John 1:1-5, 14
Be doers of the word.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (NRSV)
The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. (Peterson)
When people who receive my weekly meditation by e-mail, and one of them is an Emeritus Archbishop, write to tell me that I spelt Zwelihle wrong in my meditation last week, I have to take note and gnash my teeth in contrition. At the very least I should be,embarrassed, as I duly was. After all, I don't like it when people call me de Grunchy like most bank tellers, municipal officials, shop assistants and the like, So I should take more care to remember names, and spell them correctly. I can hear Isobel in the background saying "famous last words!" But at any rate I now know that there are some people who actually read my meditations, and that Zwelihle means "beautiful place." May the day come soon when it will become what its name means.
Words are important, as the Book of Proverbs tells us, they can cheer people up and they can make them angry, and a word spoken at the right time can save a life or a nation. Words are often trite and casually used, but sometimes they are powerful, moving crowds to action whether in a good cause or a bad one. Words can encourage and comfort, they can also hurt and destroy. So we need to take care when we use them to avoid misunderstanding, upsetting relationships, provoking bad actions.
Many people prefer the King James or Authorised Version of the Bible to modern translations like Eugene Peterson's The Message because there is something majestic about its language. Yet, like Shakespeare's sonnets and plays, there are many words in that venerable version of the Bible that we no longer use or understand, words that have changed meaning over time. When last did you use "sanctification" in a conversation? And when we talk about justification or election we don't mean what St. Paul meant. Even the meaning of words like "salvation" or "sin", "grace", love or hope", "peace or righteousness" is not always clear, and even the word "God" means different things to different people and in the way we use it. And, of course,, the Bible was written in Hebrew and Greek, and Jesus spoke Aramaic So all the words in our Bibles are translations, and the words do not necessarily have the identical meaning of the original. That is one reason why new translations of the Bible keep on coming, and why we have decided to re-write our Volmoed Prayer Book.
The truth of the matter is that language develops and the meaning of words change. Just think about "awesome", which in the Bible refers to holiness and beauty, but for our grandchildren it describes granmas' cooking or a rugby match. Even the words Christian and Christianity convey different meanings to different people because they conjures up different images, much like the words Islam or Muslim. The same is true in political discourse. The meaning of "reconciliation" is highly contested in South Africa, and "transformation" is no longer politically correct in some circles. That is why we need to find the right words to express our faith today, words that mean something to us and to others. Words that unpack rather than hide or distort the truth; words that are not simply religious jargon, but actually communicate the message of the good news about Jesus.
This was something that bothered Dietrich Bonhoeffer while he was thinking about the future of Christianity shortly before his death. He wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge about it:
At the moment I am thinking about how the concepts of repentance, faith, justification, rebirth, and sanctification should be reinterpreted in a “worldly” way – in the Old Testament sense and in the sense of John 1:14.
For him, this meant in a way that ordinary and especially secular people can understand. And his reference to John 1:14 -- our text for today -- refers to the way God chose to speak to us, not just in words but in the Word become flesh. "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood." A profound reminder that the words of faith are not just about ideas or concepts, they are words that have to be embodied in order to communicate what they mean.. When God wanted to tell us that he loves us, he did not just say the word, he became the word. The meaning of love was demonstrated in action. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us...it moved into our neighbourhood."
So while we need to find the right words to express our faith and tell about God's love and grace, we need to understand that the words of faith do not mean much in the abstract; they need to become embodied in life in order to have meaning. You can say you love someone a thousand times, but love is not just a word, it needs to be expressed in order to have meaning. You can say you believe in God as much as you like, but what faith means for you has to be embodied in the way you live. Yes, we need to find the right words, we need words that speak the truth to our time, we need to clarify what we mean, but in the end words only carry weight when they are embodied. That is why it is very difficult to understand a play by simply reading it, you have to see it acted out on the stage. That is why we need to know the gospel story about Jesus, the drama of his life, in order to understand what it means to say "God so loved the world." That is why the word Christian has to be expressed in ways that reflect the true meaning of the gospel rather than convey the negativity so many people, for good reason, associate with Christianity today.
How then is the world to believe the good news that we as Christians are meant to share with others? Or to put it differently, what is evangelism all about? Is it about words? Yes, it is, and we need to choose them carefully. But our words need to be made flesh, our words of faith have to become embodied. That is why in his letter, St. James tells us to "be doers of the word, and not merely hearers" or, for that matter, "merely speakers."People will never know what a word like "sanctification" means until they have met a real saint. People will never understand the word "reconciliation" until they see justice restored in our land, or until they have actually experienced a forgiveness that changes relationships. They will never trust the word "transformation" unless things change for the good on the ground. Zwelihle will not be the "beautiful place" it was intended to be unless there is the will and action to make it so. The gospel will never be good news to people unless they discover the renewing and healing power of Christ, unless they see that those who believe in Christ are truly making a difference for good in the world. Unless the Word becomes flesh and blood and moves into the neighbourhood no one will understand the grace and truth that is in Jesus.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 5 November 2015
PS. I am always delighted when people find my meditations helpful enough to want to share them with others. But I have been advised to add the copyright note below, so I do so even if a little reluntantly.
© John W. de Gruchy
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