Robin Blount: ecumenical notes, cruise ship chaplaincy and lots more

Interpreters needed

21 March 2021

We've just been Zooming into a service at Burnley URC led by Rosalind Selby, Principal of Northern College. She made an interesting point that had never occurred to me before. We were reading John 12: 20-26, the story of the Greeks who asked Philip to introduce them to Jesus. And Philip got Andrew to help, and the two of them spoke to Jesus. Whether or not the Greeks ever got to meet Jesus isn't told, but that's not the point of the story.

One of the things that bedevil relationships between those of us who were born of white parents in the UK and people who were born in an African or Asian country is the matter of language. In the 1970s, when I was still living and working in the Black Country, the local churches welcomed and housed a Vietnamese couple and their children - "boat people", as they were called. But they had only about three English words between them, and we all very quickly learned basic sign language! All went well for about a year, but then they moved out to join other Vietnamese families in Birmingham. Language can bind people together, but it can also inhibit understanding and make integration extremely difficult.

In those ancient times, it's questionable that Greek-speaking people would have been able to converse in Aramaic, the language that Jesus would have spoken at home. Aramaic was his everyday language though he probably spoke a local Galilean dialect, absolutely impenetrable to a Greek (rather like me trying to understand broad Lancashire!). However, the Roman Empire was rapidly moving eastward, and the Greek culture and language were becoming ever more prevalent. The apostles Philip and Andrew both came from Bethsaida but their names are Greek - Philippos and Andreas - so perhaps they spoke Greek as well. In any case, they were interpreters for the Greek who wished to meet Jesus, and that's the point of the story.

And we too are interpreters to people who do not speak or understand "Church". "Speak Church"? Oh yes, we have a language all our own. Not just the words we use on Sundays, but the ideas and images that lie behind the words. To folk outside this religious orbit, what we do and say as church members is mostly incomprehensible. And Jesus spent most of his public preaching time trying to get people to look behind the language and the ritual to what God was actually doing. Which is our job, too. We have to be able to explain and express our faith in words and ways which are easy to understand, which open up the gospel so that people see the true meaning of gospel as good news that everyone can tap into.

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