Sermon – April 23, 2017

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyAbba, God

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“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, 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 these words as shorthand for saying something has gone terribly awry.

Except… the astronaut Jim Lovell did not say that. Indeed, no astronaut on Apollo 13 said, “Houston, we have a problem.” So, that’s not just one of the all-time great misquotes. It is a cultural myth.

First and to be accurate— astronaut Russ Swigert, not Jim Lovell did say something. But what was actually said was a little more prosaic, less poetic. “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.”

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

If you guessed from the movies you would be both right and wrong. Soon after the movie Apollo 13— a movie in which Lovell was played by Tom Hanks, so they wouldn’t let the other astronaut do it because Tom Hanks was playing that part— in which Lovell was played by Tom Hanks and is given that line— soon after the movie Apollo 13 was released, the world became infected with these words, easily one of the most used catchphrases ever.

But it makes sense that the phrase was rewritten for the movies. As its screen writer William Broyles has insisted, you can’t say something has happened. Because if you say something has happened it’s over. It’s done. That may be what was really said. But it’s not dramatic. And this was a suspense movie. Suspense needs to be present, to be continual.

On the other hand, the movie was only partially to blame for this myth. In 1983 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA, used “Houston, we have a problem” as the title of its weekly radio program about… space history. [1] (Slight pause.)

There are all kinds of cultural myths, things into which the culture buys, that are simply not true. And indeed, the culture imposes all kinds of myths on Christianity.

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

But the actual crosses Romans used to kill people was different. The cross on which Jesus was executed was probably T-shaped— a vertical element with a horizontal beam on top, like a ‘T.’ That allowed executioners to tie the victim to bean then raise the person being murdered to the top.

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

The symbol of a cross was extremely rare before the mid-4th Century of the Common Era. And depictions of Jesus on a cross did not occur with regularity until the 6th century. And when these first appeared, the image of Christ was that of a monarch dressed in royal garb levitating off the cross. They tried to make it look like Jesus was not nailed to the cross.

So Christianity is 300 years old before the image of a cross becomes common and 600 years old before the crucifix— a cross with a body— becomes common. It’s at least another century before a partially naked body on the cross, the image often seen today, becomes common. But myths— myths meaning falsehoods in this case— imposed by a cultural eons after the New Testament times insist these images should be paramount when they have no real relation to when things happened and how things were looked at. [2] (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. Here it speaks to the condition of churches across lines of time and place.

One commentary says this letter is written for churches alienated from the surrounding society. Put differently, the early church is a counter-cultural church. The early church does not buy into the dominant culture, does not buy into imposed cultural myths. [3]

Now, a more traditional translation for this passage would have said (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 those associated with the dominant culture of the era— the Romans— would have referred to God as Father, common in the Roman culture. Further, and as I have often said here, you can search all of Scripture and you will not find God referred to as “Father” in the original languages. It’s not found in the Hebrew Scriptures, not found in the New Testament. To call God Father is simply an imposition of the Roman culture on Christianity.

Jesus does, however, call God Abba, which means “Daddy.” This is and is meant to be a term of intimacy, a relational term.

All that brings me to what I think are the key questions raised by this reading. Who is Abba, God? 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. In fact, covenant is meant to have familial, relational understandings, familial, relational meanings. Since God is a God of covenant the claim made in Scripture and by our forebears— God adopts us as God’s own— relational. (Slight pause.)

I tried to unpack all that because I want to illustrate that this epistle is, in its own way, quite counter-cultural. Let’s start with the words Savior and salvation.

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, the relationship of Jesus and God is here intertwined in an intimate way.

Now, the word salvation 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.

I believe this passage, therefore, offers a very specific, very direct message. The resurrected Jesus is a sign from God and a sign of God that the promises of God are real.

(Quote:) “Christ, who with great mercy gave us a new birth: a birth into a living hope….” The resurrected Jesus is a sign from God that freedom— the freedom God offers— is real, a sign from God that God not only wants to be but is in intimate relationship with us.

Further, all this is not a transaction, something paid for, something bought. Relationships are not bought or sold, not something bargained for. That a relationship with God can be relegated to a transaction is, I believe, a cultural imposition placed on Christianity.

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

In a couple of minutes we, as a Congregation, will be doing something very counter-cultural. We will dedicate some quilts. One could argue these quilts are worth quite a bit of money. But that would imply a transaction— something cultural.

But no money will be taken or accepted for these quilts. They will, rather, be given away to those who need them. And doing that is counter cultural. And, like it or not, we Christians are just that: counter cultural.

How do I know we Christians are counter cultural? Well, the last time I looked we believe God— no one else— offers freedom. We believe peace is possible. We believe hope is real. We believe joy abounds. We believe 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 are in short supply in the culture around us. Therefore, by definition, I’d say we Christians are counter cultural, especially because we trust that the freedom, hope, peace, joy, love of God is with us now and forever— no strings attached. Amen.

04/23/2017
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.

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: “Earlier I said the Romans referred to God as Father. So how did that term creep into Christianity? There are a myriad of ways but there is no doubt that this is one way and it has to do with language, linguistics: by 315 of the Common Era Christianity is the official religion of the Empire. And the Latin words Deus Pater— which mean God the Father— sound very much like the Roman god Jupiter— Deus Pater— Jupiter. And, again, that’s bring historians studying language— no theology there at all; it’s about language. In short, about 1,700 years ago the church probably adopted those words and simply used what was common in the culture and in so doing acquiesced to the culture because it’s certainly not a Scriptural term.”

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.

[1] See this article:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/04/13/houston-we-have-a-problem-the-amazing-history-of-the-iconic-apollo-13-misquote/?utm_term=.fdfa6c3520e8

[2] See this article:
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-the-cross/2017/04/14/dae63c1a-1fa8-11e7-be2a-3a1fb24d4671_story.html

[3] This information is from The Interpreter’s Bible, the electronic edition in the section which covers an introduction to 1 Peter.

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