What my father taught me at Wembley
“Just stay close to me,” said my father as he hurled himself into the solid wall of supporters. It seemed impossible but somehow he managed to get us some sight of the match, which England won by the only goal scored. It’s Saturday, 11th April 1959 and my father has taken me to Wembley for the oldest international fixture in football. But our special train from Lime Street is somehow late and we arrive after the match has started. I have one overriding memory of the day, of seeing the tunnel onto the terrace so tightly packed with heaving bodies as to appear totally impenetrable. Thankfully such overcrowding could never happen today, certainly for this evening’s equivalent fixture in this post-Hillsborough era. However, how to pick your place on a packed terrace was one of the key lessons my father taught me, even as his father taught him. Not something you can learn from a YouTube video but something to celebrate this Sunday on Father’s Day. One of the most distinctive features of Jesus’ ministry can be summed up in one word: abba. It seems no other Jewish teacher used this Aramaic everyday word for father to describe their relationship with God, although to locate an English equivalent can be misleading such is the distance between the two cultures. The Hebrew scriptures, in which Jesus was so thoroughly versed, does describe God as father, certainly in his covenant relationship with the people of Israel – but it is not a main focus. As far as I am aware God is not addressed as “Father” anywhere in the Old Testament, certainly not in Psalms the hymnbook of the Jerusalem temple. In contrast the very first words spoken by Jesus as recorded in the Gospels set the scene for his entire ministry. Addressing his puzzled parents, the 12-year-old Jesus says “Why were you searching for me?” Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 1:49). Even more so as Luke records Jesus’ closing words as his life ebbs away on the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46). Fundamentally Jesus understands his relationship with God as between a father and his son. This is seen most graphically as Jesus faces his fiercest test in the winepress of Gethsemane. Mark in his account inserts the Aramaic to emphasise the intensity of Jesus’ prayer: “Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36). Here we glimpse the full resonance of Abba, both intimacy and obedience. However, the wonder of the Gospel as realised by the cross of Jesus is that we too may address God as father, especially so in the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. So familiar but it is worth spelling out, that we can presume to address the God of all creation no less as “Father.” The early Christians saw this as an awesome privilege, so much so that only baptised members could say this prayer as they were about to receive the bread and wine, a tradition still preserved in Holy Communion. But how does Jesus see this relationship, how does he understand fatherhood? Again we need to be wary of importing directly from other cultures: we need context. Certainly the parables of Jesus give us an important insight into his thinking, two in particular, both featuring two sons. The first features the father asking his sons to work in the vineyard. The first says ‘No’ but changes his mind; the second says ‘Yes” but disobeys. What you do is what counts rather than what you say. Obvious to us but less so in a culture where saving your father’s face is paramount. The second parable, the prodigal son, also concerns the father’s dignity not just in the self-centred, presumptuous request of the younger son but in the way that the father welcomes him back home. Clearly the father allows his younger son space, even to go away and wreck his life. He is neither controlling nor manipulative. One of the problems of the Christian life is that it is so easy to sin – God does not, so to speak, give us an electric shock each time we choose to disobey him. He is no Pavlov. For the wonder is that our heavenly father respects us and allows us the privilege of choosing to obey him, or not. For only in true freedom can we become the children we are created to be, what the apostle Paul calls “the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (Romans 8:21) But the shocking detail of this much-loved parable is the way that the father abandons all dignity and runs towards his returning son, making a public spectacle of himself. And the parable ends with the elder son deciding whether to obey his father or not, whether to join in or boycott the festivities. It is for him to choose for the simple reason that you cannot be forced to celebrate. To address God as Abba is an awesome privilege, involving both intimacy and obedience, even if it means laying aside your dignity as at the cross God disregarded his in order to win our obedience.