, but I believe that God was present in what happened. I cannot guess how he was present with my father… I can speak with some assurance only of how God was present in that dark time for me… Who knows how I might have turned out if my father had lived, but through the loss of him all those long years ago I think that I learned something about how even tragedy can be a means of grace that I might never have come to any other way.
God is not the watchmaker who sets the world spinning and then walks away, nor is God the chess master moving pawns around at will. God the Father is neither absent nor controlling; God the Father is first and foremost loving. See, God created, not as a way to flex the almighty muscles of divine power, but out of love. God created heaven and earth with beauty in mind—beauty, so useless and yet so vital to life, something that cold power alone cannot comprehend.
And when God knelt down in the dirt to create humans, this is how the poet James Weldon Johnson imagines it:
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Creation was a work not just of power and might, but of love. And this is what is so important to remember about God the Father: God is almighty, yes. God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but more importantly, God is all-loving, and it is God’s love that shapes expressions of God’s power.
This is what we see in the parable of the prodigal son. Henri Nouwen wrote a whole book meditating on the passage and this Rembrandt painting, and he suggests the story might as easily be called “The Welcome of the Compassionate Father.” In this story, the father welcomes the wayward son with open arms, an unconditional welcome that sees none of his son’s wrongdoings but only his need and his bare identity as the father’s child.
But let’s not romanticize this story too much. The father in this parable would have been through great pain, not just because the son left home, but because of what that would have meant in that time and place. In ancient Palestine, an inheritance was something that was passed on only at the death of the patriarch. For the son to ask for his inheritance before his father’s death was to say he wished he were dead already, or at least that his father was dead to him.
This isn’t the typical American story of the young man striking out on his own. The younger son’s actions are an unnatural break from tradition in a culture so oriented around family and community. The damage done not only to the father-son relationship but also to the dynamics within the whole family and even the entire community cannot be underestimated.
In this context, the father’s welcome home becomes that much more poignant—or maybe just that much more ridiculous. Alyce McKenzie wonders if some might call this story “The Enabling Father.” The father’s actions do not make sense, both because of the depth of the son’s betrayal and because of how he violates social norms upon the son’s return.
For the father’s response to the son’s return is not just illogical, it is undignified. Barbara Brown Taylor points out that in that day and age, patriarchs did not run. They did not leave their place at the table. Aristotle says, “Great men never run in public,” and this passage suggests that the father was indeed a great man. And yet, when his son appears from afar, he runs to him and embraces him where everyone can see.
God is not constrained by his power and might; he lays all that down and lets his heart go out to each of us, his children. More important than fearing God as the “Almighty Father” is knowing God as Dad. This is what Jesus calls God in the Bible—“Abba,” which is less “Father” and more “Papa” or “Dad.”
And Scripture reveals to us that God is not only the perfectly loving Father but also the perfectly loving Mother. I don’t like to get into gender binaries—I mean, I grew up in a household where the biggest crier was my dad, not my mom—but Henri Nouwen’s treatment of Rembrandt’s painting draws out something really lovely about the multi-faceted nature of God’s parenthood.
Nouwen focuses in on the hands of the father in this painting. He points out that the left one is big and strong, firmly gripping the son’s shoulder—not violently, but certainly with strength and insistence. But the right hand is totally different—smaller and more delicate in structure, gentler in posture. The right hand does not hold or grip; it simply rests on the son’s shoulder.
Nouwen says this is how God is—strong and firm as an archetypal father, tender and loving as our image of a mother, all at once.
Julian of Norwich said as much in the 13th century: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother, and he reveals this in everything, saying to us, ‘I am the power and goodness of fatherhood; I am the wisdom and the tender love of motherhood; I am the light and the grace which is all blessed love…”
And most importantly, however we might perceive the parenthood of God, we know that God delights in us as children—not because we are good but because we are God’s. I chose James Taylor’s song “Your Smiling Face” tonight because the story is that he wrote it for his then 3-year-old daughter Sally, and it expresses sheer delight and joy. Plus it always makes me want to dance.
I imagine this is some of what the father felt when the prodigal son came home—and he did indeed throw a big dance party! And I imagine this is what God feels for us—delight and joy in us simply being, love for us as children for no other reason than that God is our father and mother.
Rembrandt painted “The Return of the Prodigal Son” in the last years of his life, having been through great suffering. In this painting, says Nouwen, Rembrandt’s story, humanity’s story, and God’s story all come together. And there is space here for each one of our stories. Whatever “Father” or “Mother” might mean to you in your life, there is space for that story to come together with the stories of everyone else here and with the story of God’s love for each and all of us. All of that is held in the hands that are firm yet gentle, strong yet tender, always loving and holding and welcoming home.
Sarah S. Howell