When We Cry Abba

The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Romans 8:12-25.

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

This is a sermon about prayer. Prayer is one of those things we Episcopalians talk about a lot. And praying is something we do together fairly often. But talking about how we pray is something we don’t do that much. And I think it can be helpful sometimes to step back and talk a bit about what it is we think we’re doing when we pray.

This passage from Romans we read today talks about prayer. It doesn’t use the word, but prayer is at the heart of what Paul is talking about.

This is what Paul says: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.” Paul is saying here that when we pray, it is not just us reaching out to God, but prayer is God is reaching out to us, prayer is God’s very self is connecting with our selves, prayer is God is putting God’s own compassion and love and wisdom and creativity and transformative power at our disposal, so that we can draw on God’s resources as we cry out to God and turn out minds to God and tune our hearts to God and open ourselves up to communion with God. Prayer is not just a human act of trying to get God’s attention; prayer is a divine act of empowering us to attend to God. Prayer is not just us asking God for things; prayer is God asking us to let God in. “The Spirit bears witness with our spirit,” Paul says, so that we are able to say “Abba! Father!” to God.

And saying “Abba!” to God is a pretty remarkable thing to do. “Abba” of course means “Father,” as Paul translates it right there in his own sentence. But “Abba” is the Aramaic familiar form of “Father”: kind of like when we would say “Papa” or “Daddy.” It’s a word that emphasizes – not the stern, disciplinarian, remote, patriarchal side of fatherhood – but the nurturing, compassionate, familial, creative, playing with you till you giggle, checking under your bed to protect you from monsters, helping you grow up to be a good person – that side of fatherhood. When we call God “Abba,” we say that we believe those same “Daddy-qualities” belong to God. We say it’s through those Daddy-qualities God wants to relate to us.

God wants to be to us, not like a far-off king who sits in a celestial castle and decrees arbitrary laws the we have to obey; God wants to be not like a clockmaker who builds the machine of the universe and winds it up and gets it started and then really doesn’t care about it much after that; God wants to be not like magician in the sky who watches us through a big crystal ball and sometimes pokes a finger in to work a miracle, and sometimes not – but we say God wants to be to us like a daddy, like the one who gives us life, and then sees to it that we have the things we need to take that life and grow something good with it.

And Paul goes even farther: because those Daddy-qualities belong to God, God also wants those qualities to belong to us, God wants those qualities to be born and to grow in us. “We are children of God,” Paul says, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God” – and that means we inherit from God God’s own characteristics. It means God wants us to be nurturing and compassionate and playful and protective and creative and helping-others-to-grow, just the same way God is. When we call God “Abba,” Daddy, we’re not just paying God some sort of family-values metaphorical compliment – we are saying that in infinite love God lets us be like God, like children of the parent, like chips off the old block, so that we can love others with the very same love with which God loves us. “We are heirs,” Paul says, “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”

And that’s the third part of our threefold prayer: when the Spirit within us empowers us to pray to the Abba above us, then we are also praying with Jesus beside us. We inherit from God the qualities of nurturing and compassion and creativity and playfulness and so on. And Jesus inherited those qualities from God as well – in fact, Jesus inherited those qualities from God in a way that shows forth perfectly how divine love can be lived in a fully human life. Jesus is the perfect visible image of the invisible God, so Jesus’ inheritance of Abba’s qualities shows us perfectly how we can be like Abba, too.

Think about the way Jesus is willing to meet people where they are, to accept people exactly as they are, and yet always to keep on gently pushing them to grow more, to understand more, to believe more, to trust more – that pushing-to-grow is an Abba-quality of divine love made human in Jesus’ life.

Think of the way Jesus breaks down barriers between people, inviting all sorts and conditions of folks to come eat at his table, forgiving sinners, cleansing lepers, including the outcast – that is a quality of divine love made human in Jesus’ life.

Think of the way Jesus is willing to suffer, the way Jesus, out of love and compassion, is willing to stand with people in the places that hurt the most, so that God’s healing and restoring grace can be revealed even in the place of pain – that is a quality of divine love made human in Jesus’ life.

Jesus shows us what it means to live Abba’s love in a human way, and the Spirit empowers us to go and do the same, along with Jesus. “We are heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ,” Paul says, “if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

And that, according to Paul, is what prayer is really all about. It’s not just asking God for things. It is opening ourselves in thought and heart, so that the Spirit can enliven us to live like Jesus, so that with Jesus we may inherit the qualities of God. Prayer is nothing less than that.

And that’s what we pray for here in this Eucharist today. We pray in words from the Prayer Book and Hymnal; we pray in gestures, like standing or kneeling or taking each other by the hand; we pray with material signs like bread and wine and eating and drinking. But whatever mode we use to pray, the heart of the prayer is the same: we open ourselves so the Spirit can bear witness with our spirit that we are heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.

And if you practice that kind of prayer here this morning, how will you live that prayer throughout this week? Before you leave here this morning, I want you to think ahead to one thing you can do this week – words you can say or gestures you can make or signs you can share – that that will be a witness to how the love of God your Abba is at work in you, just like it was in Jesus, to bring divine grace right here into human life. What will you do to live your prayer this week?

“When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.” That is the seed of Good News for us today. May that seed grow in prayer and faith and action all our days.

In the Name of God: Abba, Christ, and Spirit. Amen.