JESUS, SPIRIT-EMPOWERED SON OF ABBA

Dale M. Schlitt, OMI

While reviewing a provisional list of potential testimonials to experience of the Trinity in preparation for a seminar in Trinitarian spirituality, I thought that perhaps we should start at the beginning. The ideal then seemed to be to go back to Jesus of Nazareth himself and to his experience of God. But this proved easier said than done. For the last two hundred years or so, there has been considerable discussion as to whether or not we can really get back through the Gospels, written after Jesus’ resurrection, to Jesus as he preached and taught and healed before the Resurrection. We of course need to recognize that the Gospels were written to recall the memory of Jesus in relation to the ways things were developing in the changing situations in and among various early Christian communities. Even so, it still seemed important to head back to Jesus in pre-Resurrection Galilee and Jerusalem. His life and experience had something to teach us about God. So, in heading back, it would be necessary to find a way to build on reasonably solid ground, in this case, on some more generally accepted, reasonably reliable traditions traceable back at least in substance to Jesus himself.

To find such traditions, we need then to identify potentially helpful texts in one or more of the New Testament Gospels. For they remain among our earliest available written documents directly concerning Jesus, though a variety of other writings about him appeared, especially in the second century.[1] Yet, again the Gospels themselves were written after Jesus’ resurrection and in light of the spiritual experience and the varied concerns of Jesus’ disciples in their early Christian communities. They were in effect a further effort to encourage and give direction to such experience and to provide daily guidance for Christians living at the time when they were written. As we see now, they have continued to offer such guidance down through the ages. So, while acknowledging these intentions and concerns, perhaps we can still find a way to head back in time through the Gospels, at least metaphorically speaking, to Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem.

Indeed, texts from the Gospels are testimonials, taken in a rather wide sense, to various aspects of Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection. As testimonials, they both refer appreciatively to such aspects and encourage their readers to emulate in their own lives what is being presented. They include within them oral traditions about Jesus that were valued by the earliest members of various Christian communities. Through the Gospels, we can have access to what such members were variously remembering and saying about Jesus. The final authors of the Gospels worked with these early oral traditions, some of which with time had probably taken on written form. They selected stories and sayings they considered important to preserve, further develop and adapt to differing community situations and needs. So brought together in creative ways, in line with various theological frameworks holding them together, these stories and sayings were made available to members of their local Christian communities and surely as well to members of the increasingly wide-spread Christian movement. In effect, in reading the Gospels we are, to use a visual image, looking at Jesus through several lenses. But lenses do not necessarily distort our vision and understanding. In fact, they often magnify for us and help us focus on that which is in some way already there in what we are looking at through them. In other words, we can work with the idea that, for example, Mark’s and Matthew’s testimonials help us to see more clearly who Jesus was for members of their communities and, indeed, for us who read them almost 2,000 years later. These Gospels bear witness to what many early Christians had experienced and were thinking about Jesus, what they remembered and were retelling about him. They have served down through the ages to encourage us as Christians to reflect ever anew on what Jesus of Nazareth, now the Risen One, means for us.

While thinking about this challenge to look with and through these Gospels back to Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee and Jerusalem, I came upon the work of a highly respected New Testament scholar, James D. G. Dunn. On reading his book Jesus and the Spirit: A Study of the Religious and Charismatic Experience of Jesus and the First Christians as Reflected in the New Testament,[2] I found his study and general approach most enlightening. He chose specific, pertinent Gospel verses, the study of which he argued would permit him to speak of Jesus’ experience of God. Under Dunn’s guidance we could choose key verses more specifically from Mark and Matthew as points of reference in our reflection on what, in relation to our present interests, we might consider relevant aspects of these Gospel presentations of Jesus of Nazareth.

In Jesus and the Spirit, Dunn himself had written at length of Jesus’ experience of God.[3] He summed up this experience in terms of Jesus’ “sense of Sonship” and “consciousness of the Spirit.” But he did not try to recapture the “inner life” of Jesus or write his biography. Rather, he wisely focused on what he claimed we can see of Jesus’ experience of God as reflected, among various ways, in Jesus’ prayer, exorcisms, and healing. He did not speak of the development of Jesus’ experience but simply said that here “we can see something of the experiential basis of Jesus’ faith in God.”[4] I suggest that we can follow Dunn’s lead. While following that lead, we of course need to keep in mind the continuing discussion in scholarly New Testament circles as to whether we can move back from Gospel verses more directly to what Jesus of Nazareth himself said. In light of that discussion, it would seem best not to pursue the particular question as to whether specific Gospel verses in their entirety might reproduce the very words of Jesus. But we can still continue to focus, under Dunn’s careful guidance, on a couple of verses from  Mark’s Gospel. It seems to have taken more or less final form rather early on, namely, in 69 or 70 A.D., a relatively short 35 or slightly more years after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. We will as well want to look briefly at a verse from Matthew’s Gospel, often considered as dating from around 85 or 90 A.D., approximately 15 or 20 years after that of Mark and about 55 or so years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Following this reflection, we will be in a position briefly to note that such verses, in their Gospel contexts, continue even today to have an important effect on the prayer and Christian self-understanding of Jesus’ disciples.

The Gospel verses to which we will refer surely reflect something of what was, or at least what the final authors of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew thought should be, of great meaning to members of their communities called to be disciples of Jesus. We will work with the idea that these verses in their full, present phrasing express something of the experience of the communities concerned while at the same time providing us with some access to Jesus’ own experience of God. We can do this by profiting from what Dunn has written regarding the content of the verses themselves. With his help, we can understand better what Mark and Matthew are saying. I propose then to follow Dunn’s overall presentation and draw selectively based on present purposes, but I hope fairly, upon aspects of what Dunn writes in analyzing and reflecting, for present purposes, more directly on three verses in particular. In one of these verses, Mark 14:36, the author of Mark sketches for his community and for us today the scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane where he in anguish prays to Abba or God, his Father. In a second verse, Matt. 12:28, the author of Matthew presents Jesus as one who claims to chase out demons through the power of the Spirit of God at work in and through him. And in a third verse, Mark 1:9–11, the author of Mark reflects on the significance of Jesus’ baptism by John.

 

JESUS PRAYS TO ABBA

“And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; take this cup away from me. Yet, not what I want but what you want’” (Mark 14:36).[5]

We should recall immediately that Mark’s is the only one of the four Gospels to include the Aramaic word Abba in his recounting of events in Jesus’ life. The author of Mark’s Gospel does this when in 14:36 he tells us of Jesus’ anguished prayer, in the Garden of Gethsemane, to Abba. He attributes the Aramaic Abba to Jesus while perhaps calling upon phrases from one or the other Hebrew scripture passages to give expression to the rest of Jesus’ prayer in this verse. At first sight, we might consider as two different and unrelated moves the author of Mark’s Gospel’s tracing back the word Abba to Jesus himself and then drawing upon one or the other Hebrew Scripture passage to complete Jesus’ prayer. But the link between Mark’s affirming Jesus’ use of Abba and Mark’s possibly invoking a scriptural text to help express Jesus’ feelings in this difficult moment may be closer than we might think initially. For Jesus’ use of Abba to address God in prayer seems to have been a way in which Jesus himself applied a Scripture text creatively to his own situation. Rather intriguingly, Jesus seems to have drawn upon, and in a distinctively new way  made his own, various scripture references to God as Father, now addressing God as Abba.[6] He was indeed a Jewish rabbi in the sense of a teacher who interpreted Hebrew Scriptures in relation to himself and for application to others in his own time and place.[7] So there would seem to be a certain parallel between Jesus’ own taking up and applying a Hebrew usage to himself and Mark’s drawing upon a Hebrew Scripture text to spell out further Jesus’ attitude in prayer toward God as Abba. Here Mark well may have taken a verse from one of the psalms attributed to David and put it on the lips of Jesus.

In turning now more directly to the text itself of Mark 14:36, we usually consider that putting the Greek for “Father” (ὁ πατήρ) right after the Aramaic Abba in Mark 14:36 means the Greek serves as a translation of the Aramaic word. But there is another possibility. One could argue on philological bases that, in Mark, Abba is an equivalent name for God. A more complete translation of “ἀββὰ ὁ πατήρ” would then be “God, my Father.”[8] In either case, Mark clearly presents Jesus addressing God as Abba.

In fact, numerous New Testament texts originating in diverse geographical regions from about 55 to 95 A.D. refer to Jesus as son in relation to God, his Father. These references seem to echo in various ways Jesus’ own way of addressing God in prayer. I would note that Mark’s specific attribution of the Aramaic Abba to Jesus seems especially reliable in its reference directly to him. Within the context of this widespread reference to Jesus as Son of God, His Father, and given Mark’s particular inclusion of the word Abba, I suggest we can profitably call upon resources provided by Dunn who, in his study of Mark 14:36, explores various aspects and uses of this Aramaic word around the time of Jesus.[9] His explorations will help us unpack what is at play in Mark’s presentation of something so important as Jesus’ steadfastness before Abba in light of suffering and immanent death. Jesus’ steadfastness would have rather direct implications for the disciples of Jesus in Mark’s community who are themselves facing persecution.

Dunn stresses the significance of Mark’s presentation of Jesus in prayer when he recalls the old saying that if we want to know someone we should see what that person does in her or his solitude. In following this adage, Dunn turns to the place of prayer in Jesus’ life and ministry, or, as we would now phrase it, in Mark’s portrayal of that life and ministry. Dunn calls upon the classic study by Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus. In working with Jeremias, he focuses especially on Jesus’ prayer, in the Garden of Gethsemane, uttered in the Markan account shortly before Jesus’ arrest. After qualifying slightly several of Jeremias’s conclusions and especially those concerning possible prior Jewish references to God as “Father,” Dunn agrees with Jeremias that Jesus’ use of the word in addressing God as Abba, and here we would say in more qualified fashion as presented in Mark, is truly distinctive. It would seem that this attribution of the Aramaic Abba to Jesus brings readers of Mark’s Gospel to a way of speaking to God that no one in the Jewish world previously had done. Mark’s Jesus speaks of God as Abba in a personal, intimate way. Indeed, no one had so used this word which arose out of family life and was accompanied by a sense of closeness and intimacy. We well might think, then, that Jesus’ reference to God as Abba, ‘my Father,’ was influenced not only by family life in general in his day but perhaps colored as well by his own family  experience.

More generally, in the Old Testament “Father” referred to one who was both an authority with his own will, on one hand, and a protective and caring presence, on the other—authority and tenderness. As we can sense then, authority and tender care on the part of the father and parallel obedience and love on the part of the son both find expression in Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer. In effect, in Jesus’ usage, it implies unconditional commitment on the part of God[10] and, I would add, of Jesus as well. It was with this word, Abba, which gives expression to his existential and emotional relationship with God, that Jesus addressed God in the Garden of Gethsemane and, we might well say, seemingly during much of his life in Galilee and Jerusalem.*

There is a strong similarity between Jesus’ speaking to God as Abba in the Garden of Gethsemane and the opening of the Our Father in Matt. 6:9 (πάτερ ἡμῶν) and Luke 11:2 (πάτερ). We should note, though, that in each of these two post-Markan texts, the Aramaic word Abba is not included along with the Greek form of address to God as our Father. Disciples of Jesus were to pray that God’s will be done and that God care for them. They were to trust in God as Abba, their Father, who was, at the same time, an authority with his own will to be followed and one who loved and cared for them. This basic, doubled sense of the word Abba not only characterized Mark’s presentation of Jesus in his relationship with God but was to characterize the disciples’ relationship to God as well. Jesus’ intimacy with God, whom he addressed as Abba, was to qualify and color the way in which the disciples addressed and related to God. Their feeling of such intimacy arose out of and was dependent on that of Jesus himself. In calling God Abba, Jesus has given expression to his distinctive relationship to God as God’s son, a relationship in which he invites his disciples to share.

We might prolong for a moment our present reflection in noting that Jesus, so familiar with Hebrew Scriptures, would have been deeply aware of God’s freeing of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. That he would pray then to the Lord of history as Abba is truly remarkable. In this regard, he remained, but in a new way, Jewish to the very core of his human reality; and in night-long prayer, Jesus in his time would have seen the starry sky with greater clarity and brilliance than so many of us do today. We live in an age in which widely present bright lights often dim our view of that starred sky. That he would address as Abba the God who was forever faithful throughout Jewish history and the generous creator of earth and sky is striking. That he encouraged his disciples to address that same God as, in their own way, their Abba, is all the more striking. And that he would in effect be encouraging us who two millennia later are aware, through scientific discovery, of a universe of billions of stars and even billions of galaxies to call that same God Abba is almost mind-boggling, while at the same time being extremely comforting.

We also might suggest that, in speaking with his disciples of God as Abba and then their Abba, Jesus is prolonging and spelling out further his own lived experience of God as his Father and, consequently, of himself as God’s son. We could say he is prolonging the experience now in thought and word, perhaps even thereby clarifying in his human consciousness his own profound experience of Abba when he teaches his disciples how to pray. We can only imagine the ways in which his further clarified human consciousness of God as Abba and of himself as son would have enriched his own self-awareness in prayer and his prayerful concern for those to whom he preached.

In praying the simple word Abba, Jesus gave his disciples and indeed the wider world a new way of relating to God. In retaining the Aramaic word Abba, Mark is in fact sharing with his readers, and,  we could say, giving testimony to them of, his understanding that Jesus lived such a deep relationship with God. Regarding that relationship, Dunn writes, “He [Jesus] experienced a relation of sonship—felt such an intimacy with God, such an approval by God, dependence on God, responsibility to God, that the only words adequate to express it were ‘Father’ and ‘son.’”[11] Jesus’ mission arose out of this intimate relationship with God, a relationship into which he felt it important to invite others. “And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible to you; take this cup away from me. Yet, not what I want but what you want’” (Mark 14:36).

 

JESUS, THROUGH WHOM THE SPIRIT WORKS

“[But] if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out [the] demons, then has come upon you the kingdom of God” (Matt. 12:28).

After our remarks on Mark’s telling, in 14:36, of Jesus’ prayerful relation to Abba, we can now pick up on another aspect of Jesus’ experience of God to which Dunn refers. That aspect is Jesus’ awareness of the Spirit of God working in and through him.[12] We could do this by turning to Mark 3:22–30, where Mark, in what is his relatively early (perhaps 70 A.D.) text, includes many of the elements found in Matt. 12:28, just quoted here, and in its immediate context. These elements include the questioning of Jesus’ exorcisms and the power by which he does them as well as some reference to a kingdom and to the Spirit working through Jesus. But Matt. 12:28 brings these elements to the fore in a more direct and explicit fashion. So, we will do well here again to follow Dunn who chooses to work with Matthew’s presentation of Jesus and to defend the eschatological or end-time character of Jesus’ preaching and healing. That healing included the healing of the mentally deranged and/or the demon-possessed as well as of those suffering from physical ailments. In his reflection on Matt. 12:28, Dunn recalls long, late nineteenth- into twentieth-century theological discussions as to whether or not Jesus’ own outlook regarding the kingdom of God was to be understood as more eschatological and end-oriented or more focused on the present. We will come back to this question of present or future kingdom, but already now should note more generally that, for Matthew, Jesus’ outlook, as Matthew presents it, reflected something important about Jesus’ relation to God. Arriving at a clearer understanding of that outlook, again as Matthew presents it, will help us see what that something of such importance was.

In addition to his reflection, in Matt. 12:28, on Jesus’ exorcisms, Dunn also examines Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the anointed one who fulfills the prophecy of Isa. 61:1: “The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (NRSV). As Dunn so insightfully remarks, “His [Jesus’] awareness of being uniquely possessed and used by divine Spirit was the mainspring of his mission and the key to its effectiveness.”[13] However, for present purposes, it will be sufficient for us to remain with his insightful discussion of Matthew on Jesus’ healing through exorcisms, an activity generally accepted as characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. As mentioned, Dunn focuses especially on Matt. 12:28. He notes that there is considerable discussion concerning whether Jesus says he casts out demons “by the Spirit of God” as in Matthew, or “by the finger of God” as in the parallel text in Luke 11:20. In the end, though, Dunn concludes that the phrases are equivalent, each one expressing the power of God. We will continue, as Dunn does, working with the phrase “by the Spirit of God.”

In Matthew’s Gospel presentation, Jesus finds himself in a controversial discussion. Some Pharisees have accused him of chasing out demons by the power of the devil. Jesus responds that if he did so by the power of Beelzebub, the kingdom of Beelzebub would be divided and fall. He then turns the accusation against the Pharisees and wonders if it is not their own sons who exorcise demons by the power of Beelzebub. Jesus himself calls attention to the Spirit as the power of God come upon him and effecting, through him, healing liberation from demonic possession. He stresses in effect that it is the Spirit who, as the eschatological power of God, does the healing and the freeing from demonic possession. In these healings and exorcisms, the kingdom of God has come upon those with whom Jesus is speaking. God reigns in their lives.

At the time when Jesus lived and preached, the Jewish expectation was that the kingdom or reign of God was quite eschatological. God’s reign would be realized in the future, at the end-time. The expectation was even apocalyptic, focusing exclusively on an end-time realization. But, in his reference to the Spirit acting in the present through him, Jesus is making a clear distinction between the final realization of the kingdom of God and its inbreaking already now in his healing and freeing from demonic possession, for such healing and freeing could come only from the power of God.

In this short sentence, Matt. 12:28, then, we see Matthew presenting Jesus as one aware of the Spirit as the power of God working in a unique way through him. Something new is happening through him, something he attributes to the power of the Spirit of God enabling him to heal and free others—as Dunn puts it, “to restore and make whole.” Satan is already being overcome. A new age has dawned, and the kingdom of God has come upon those with whom he is speaking. For Matthew, Jesus’ self-understanding is constituted in good part as one through whom the Spirit of God is at work in the world. The Spirit who spoke through the Old Testament prophets is active now in a unique and new, final and powerful way in Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is aware of an “otherly power,”[14] something beyond himself. He is convinced that this power is the eschatological Spirit of God present now within him, enabling him to preach and act effectively and with authority. Jesus is quite aware of that authority as he carries out his mission. He has in effect seen the power of God active in such a way that he could only conclude the kingdom of God was present in and through him. It is as if in so doing, in freeing and healing others, Jesus is prolonging and spelling out further his own lived experience and awareness of the Spirit acting through him. He is spelling it out now in deeds done, perhaps even thereby clarifying in his human consciousness his own experience of God as Spirit when he frees and heals. He realizes that where the Spirit is present and submitted to, there is the reign of God. “[But] if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out [the] demons, then has come upon you the kingdom of God” (Matt. 12:28).

 

JESUS AND WE WHO ARE HIS DISCIPLES

Again following Dunn’s lead, we can now refer to Jesus’ baptism by John as told in Mark 1:9–11.[15] In these verses Mark helps us understand the relationship, as he gives expression to it, between Jesus’ being son of the Father and the one in and through whom the Spirit works.

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Dunn concludes that Jesus’ being son of the Father and the one in and through whom the Spirit works are but two aspects of the same experience, “two sides of the one coin.”[16] No final priority is to be given to one over the other, though I would add, Jesus’ relationship to the Spirit is to one present and active within and through him while his stance in relation to Abba is one of “looking to.”

Dunn acknowledges questions concerning the interpretation of these early verses in Mark and then treats with great sensitivity the description of the descent of the Spirit on Jesus in the form of a dove as well as the voice proclaiming that Jesus is “my son, the beloved.” In this descent and this proclamation, he sees indications that Jesus’ baptism was of great import and, we should add, especially in Mark’s reading. In a sense, Jesus’ baptism launches his own mission and ministry. For here we have an indication of the presence of the Spirit as the power of God whereas for John the Baptist the Spirit remained an end-time reality. Mark’s Jesus stands in relationship to God as son to father and, with Matthew, as the one in and through whom the Spirit, the power of God, works. For Mark it was in prayer that Jesus addressed God as Abba, his Father, and for Matthew it was in ministry that he acknowledged the healing Spirit at work in and through him. On these bases, namely, his intimate relationships with Abba and with the Spirit as the power of God working through him, Jesus spoke and acted with authority.

Jesus’ relationship with God involves, in Dunn’s phrase, an “otherly givenness.” Jesus’ experience of this otherly givenness includes both rational reflection and other elements such as emotion, decision, and subsequent action. Jesus gives expression to this experience in his proclamation and in his exercise of power which together lead to healing and wholeness.[17] In his preaching, so clearly linked with his healing, the kingdom of God is present. The Spirit of the end-time is active in the various aspects of his ministry. This presence inextricably links Jesus’ ministry as a whole with the kingdom of God or, more particularly, the temporally imaged reign of God presently realized here in and through him. The kingdom of God is still to come in its universally present and effective power of God reigning in and over all, the kingdom as the spatially imaged realm of God. And yet already now Jesus’ relationship to Abba and Jesus’ acknowledgment of the Spirit working through him impel him freely to love and obey Abba as well as to liberate, by the divine healing power of the Spirit, those ill or demon-possessed. Mark and Matthew present us with a Jesus whose twofold relationship with God is both distinctive and unique. He shares this relationship with his disciples, but it is always his relationship which he shares.

In a brief turn beyond Dunn to a somewhat more generally expressed reading of Jesus in relation to Abba as well as to the Spirit working through him, we can begin by referring again to an “otherly givenness.” We see that for Mark and Matthew Jesus of Nazareth’s human relationship to God entails a doubled reference to God as distinct from Jesus’ humanity. The God of Israel is the one to whom he prays and the Spirit is the power of God working in and through him as he frees and heals. Jesus’ relationship to God is in effect intimate and empowering, a relationship with two points of reference. One is God as Abba. Jesus is then, in correlative fashion, the son. His intimate relationship with God was surely profoundly emotional, to the point where he would in loving obedience put himself into God’s caring hands even in his darkest moments, including the agony in the Garden. The other, to which we will return, is the active presence of the Spirit.

It is not hard to envision ourselves on the way with Jesus from the temple in Jerusalem down the hill and across the Kidron valley to the Garden of Gethsemane, a way many of us have had the privilege to follow when we visited Jerusalem. He stops with his disciples at the garden of olive trees, perhaps a mile from Jerusalem. The garden is on the way up the steep Mount of Olives that then leads on to nearby Bethany, home of his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. In the garden, of which we today have a reminder in the form of a very ancient group of olive trees found there on the mountainside today, he senses the imminent danger he is in and goes a bit farther off to pray.[18] We can begin to imagine something of the emotion Jesus felt if we recall what the great theologian Romano Guardini (1885–1968) so eloquently wrote in his meditation on Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.[19] In that meditation, he speaks of Jesus as bearing the weight of a sinful world and seeing it all in relation to his view of God as Abba. Guardini hesitates to say much about the Father beyond the Father’s leaving Jesus to go through a horrendous isolation and solitude, an indescribable loneliness felt already here in the Garden. He describes Jesus as being deeply troubled and terribly sad, feeling forlorn, dreading what is to come. Such isolation. Yet, precisely from these depths of emotion expressed in Mark’s presentation Jesus prays to Abba, “Not what I want but what you want.”

Guardini picks up especially on the sense of anguish and fear that seems to consume Jesus at times in Mark’s telling of the scene in the Garden of Gethsemane. But, as we have seen, in Mark, Jesus ends expressing a more serene attitude, “Not what I want but what you want.” Some say that these two, anguish and serenity, reflect the fact that the author of Mark’s Gospel is here combining two stories he had heard about Jesus in the Garden. One of them, perhaps the earlier one, would bring out Jesus’ human agony more. The other, perhaps somewhat later, would stress more Jesus’ having better control of the situation, culminating in “Not what I want but what you want.” Whether Mark has brought together two stories or worked with one, he has left us with an extraordinarily compelling retelling of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane. His retelling never fails to invite us who read it to enter ever more deeply into that very experience itself. [20]

Another point of reference in Jesus’ relationship to God is the Spirit of God, the power of God working through the prophets. But now the Spirit, as the divine power of the end-time, already works definitively in and through Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, considered together with that of Mark, Jesus becomes aware of the Spirit within himself, directing him outward to the welfare of others as he liberates and heals. In what Jesus says and does, he shows a profound self-assurance rooted in his relationship to Abba, who loves him, and to the Spirit as the power of God working through him.

Allowing ourselves to prolong our meditative reflection a bit further, we can say that Jesus’ intimate, doubled relationship with God brings with it wholeness and integration in three ways. First of all, Jesus sees his whole life and ministry as one of proclaiming the reign of God’s being present already now in his preaching and healing. His life and even his death take on a fullness of meaning. Everything he says and does and undergoes is integrated ultimately in his experience of resurrection. Second, there is a direct impact on those whom he liberates and heals, a resultant integration and wholeness in their lives. Third, the promise of a final wholeness and integration takes the form of a world presently longing for, but at the end effectively rejoicing in, the fullness of the reign of God in the realm of God. In each of these cases, wholeness is the result of a form of enriching experience. Such an experience can involve an enriched self taken in a very wide sense as individual or communal or, again, even creation as a whole.

With Dunn, we can insist that to say much more, and perhaps to some extent to ground even what we have just said, we need to consider the first Easter. It would be fascinating at this point to rush on, for example, to Paul, who also refers to God as Abba. He writes of God as the one whom early Christians, and of course later disciples of Jesus as well, address as Abba. For Paul and for them it is the Spirit of God’s Son who cries out to God within them in ecstatic exclamation, and within us. Paul first writes of this experience already around 55 A.D. in his letter to the Galatians, 4:6, and then again around 58 A.D. in his letter to the Romans, 8:15. We would surely like to rush on to Paul as one who develops in further ways the idea that Jesus invited his disciples to share in, while being dependent on, his relationship with Abba. But we can leave that for another day. It is important for us to linger a bit longer with Mark and Matthew while referring briefly to Paul. They help us see better that Paul writes of the early Christians’ experience of God in a pattern reflecting aspects of Jesus’ own experience of God. With regard to Abba, we have turned to Mark 14:36, perhaps written, as we may recall, about 69 or 70 A.D. There, of course, in Mark, it is Jesus himself who addresses God as Abba, while in Galatians and Romans, it will be the Spirit crying Abba within Christians. Paul early on had brought together in his letters Christians’ experience of the Spirit with their intimate relationship with Abba. With regard to the Spirit, in Matt. 20:28, perhaps written around 85 or 90 A.D., it is the Spirit who heals and frees through Jesus. With Paul in mind, we can say that it is as if early on Christians had experienced God as Abba and as Spirit working through them when they lived and died as disciples of Jesus. In the Gospel verses to which we have referred, we find Mark’s and Matthew’s testimonial reference to Jesus of Nazareth and to his experience of God as Abba and of the Spirit as divine power working in and through him. In their testimonials, Mark and Matthew tell us of Jesus and invite us to follow him.

Down through the ages, Mark’s and Matthew’s testimonials, as well of course as those found in so many other New Testament texts, of Jesus as Son of the Father and the one in and through whom the Spirit of God works, have come to serve for us Christians as points of rather clear reference. Over the centuries these and such other similar texts have inspired us as we read them in the context of our own concrete situations and in relation to our communal and personal experiences. When reading them over so many centuries, we have come to interpret them in various ways, reflecting more deeply on them from the perspectives of our own times and experiences. Throughout the ages we have continued to meditate on such New Testament texts. And now, since the inauguration of more critical biblical studies, we continue to mediate on them, drawing upon and, importantly, learning from such studies. At the same time we have felt ourselves free to go beyond, and indeed justified in so doing, what might in more circumscribed fashion be concluded from a specifically scholarly, exegetical perspective.

To limit ourselves to but one such more recent example of perhaps going beyond what a strictly critical scholarly approach might permit, we can cite John Paul II, who carried out much of his reflection on Scripture and Christian living from the perspective of his prolonged encounter with contemporary, but especially personalist, thought. In a General Audience on March 3, 1999 he said:

“2. Jesus’ experience is the basis for this specific revelation of the Father. It is clear from his words and attitudes that he experiences his relationship with the Father in a wholly unique way. …

  1. The Gospel of Mark has preserved for us the Aramaic word “Abba” (cf. Mark 14:36) with which Jesus, during his painful hour in Gethsemane, called on God, praying to him to let the cup of the Passion pass him by. … Jesus uses it [Abba] in an original way to address God and, in the full maturity of his life which is about to end on the cross, to indicate the close relationship which even at that critical moment binds him to his Father. … Through the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, the only Son of this Father, we too, as St Paul said, are raised to the dignity of sons and have received the Holy Spirit who prompts us to cry “Abba! Father!” (cf. Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6).[21]

And in his Encyclical “Dominum et vivificantem,” dated May 18, 1986, John Paul II wrote:

  1. The theophany at the Jordan clarifies only in a fleeting way the mystery of Jesus of Nazareth, whose entire activity will be carried out in the active presence of the Holy Spirit. … Jesus rejoices at the fatherhood of God: he rejoices because it has been given to him to reveal this fatherhood; he rejoices, finally, as at a particular outpouring of this divine fatherhood on the “little ones.” And the evangelist [Luke] describes all this as “rejoicing in the Holy Spirit.” …
  2. That which during the theophany at the Jordan came so to speak “from outside,” from on high, here comes “from within,” that is to say from the depths of who Jesus is. … what he says of the Father and of himself—the Son—flows from that fullness of the Spirit which is in him, which fills his heart, pervades his own “I,” inspires and enlivens his action from the depths.[22]

In looking back from our vantage point with John Paul II, we come to Jesus of Nazareth himself. We do this with the help of testimonials by Mark and Matthew and their communities of Jesus’ disciples. With their help, we discover ever anew that Jesus’ experience of God was characterized by a specific pattern, namely, his praying to Abba and his being empowered by the Spirit of God to heal through exorcism. We recognize that already in the earliest years of the Christian movement there flourished devotion, including prayer, hymns, religious experience, and the witness of martyrs, to the person of Jesus himself.[23] In light of Jesus being recognized through his words and deeds as the Spirit-empowered son of Abba, earliest Christians quickly expanded the pattern characteristic of Jesus’ doubled experience of God into a de facto triply-structured pattern that became characteristic of so much Christian prayer and of the most commonly accepted Christian creed, the Nicene Creed. Disciples of Jesus come to live a triply structured relationship to God: as Spirit within them, as the risen Jesus, and as Abba. They experience the reign of God through the active presence of the Spirit in them, an experience leading to a sense of communal and personal renewal, freedom, and consequent wholeness.

Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospel texts to which we have referred give expression to the conviction that Jesus himself lived in a deeply intimate relationship with Abba and that the Spirit of God healed others in and through him. Such New Testament testimonials witness to Jesus himself as the one experiencing this deeply intimate relationship and healing presence of the Spirit. They in effect exhort and encourage disciples of Jesus to see in him, with his personal experience of Abba and Spirit, what we have come to recognize as, and call, the founding moment in the two-millennia-long Christian experience of God as Trinity.[24] Jesus’ experience of God provides his disciples of yesterday and today with grounding for and guidance in coming to recognize their experiences of Trinity, and Mark’s and Matthew’s testimonials provide the very words with which so many of us continue to give expression to our own experiences of God.

Over the course of two millennia, we as disciples of Jesus have prayed “Our Father” in community and individually. When we have done this, in our own name, in that of our communities, of humankind, and indeed we could go so far as to say in the name of creation as a whole, we have been taking part in this founding experience. We continue to read, celebrate, and further meditate on Mark’s reading of Jesus’ baptism:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:9–11).

 


Prof. Dale M. Schlitt, OMI, has taught for several years and done research at Oblate School of Theology, where he presently offers a Ph.D. seminar on Trinity and spirituality.

 

[1] For a succinct listing of the earliest main sources regarding Jesus traditions, see Petr Pokorny, Jesus in Geschichte und Bekenntnis (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016), 35.
[2] (London: SCM, 1975).
[3] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, esp. 11–92, 363–94.
[4] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 13 (italics in the original).
[5] Unless otherwise indicated, translations of New Testament verses are those of Dunn. NRSV verses are from the New Revised Standard Version, accessed August 13, 2016, http://www.biblestudytools.com/nrs/.
We should also recognize right away the complex question of how to approach Jesus’ experience of God in an age in which we work to widen and further clarify our understandings of God as, even biblically, being referred to both with male and female terms. For present purposes, though, I have decided to follow the example of the eminent process theologian, John Cobb, Jr., in remaining with the gendered notion of Abba. I do this with the thought that it does not as such in our hearing stress particular culturally conditioned notions of male and female. For Cobb’s careful remarks, see Jesus’ Abba: The God Who Has Not Failed (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2015), 12–14.
[6] Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 176.
[7] Dr. Sylvester David drew my attention to this point on Jesus as teacher.
We should note as well that the highly respected historian of religion Martin Hengel has picked up on and defended the attribution of the use of Abba to Jesus as the way in which he addresses God. Though various aspects of the question of Jesus’ prayer to God as Abba continue to be disputed, I myself am convinced by Hengel’s literature review and argumentation in a 2004 study that the word Abba itself reflects Jesus’ own way of understanding and giving expression to his relationship with God. Martin Hengel, “Abba, Maranatha, Hosanna und die Anfänge der Christologie,” in Denkwürdiges Geheimnis: Beiträge zur Gotteslehre. Festschrift für Ebehard Jüngel zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. Ingolf U. Dalferth, Johannes Fischer, and Hans-Peter Großhans, 145–83, esp. 171–83 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004). From the vast literature on the appearance of Abba in the New Testament, we could cite the following as, in various ways and to varying degrees, tracing the usage of the word Abba in relation to God back to Jesus of Nazareth himself: W. Marchel, “‘Abba, Père’: La prière du Christ et des chrétiens,” Analecta Biblica 19 (1963): 222–25; Gerhard Kittel, “ἀββᾱ,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, vol. 1, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 5–6; Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (London: SCM, 1967), esp. 11–65, 77–81, 95–98, 108–15; ———, New Testament Theology I: The Proclamation of Jesus (London: SCM, 1971), 61–68; J. A. Fitzmyer, “Abba and Jesus’ Relation to God,” in À cause de l’évangile: Mélanges J. Dupont, 15–38 (Paris: Cerf, 1985); J. Barr, “Abba Father and the Familiarity of Jesus’ Speech,” Theology 91 (1988): 173–79; ———, “‘Abba’ Isn’t Daddy,” Journal of Theological Studies 39 (1988): 28–47, esp. 42–47.
We should note the strongly argued article by Mary Rose D’Angelo, “Abba ‘Father’; Imperial Theology and the Jesus Traditions” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992): 611–30. In this article, she takes a position quite different concerning Jesus and his prayer of Abba as compared with the here above-mentioned literature. She writes, for example, “The designation of God as father, if indeed it was important to Jesus, was important because of what it communicated to his hearers … If indeed the title ‘father’ was important to Jesus, it may have been in the context of spiritual resistance to imperial pretensions” (628). And she concludes: “First, ‘abba’ cannot be attributed to Jesus with any certainty. It was certainly of significance in the early Greek-speaking Christian communities of Paul and Mark, where it expressed empowerment through the spirit … Second, ‘father’ or ‘my father’ was used as an address to God and as an epithet for God in antique Judaism, particularly in contexts which appeal to God as a refuge for persecution or which seek forgiveness … Third, ‘father’ as an address to God cannot be shown to originate with Jesus, to be particularly important to his teaching, or even to have been used by him. If indeed ‘father’ was used by Jesus, the context is less likely to be familial intimacy than resistance to the Roman imperial order” (630). However, I remain with the conviction that Jesus referred to God as his Father and that his usage expressed familial intimacy. My attention to D’Angelo’s article was drawn by Elaine M. Wainwright in “Like a Finger Pointing to the Moon: Exploring the Trinity in/and the New Testament,” in Peter C. Phan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 33–48.
[8] Vernon S. McCasland, “Abba, Father.” Journal of Biblical Literature 72 (1953): 79–91, accessed December 6, 2015, http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=3&sid=91b150a3-86ac-4cdc-b497-658bb4e5e277%40sessionmgr111&hid=106.
[9] On Jesus’ sense of sonship, see Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 17–27, 37–40.
[10] Cobb, Jesus’ Abba, 12.
[11] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 38.
[12] On Jesus’ consciousness of Spirit, see Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 44–49.
[13] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 54. On Dunn on Isa. 61:1 and its significance for an understanding of the presence of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ exorcisms, healing, and preaching, see 53–62.
[14] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 47.
[15] On Jesus’ baptism, see Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 62–67.
[16] Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 66.
[17] See Dunn, Jesus and the Spirit, 88.
[18] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700, 5th revised and expanded edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 146–47.
[19] Romano Guardini, The Lord (Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1954), 381–85.
[20] Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, for example, argues on the basis of the presence of phrases repeated twice in Mark’s recounting of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane that the author of Mark’s Gospel has brought together two stories. The one focusing on anguish arises earlier and the other stressing Jesus’ serenity somewhat later. “What Really Happened at Gethsemane?” in Keys to Jerusalem: Collected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 77–106. Murphy-O’Connor discusses in various ways his conviction concerning the true historical character of Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane.
[21] John-Paul II, “Jesus’ Experience of God as Father and His Intimate Relationship with Him,” General Audience, March 3, 1999, accessed June 20, 2015, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/audiences/1999/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_03031999.html.
[22] John-Paul II. Encyclical “Dominum et vivificantem,” May 18, 1986, accessed June 20, 2015,
http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_18051986_dominum-et-vivificantem.html.
[23] See Larry W. Hurtado, Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2003).
[24] After writing this text, I was pleasantly surprised to find that John J. O’Donnell, in chapter 3, “Jesus, the Son and Bearer of the Spirit,” in The Mystery of the Triune God (New York: Paulist, 1989), 40–56, 175, also had followed fairly closely Dunn’s overall order of presentation in Jesus and the Spirit, namely, concerning Jesus’ addressing God as Abba, the Spirit’s working through Jesus to exorcise evil spirits, and the significance of Jesus’ baptism. O’Donnell brings in a considerable number of further, supportive references and concludes: “Our reflections in this chapter have sought to situate later church formulations of the Christian experience of God in the New Testament data and more particularly in the foundational experience of Jesus himself. We have seen that there is good reason to believe that Jesus thought of himself as Son of God and bearer of the Spirit” (56).
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