Jesus is reported to have said to a Jewish audience about the worries people have about food, shelter and clothing: “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.32-33). A Jewish audience would understand the concept of seeking God’s kingdom. They saw themselves as God’s chosen people, a nation of people with God as their king. In the day when Jesus spoke, they were a nation governed by Rome. They were eager for God’s kingdom.
Just a generation later, a writer who self-proclaims to be Paul transforms that message for a Roman, Greek-speaking audience. He says: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12.1-2). In place of not running after the basic necessities of life but instead seeking God’s kingdom, he speaks of not conforming to the way of life of our culture but instead being personally transformed by giving our whole selves to God.
What I want to suggest is that we too need to transform the themes, beliefs, and principles of our faith traditions. If we don’t, it will sound as if we are speaking in code. Those within our faith tradition might understand us. Those outside might not.
I grew up in a church that taught that to express God-honoring thoughts and prayers, to speak of religious matters, you expressed them in Biblical language. In that church, Biblical language meant King James Biblical language. Those who were regarded as giving the best testimonies (use that word outside a church community and people will wonder what you are talking about) or gave the best public prayers used King James language. No one would speak that way, using that kind of language, to co-workers, to the clerk at the hardware store, to the waitress at a restaurant, or even to one’s own family at home.
In addition there were some phrasings that one would use only in church or among a group of church people: “fellowshipping,” “Lord willing,” “unspoken request,” “the Word,” “carnal,” “end times,” “back-sliding,” “regeneration,” “sanctification,” “speak in tongues” to name a few.
Given this, and given how Paul transformed the language of Jesus to fit his audience, I begin to wonder how I can speak of the important things of my faith tradition in a language that would get traction if I were speaking to co-workers, to the clerk at the hardware store, to the waitress at a restaurant, and to my own family. To venture what some might take as a heresy, there is nothing holy about the language of the Bible. What is holy is some of its meaning, its message.
On a related note, try to imagine someone who was not raised in a church (it is pretty easy to imagine that these days) coming to your church for the first time and experiencing your church service. If I try to put myself in their position, I think I’d be creeped-out by what I would see and hear.