August 3, 2003
Wesley, Doncaster East
© John M. Connan
Do you speak another language other than English with any degree of fluency? Not many third-generation Australians do. But all of us learn at any early stage of life to speak a whole variety of what might be called English dialects.
Some parents teach their children baby-talk. That’s a dialect in itself! Then, having taught them baby-talk, they have to teach them standard English.
Once school age is reached, children learn the language of the playground – and the classroom. Both are based on standard English, but have their own special variations. Some of the schoolyard language may, in fact, find its way into standard English in time.
We don’t always realise how adept we become at learning and using such common dialectical variants of English.
But there are specialist dialects that are not so common: many never become adept at using them or understanding them.
Professions have their own special language. You’ve probably, for instance, had to ask your doctor what he or she means from time to time.
Religious groups do as well. You might laugh about the fact that the original superannuation fund in the Methodist Church was the “Worn-out Ministers’ Fund.” Ann certainly didn’t laugh, when I told her that, if I’d left her in a Methodist widow, she’d have been my relict! The Methodist Church talked about ministers being stationed. The Uniting Church at one stage talked about ministers being settled, but now we talk about ministers in placements.
And because religious communities tend to be based on authoritative revelation – in the case of the Christian faith: the Bible – we tend to be conservative and develop and retain theological language which becomes our specialist dialect.
Anyone who’s been around the church adapts to this special language. We become so adept at using it, that we fail to realise how much this might as well be a foreign language to others.
Grace is a beautiful word, filled with meaning. But only for Christians! When you know John Newton had been involved in the slave trade before becoming an Anglican clergyman, his hymn, Amazing grace, hits home to us, and speaks of God’s totally unearned and undeserved love to us.
Some years ago I realised I needed to explain grace to parents bringing their children to baptism. They didn’t understand – and didn’t ask what on earth I was talking about. They just let me speak my special language, so they could get their children done!
I thought I’d hit on the way to get the meaning of grace across. I’d talk about a grace-and-favour mansion – the residence the queen might give to a faithful retainer in retirement – free and without cost – out of sheer love.
I discovered my explanation baffled the parents even more than my religious language did. The specialist language of grace-and-favour had disappeared in my lifetime!
If you want people to understand you, you have to speak their language.
John in his story of Jesus tells the story of Jesus feeding five thousand on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and then being pursued by those self-same people.
If Jesus could perform wonders of that sort once, they want more. There’s always a market for special effects.
But, as so often happens in interactions between Jesus and others in John’s gospel, Jesus seems to ignore what’s said to him and to cut right through to the real issue.
“You didn’t come all the way around the lake just to see miraculous signs. You came to have me feed you again. Look, there’s more to life than food. You have to work to grow your food. You have to work to buy your food. Work, instead, for food that will nourish you forever. The food I’m talking about you can’t buy: I’ll give it to you for free.”
They heard, but didn’t listen. Jesus had used their language about working for this food – but confused them by talking about it being given for free!
They knew nothing about business lunches – no free lunches for them. It was: work – or die! They worked for what they needed or wanted – in this life or the next.
That was how they understood physical life – and religious life. Work hard for what you want – or die. Work equally hard by doing good works – or die without hope of life beyond death. Earn you way in this life. Earn you way into heaven.
We’ve not left behind that way of thinking. Western capitalism is based on what‘s been called – rightly or wrongly – the Calvinist work ethic. We have welfare systems, but, in the end, it’s work that matters. Think back to the Income Tax return you’ve just filled in. Yes, name and address and Tax File Number had to be filled in. But so was your occupation. As far as the government is concerned, you’re defined by what you do. In fact, in any conversation with a stranger the question will eventually arise: “What do you do?” We’re categorised and defined by what we do.
Lotteries, gambling and games of chance may prove addictive to some, legacies to others; but for most of us, if we want it, we’d better earn it. And, if we want the chance of heaven and eternal life, we’d better earn that, as well. Two thousand years have passed, but the conversation between Jesus and those who made their way around the Sea of Galilee is as much for us as it was for those who went after Jesus for what they could get out of him.
And Jesus uses our predilection and says: “The work God want is this: bank your spiritual capital in trust with me.”
They didn’t understand! They were hung up with their predilection about work. “Come on, Jesus, what are you going to do to convince us we should invest our spiritual capital with you? We’re followers of Moses. He led our people out of slavery and bondage, through the wilderness to the Promised Land. On the way he gave them manna, miraculous bread from heaven, to keep them going.”
And Jesus responds: “You rely on your legacy from Moses. But what you say Moses gave you was, in fact, given by God. Put your trust in God – and in me. The manna you need to sustain you, I’ll give you.”
And Jesus makes the astonishing claim that he will be food and drink for them – and us – through their wilderness – and ours – on the way to the Promised Land.
Do we work our passage to the Promised Land? “No,” says Jesus. “Trust me! Journey with me! I’ll feed you on the way. The way may not be easy: but I’ll be with you. And it’ll cost you nothing more than believing we can make it together.”
That’s grace: nothing in the way of “work” to be done by us. What’s needed to be done, Jesus has done already. That’s God plan. That’s God’s gift. That’s God’s grace.
A phrase sticks in my mind – and I can’t shake loose from it! Salvation is grace. Ethics is thanksgiving.
God sets us on a journey to the Promised Land. Jesus travels with us and feeds us on the way. And it’s all free: no hidden conditions; no time-share club to join. It’s free: a gift of love.
There’s nothing we can or need to do to earn this gift or pay for it.
But, we can show our gratitude. We can model our lives on the life of Jesus. We can model our love on his. We can invite others to come with us on the journey to the Promised land, inviting them to share the food Jesus gives us on the way.
We can live now, as though we’re already in the Promised Land.
Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control can be the bases of our lives.
We can be those Jesus described this way:
"You're blessed when you're at the end of your rope. With less of you there’s more of God and his rule.
"You're blessed when you feel you've lost what’s most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
"You're blessed when you're content with just who you are – no more, no less. That's the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can't be bought.
"You're blessed when you've worked up a good appetite for God. He's food and drink in the best meal you'll ever eat.
"You're blessed when you care. At the moment of being 'care-full,' you find yourselves cared for.
"You're blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
"You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of competing or fighting. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family.
"You're blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God's kingdom.
"Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they’re uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens – give a cheer, even! – for, though they don't like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you’re in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always been in this kind of trouble.”
 Matthew 5:3-12 (MsgB) alt.