Summary: Scripture -- all of it, read copiously over a long time -- shapes our minds and brings us light, far more than the narrow sectarian vocabularies of our cradle faith.
The Language of the Church
I read a lot of blogs focused on Bible and theology. Something I read this week dovetails nice with our Lord’s words in the gospel lesson appointed for today. There is an online version of a magazine called Relevant [http://www.relevantmagazine.com]. A man named Matt McDonald who lives in Monroe, LA published an article this past week in Relevant.
In this article, McDonald describes his own early Christian life – the life of a typical, baptistic evangelical growing up in the Church. He sang hymns that people in his church were accustomed to singing; he observed that all the preachers had a distinctive cadence when they were preaching; he stood up when others stood and sat down when others sat down; and he acquired a Christianese vocabulary. As he puts it: “I grew up learning what I understood to be the language of Christianity.”
But as McDonald grew up, he started to learn a new language. Here’s how he describes this [http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god_article.php?id=7134] :
“It was a language that included cooler speakers who told jokes and praise songs played by bands that were pretty good for the most part and always better than the hymns (which I still felt bad about not liking). It included a lot of games and Christian t-shirts. … A lot of open sharing was encouraged, and these people talked about things like drugs and sex and peer pressure—stuff the other preachers didn’t touch.
“And there were these things called “camps” where we would go to learn about all of this stuff. They were a lot of fun, for sure, but they taught me another language. … They taught us to raise our hands, to kneel down, to use words like ‘broken’ and ‘holy’ and ‘mighty’ a lot. They taught us how to pray cool prayers using those words. They taught us that we didn’t have to say things like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ when we prayed. And we ate a lot of pizza.”
As McDonald continues his story, he says he began to realize that he had changed one language of Christianity – the one he was reared with – for a new and immature language of Christianity (the cool one). And yet, this new cool language had even less claim to credibility and authenticity than the one he was reared with. And, that eventually led McDonald to ask this intriguing question:
“That person who was not raised in a church environment—that person who grew up in a world where God did not exist and Jesus was never an option—what do they see when they come to Christ?... They don’t hear church language and quote church slogans and catchphrases. ‘Holy,’ ‘hallelujah,’ ‘glory,’—these words might have no meaning to them.”
On one hand, McDonald is quite correct: To such a person the words “holy” and “hallelujah” and “glory” and a host of additional words – none of them would have any meaning for a new convert in a culture utterly unconnected with the Christian faith. But, McDonald’s solution is dismaying. In order to “see God” correctly, “ … I would have to rewrite the language that I have learned. For us to see God … we would have to stop talking about Him the way we do and start doing things differently.”
In other words, McDonald’s cradle church language is, as far as he’s concerned, inadequate and inaccurate. His second church language – the cool one – is just as flawed and faulty as the first one. And so what? He thinks a THIRD language is going to help?
That’s where Jesus’ words in today’s gospel have an answer to McDonald.
In verse 13 of John 17, Jesus says this to His Father in Heaven: “13 But now I come to You, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have My joy fulfilled in themselves. 14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
What are “these things?” Jesus has already explained them a few verses earlier when he said this: “Now they have known that all things which You have given Me are from You. 8 For I have given to them THE WORDS which You have given Me; and they have received them, and have known surely that I came forth from You; and they have believed that You sent Me.”
Jesus has given his disciples God’s words – God’s words about Jesus, God’s words about the work the Father gave His Son Jesus to do in the world, God’s words about sin, salvation, and judgment. Said another way – Jesus has given his disciples a language, if you will, not just something like Hebrew or Greek or Aramaic, but something vastly more basic which is conveyed THROUGH language: a way of thinking, a way of knowing, a way of perceiving.