(Sermon 11 Jul 21)
Précis – a talk on what the Greek words translated inaccurately into Latin and then English as ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ actually meant and how it means that follow Jesus of Nazareth is a ‘doing’ activity rather than a ‘thinking’ activity.
The last time I gave a talk at one of our services Trevor said he felt as though he ought to have been taking notes & he wanted to know whether I was going to test him. Relax Trevor: I think you can only hope to remember critical, little bits of a talk anyway. Here’s a clue. Mine always come right at the end. The rest of builds the argument or explains the facts but it’s only the conclusion I want you to remember. Mind you we DO have a gardening group session this week. Hmm, maybe it IS time for a test????
Anyway, as I was pondering on today’s readings one individual thing struck me in each of the gospel and epistle readings. As believers we tend to read our bibles as a sort of shibboleth. We try to glean detailed insights from individual verses but really only in the context of a narrative that we already know and accepted. Sometimes though we need to think of our bibles as a living entity – either because we learn something new or because we see a new parallel in life around us.
For instance, the name Herod represents evil for us and it is associated with the grubby world Jesus came to save. Well in the case of the massacre of infants in the Christmas narrative most biographers of King Herod the Great don’t think it happened; and in today’s Gospel reading his son, Herod Antipas, who with his two brothers had been demoted to a lower level ‘governor’ of a third of his father’s old kingdom by the Romans powers, is behaving in a way that we might recognise with some of the world’s most recent populist leaders. He marries his brother’s divorced wife and then executes John the Baptist for making a fuss about it. Grubby, unpleasant and wrong? Certainly. Any more evil than others at the time or even since? Well probably not. We have seen similar misuses of power and a belief that ‘the rules don’t apply to me’ here, in the US and all across the world in the last few years. When we take off our ‘religious hat’ we sometimes see something from a different perspective.
In a very different way there is a word in today’s reading from Ephesians that involves a bit more of a rethink. To recap, Jesus spoke in Aramaic but his life and words were recorded in Greek. In fact all the letters by Paul and others that make up the New Testament are also written in Greek. Greek was the language of the educated across the Mediterranean world and across the Roman Empire whereas Latin was the ordinary language of life. Those Greek words were translated into Latin, first in the Old Latin bible and then again, in the definitive version, by Jerome in the 4C when he produced the Vulgate which is still used in the Roman Catholic church today. The Western half of the Roman empire goes down and the Eastern & Western parts of the church split. It isn’t then until the late 15C when the Ottoman Turks are about to conquer a Constantinople weakened by plague, that the original Greek texts come back into view when they were hurriedly shipped out to the West. That in turn leads both to the Renaissance and to the bible being translated into French, German and then finally English.
The critical word I’m focussing on here is the one translated as ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ right across the New Testament. It is based on the Greek noun ‘pisti’ and its verb ‘pistivus’; and we find it in verse 13 of today’s reading from Ephesians. Ephesians is accepted as being written in the style of Paul but not actually being by Paul; however the exact same Greek words are used by Paul and are translated in the same way. The exact meaning of those words we read as faith, belief or believe is to have commitment and loyalty to the message of Jesus: NOT to have a belief in what something WAS as we understand it. Jerome and the early translators of the bible into Latin had a problem though. Latin had no direct translation for the verb pistivus and so he/they chose the Latin word ‘credo’ as the translation. The trouble is that ‘credo’ shifts the meaning slightly because it DOES mean what we today understand as ‘believe’; but it is not what Jesus said and it is not what the writers of the Epistles meant either.
The issue arose when Christianity moved out of the orbit of Judaism after the two big revolts of the zeolots in 70AD and 130AD. Beforehand Judaism was widely respected in the Roman empire. Afterwards it was toxic and tainted; and the young church started putting clear water between itself and its roots. The result of this first big schism is that we begin to lose contact with our Jewish roots and we start fully to embrace our Greek heritage. Greek thought was accepted as preeminent in what was seen as the civilised world at the time and it takes a very different approach to thinking about God. Judaism leaves you to your own beliefs about the detail (belief in the modern sense) on God. Creeds and a defining acceptance of what you need to believe in is very much a thing of the Greeks.
At the time, remember, the very first writers, like John, like Paul and like Peter – and of course that means Mark and then derived from Mark it means Luke & Matthew – were all very much Jews. THEY were quite clear that there was only one God. For them the ‘SON of God’ meant a special relationship with God of which they weren’t really interested in exploring. It WAS self-evident and didn’t need expanding upon. Beside the second coming was imminent and protracted theological disputes were missing the point. Two or 300 years later the world was in a different place.
Do you remember the new David Bentley Hart ‘literal’ translation that we all gave Lynda as one of her farewell gifts? First I’ll say it was brilliant suggestion from Jonathan; but second it makes this very same point about the words ‘faith’ and ‘belief’. OK that’s all the background. NOW the bit that Trevor needs to remember to get past his test.
We don’t know what was the original Aramaic word Jesus used; but we do know that authors of the gospel and those writing to the early church were very very clear in choosing this particular Greek word to reflect Jesus’ meaning. WHENEVER you see the words ‘believe’, ‘belief’ or ‘faith’ in the New Testament the intention ALWAYS refers to a demand for commitment & loyalty to the central tenant of Jesus’ live, death and resurrection. We are here as Christians this morning to do two things. One is to testify to our belief in what Jesus WAS: that, as declared in the Trinity, in Jesus we see the nature of God. The other is to declare a commitment to continuing Jesus’ life’s mission: to make a reality of the KINGDOM of God – a reality centred on LOVE. Put together, our embracing of the Trinity means that GOD’s first, last & every concern is love; and our re-examination of the ‘belief’ word mean that we have a DOING faith. We could do a lot worse than remember the account of the loaves & fishes and see it as our mission to multiply the Love of God to reach out to everyone & everything in the whole wide world.