By Paul Koch –
Today is a strange day. It’s Father’s Day, of course, but as far as special days go this one never really feels quite right. It isn’t as obvious as Mother’s Day, just what we are supposed to do on this day. It always comes off as a bit awkward. There are not elaborate brunches being planned and more than likely no one has gone out to buy a bouquet of flowers. It shouldn’t be so difficult to say and do the right thing for our fathers on this day, but it certainly can be. If you were to ask most men what they want for Father’s Day, they probably haven’t even thought about it. Quite simply, they would be happy with whatever small token was given: a phone call, a card, even a “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee mug. But there’s an inherent tension about this day. Though they are happy to observe it, men didn’t ask for it; so we’re not quite sure what to do with it.
When Father’s Day makes its way into the church, it gets even more problematic. I mean, put yourself in my position. It’s not that the Scriptures are silent about fathers, about their role and importance, about their duties and purpose. No, there is an incredible amount of material. But what do we focus on in our Father’s house on Father’s Day? Most messages, I’m sure, tend to go one of two ways. Either they operate with our guilt or they seek to inspire and encourage, but most often these two sides get blurred together. So, in church we can compare our earthly fathers to our heavenly Father. We can see how they are an image of His grace and mercy, faithfulness and devotion. That can be an inspiring message. But as we dwell upon it, such a word can also be biting and difficult. It piles onto our fathers more demands that they cannot live up to. Quickly, we can see how we are often a poor image of what a father ought to be, stumbling and failing over and again.
Church can be difficult for fathers. By nature, fathers are men with things in their hands. They are providers and protectors of their own family. They use the tools they’ve been given to do just that. Their creativity, steadfastness, drive, dedication, strength and honor are wielded to create a perimeter where their children can thrive. But often, church robs them of such things. For in the proclamation of Christ we find that our works, the tools of our hands, are not able to produce salvation. They are broken and twisted and impotent. Our hands are emptied by the Gospel, by the free gift of salvation. Our children’s hands are emptied, our mothers’ hands are emptied, and our fathers’ hands are emptied. Church can be hard on our fathers, reducing them to passive roles. When it comes to forgiving and declaring Christ’s gifts, why, don’t worry – the pastor is here for that. When it comes to catechesis and the formation of your children in the confession of our faith, don’t worry – we’ll take it over as well. Just make sure you drop them off and pick them up on time. Perhaps we shouldn’t be shocked that the average Christian congregation is about 60 % female. The men, the fathers, are absent.
Listen to the words of St. Paul as he declares this passivity to us. How profound and radical is the gift of our salvation. He says, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son.” (Romans 5:8-10) Nowhere in this word does Paul even consider your works. Nowhere does he seem to care about what you’ve done, or how hard you’ve tried, or how diligently you’ve attempted to do the right thing. The only thing that you contributed to the gift of salvation was needing it. In fact, he will go on to say that you didn’t even know that you needed it if it wasn’t for the work of the law of God. So, God did that, too!
What Paul preaches to you is of the highest importance. It is a matter of life and death: eternal life and eternal death. Your salvation comes completely outside of yourself. It rests in the hands of Another. While you were still a sinner God did this for you. While you were still His enemy He suffered died and rose for your salvation. But you see, this Gospel is offensive. It leaves you without anything to claim as your own. You are rendered completely passive before your God, only receiving His blessings with nothing in your hands to barter with.
Sure, this is the best of news when you are faced with your shortcomings and sinfulness. It is crystal clear when you have failed to love as you ought to love, and when you see all the ways that you have hurt others and forgotten the words of kindness and forgiveness that you are called to speak. For this is the proclamation of your freedom. In Christ, you are free! Free from sin, death and the power of the devil. Free from your own failures and guilt. Free in Christ alone. But freedom can be hard. Freedom can be scary, for we are not sure what to do with our empty hands.
The most common thing we do is attack the free gift itself. Perhaps not all of it, not the totality of the Gospel. We like the fact that Jesus died for us, but we insist that there must be something that we need to do. This could be as small as saying that you need to invite Jesus into your heart, or pray a certain prayer, or do some little bit in some small way to give you something do to. Or it could be a full-blown process of boxes you need to check off to make sure that you are on the right track all along the way: dressing the right way or associating with the right people, acting a certain way and saying the right things, living intentionally for the Lord each and every day. It may be a bit different for everyone. Some may be focused on how the live out their faithfulness in the church, others will focus on how you live among the world. Are you living in the will of God or out of it?
But all of this is an affront to the free gift. It is to say that the gift of salvation wasn’t complete, that it wasn’t total, that there is something that you still need to do. Which means there is still doubt. There is still a wondering if indeed you are saved. And so, we look to our hands to secure it.
But there is nothing to secure – you are free. Right now, in Christ, you are forgiven. You are reconciled to God. You are free. So, what do we do with these hands of ours? What is the father to do when he is rendered passive before his God? Why, don’t you see? The freedom of the Gospel hasn’t made your hands weak and impotent. No! They’ve become strong and powerful in their freedom. For they are no longer employed to secure salvation. They are no longer limited by doubts and fears about eternal life. It is exactly the opposite. Having been set free in Christ alone, your works, your hands, your tools are free to work for someone else. You are free to work for your family and neighbors, to come to their aid, to walk with them, and laugh with them, and forgive them.
Look to each other, my friends. Look to those who hurt, those who are lonely, those who are confused or afraid. Can you speak to them about love and forgiveness? Can you take a moment to sit down beside them? Can you heal their wounds? Your hands may be empty before your God, but they are full before your neighbor. Your children’s hands are full as they can show compassion and kindness. And of course, our mothers’ hands are full as they are free to speak words of hope and life.
Fathers, your hands are full, as well. For you are free to protect and provide. Free to love and forgive. Free to teach and exhort. You are a mighty force where the voice of God can sound forth proclaiming life and salvation through forgiveness and mercy. You are not weak or insignificant, for you are the thundering drumbeat of the Gospel in your homes. Take a hold of your wife, embrace your children, and live in the bold freedom of Christ alone.