Allegiance to Our Father

A sermon based on: Matthew 6:7-14
given at Mount Vernon, OH, on June 21, 2015 *
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Since it’s Father’s Day . . . I have two stories about fathers. A first grade teacher had a child stand and then asked him if he knew his numbers. He said “Sure, my father taught me.” “Alright” the teacher said., “Let’s see how much your dad taught you. What comes after two?” “Three” the boy answered. “Very good. What comes after five?” “Six.” “And what comes after eight?” “Nine” The teacher was very pleased with the little boy. “Excellent. It looks like your father did a great job. One more question and then you can sit down. What comes after ten?” The boy confidently responded: “After ten . . . comes the jack.” 1

Here’s the second story, and it actually kinda relates to the sermon. A little child frightened by a thunderous lightening storm, called out one dark night, “Daddy come here. I’m scared.” Darling” the father said, “You’ll be okay God loves you and will take care of you.” “I know God loves me,” the child replied, “But right now I want somebody who has skin on.” 2.

Jesus, of course, was understood as God with skin on. So much so, in fact, that his followers defied Rome by making sure to give Jesus names that the empire’s religion reserved only for Caesar who was called: Lord; Son of God; Redeemer; Liberator; Prince of Peace; Savior 3. These were originally names that Caesar went by, they were a part of Roman theology. But see, when Jesus is your Lord and Savior then Caesar is not.

And Jesus was experienced by the first Christians as their Lord and Savior, and we have ever since used those names to describe Jesus. Jesus’ followers realized that instead of living with claims that Caesar brought peace through violence as divine presence on earth, they could claim the opposite, that Jesus brought peace – which they personally experienced– through love as a true Divine presence on earth. The early Christians’ acts of usurping the theological handles for Caesar and the Roman Empire’s religion made it crystal clear to whom they owed their allegiance, and whom they opposed.

Lord Jesus prevails over lord Caesar ever time. They felt called to this. In essence what they claimed was“Rome, we will not follow your god or your way, we will follow Jesus, our God, and His Way!”
Make no mistake about it, the Jesus followers were gutsy. Telling Rome that they would not cow-tow to Caesar as god incarnate but, were instead defiantly backing God incarnate in Jesus a criminal Rome executed, was not like being openly anti-Barrack Obama or anti-George W. Bush. It was more akin to being openly anti-Adolph Hitler in Nazi Germany. Calling Jesus Lord would have been like being in Nazi Germany and calling Jesus “Der Fuhrer” instead of Hitler.

Der Fuhrer means “the leader.” To Christians Jesus is – or ought to be– The Leader, not the Hitlers and Caesars of the world. Lord Caesar is replaced by Lord Jesus! As you might imagine, this did no set well with the authorities. Life and limb were at risk. From Rome’s perspective it was rebellious, it was anti-empire of man, it was anti Pax Roma– the Peace of Rome obtained through violence.

But for the Jesus Followers it was faithful. It was pro-God. It was pro peace through non-violence. It was the Jesus movement rolling along despite the execution of it’s leader. Jesus lives on. Jesus’ beautiful, awesome Way of love is not left to die. In short, Caesar posing as a god is denied legitimacy by the Jesus Followers. They strip Caesar of his titles. And each of those titles are given to Christ. Christ is Lord. Christ is Son of God. Christ is Redeemer. Christ is Liberator. Christ is Prince of Peace. Christ is Savior.

We can hear all of this in the Gospel stories and when we hear those names today we almost instinctively think of Jesus, but in first century Rome those titles at first belonged to Caesar.

Pretty neat trick that the followers of Jesus were able to usurp Caesar’s titles and employ them in their emerging Christ-centered theology!

So does this have anything to do with fathers? Some of the historians who tell us that Jesus was given Caesar’s titles early on by his followers after death have also observed that the Jesus’ followers taught as Jesus taught, and tried to do as Jesus did. For example, they taught parables, not only using his stories, but making the stories about him in the Gospels to also be understood as a parabolic. In this way Jesus’ method of teaching by parables goes on and on. 4

If methods by which Jesus taught were continued by his followers after his death, then perhaps Jesus is the one who began the idea of usurping Caesar’s titles and employing them in theology. Perhaps the Jesus Followers copied Jesus, or expanded on his idea when they called Jesus by Caesar’s titles.

So here’s what this has to do with father’s day: One of the theological titles Caesar had was “Pater Patriae” which means Father of the Fatherland. Caesar was the country’s father – more than just in name too. In the patriarchy and patron system he was at the top of a pyramid of power that trickled down so that each person in the whole empire was below him and had to look up to him as a father figure, the patron, the dominating ruling macho male parent.

The term “patron” is actually a form of the Latin word for father. In the Roman Empire each patron had clients beneath him, but all in the Roman Empire were Caesar’s clients, and conversely Caesar was considered everyone’s patron . . . everyone’s father. Caesar is not just the father of the country like George Washington, a man who helped shepherd the birth of the nation. Caesar is the head of the entire empire “family. He is the father of the fatherland and so the ultimate dominating figure to whom all owed allegiance, respect and obedience.

God is called Father in the Old Testament fifteen times. God is called Father in the New Testament two hundred and forty-five times. 5 Jesus claims God as Father over and over again. He even calls him “abba,” the Aramaic equivalent of Daddy. Jesus does this not to name God as male so men can lord it over women, he does it to take the title of “Father” away from Caesar. And in so doing Jesus sets an example for his followers of claiming Caesar’s titles for God. Consequently– in doing so– God replaces Caesar as the head of all power.

Roman patrons are no longer the Jesus Followers brokers of power and largess, God is. There is no longer a pyramid of power that trickles down. There’s simply one father – GOD– that everyone has direct access to. This means for the poor– and almost everyone in 1st Century Palestine was very impoverished– this means that under Jesus’ Way there is no longer a structure that requires allegiance to all those patrons who stand above the peasants. God is their Father directly. God is our Father directly. God is whom we give our allegiance to.

This is pure genius if you think about it. Father no longer needs be heard as a name for the long line of powers elites leading to faraway Rome. God as Father makes one allegiant to only one being, God, by “placing each person in the community under the authority and patronage of God alone. There is no patriarch who stands above others in the new empire of God; all stand equally under God’s immediate care” 6.

And Jesus does more than take away just Caesar’s title he lets his followers see that it can have a domino effect. It is not just Caesar’s power that is affected, that gets messed with, and turned on its head. It disrupts the entire patriarchy to its very core. “Through patriarchy, society was and is ordered according to family lineage, raising some in value and lowering others. In such ordering one’s father determines one’s place: The child of the king is given more importance than the child of an outcast.” 7 But when you make God everyone’s Father it cuts out and down the entire patriarchal system. Theologian Marjorie Suchoki points to the Lord’s Prayer and Jesus’ instruction to address God as “Our Father” and notes

Jesus gives us the highest lineage possible when he draws us into the “our” of naming God’s own self our “Father.” If God is my father and yours, are we not one value? Is not social ranking of higher and lower immediately overturned? . . . The “ourness” of the relations to father overturns the patriarchal privilege of “your” father against “mine.”In a profound sense, the “our’ in the petition radically reverses the societal exclusiveness of father 8. . . . Marjorie Suchoki

All of this seems to have taught Jesus’ followers to see Caesar’s titles in a new way because shortly after they experience the risen Christ they pillage a whole handful of Caesar’s titles. They do not just refuse to let Caesar be their Lord, Son of God, Redeemer, Liberator, Prince of Peace or Savior, they claim the risen Christ is all of those things. It’s really quite amazing, because for eons now each of those names is not associated with Caesar, but with the risen Christ, the One Caesar’s empire executed as a criminal. You gotta love it. By Jesus claiming God as Father Jesus allows everyone direct un-brokered access to the head of creation, to the head of the family: “Our Father.” Jesus claiming God as the one Father of us all allows all to claim the highest lineage possible.

Simply put, God as Father, as good father, becomes the only power you need and it is a power that is freely accessible to all. The result of Jesus’s reclamation of the word “Father” does at least one more remarkable thing. To speak of father and Caesar in the same breath tarnished the word father. It needed to be remade. Jesus seems to have made sure that we do not see God as a harsh and hard father, an abusive violent domineering power-monger like Caesar. God to Jesus is “Abba,” Daddy. Daddy is a very personal, loving image, it’s conjures a father with metaphoric skin of love. Someone not out to be our overlord patron, but someone out to love and care and embrace us and hold our hand through life.

Our Father,” our loving Abba . . . our Daddy. Those are the images of God Jesus has . . . and teaches us to have. When we think about Father’s Day it is mostly fathers as dads. Daddy is the image we conjure up, or want to conjure up. It’s the image of the good dad. The loving dad. The compassionate dad. And it’s the image we get all mushy and caring about. “I love you daddy” is one of the greatest expressions a father can ever hope to hear.

One of the many strokes of genius Jesus brought, and left us, is anchoring his theological perception of God as all of our Father, as the sole patron of our lives; as directly accessible to all. And God as a Father who is a loving Daddy providing all with a steadfast and enduring love with no strings attached– ever.
“I love you daddy.” It’s great for us dad’s to hear that. We can choose to imagine that it is great for God to hear that from us as well.

AMEN!

ENDNOTES
* this sermon is based in part on a sermon I preached in 2009
1. Adapted from Hodgin, Michael, 1002 Humourous Illustrations for Public Speaking, p. 132
2. Adapted from Green, Michael, Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, p. 147.
3. Borg, Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 63.
4. Ibid., p. 35
5. See, Keathy, Hampton, The Names of God at www.bible.org/page.php?/page_id=220, page 7, subsection (7).
6. Patterson, Stephen, The God of Jesus,
7 Suchocki, Marjorie Hewitt, In God’s Presence, St. Louis: Chalice Press 1996, 103-104.
8. Ibid.

COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2015
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