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Lost in translation

May 5, 2015

Did you know that ‘goodbye’ is actually a shortened form of ‘God be with you’?

Jesus takes the traditional Jewish term used as a greeting or as a farewell, and gives it a completely new meaning. But the full meaning of what He has to say has been toned down in our English version…..

John 14: 27 – 31                  (Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Easter, 5 May 2015)

Today’s gospel has a lot packed into a short reading. There’s a lot there, and it can wash over us – sounding reassuringly familiar. But, if we look carefully at the language used and the background, we can be surprised by the radical, uncomfortable message Jesus gives His disciples.

So first, what is the backdrop? It is the Thursday of Holy Week. Jesus is preparing for the Passover in the Upper Room. It is the Last Supper. The people around Jesus are very frightened and uncertain. They know the Temple authorities are on the warpath, they fear violence and they have certainly picked up from Jesus that He is going to leave them. But they do not know precisely what He means. It has been suggested that they might even have thought that Jesus was going to make an heroic last stand against His opponents, or even that Jesus might commit some sort of ritual suicide. They just don’t know. They are frightened and confused.

Jesus certainly knows he is about to leave His disciples. We can tell from His words that he intends to leave them because the words “Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you”. We have numerous from the Bible example of these sort words being used when people met or left each other: the mother of the Prophet Samuel was sent on her way by a priest with the words ‘Go in peace’.[1] For example, when Jesus was having dinner with a Pharisee and a woman with a bad reputation came and washed His feet with her tears, Jesus forgave her sins and told her ‘Go in peace’.[2] When people either met or departed from one another they would say would say to “Shalom! Shalom!” (Peace! Peace!)

Yet in his words at the Last Supper Jesus puts a different emphasis on this everyday turn of phrase. Jesus makes it clear, through his emphasis that He will leave them something much more significant that just making an emotional farewell – there is going to be something more tangible remaining. We Christians have inherited from the Hebrew tradition the notion that ‘peace’ is something more than simply the absence of violence; peace is also a situation where there is justice; people are at ease; people and communities can freely flourish. But once again, these can remain just pious hopes without something real to turn inspiring words into realistic action. This ‘something’ is the gift Jesus promises His disciples. He is going to leave His disciple the gift of, not just any old peace, but His own gift of a long-lasting peace. No, Jesus’ words are not simply paying lip service to a Jewish way of saying hello or goodbye. No, it is going to be MUCH more than that. Jesus calls it MY peace. This peace, as Jesus says, “Is my gift to you.” This emphasis made by Jesus when He says ‘MY peace’ is in distinct contrast to the emptiness of many human greetings and farewells: we mere humans love fine sounding rhetoric – but it is transitory. This time next week all the fine speeches by our politicians will have fallen silent. Not a lot will be left. And even in terms of our own ritual greetings, so often we don’t even realise how empty they can be of any real feeling or meaning. Have you ever noticed how some English people nowadays go through the greeting ritual really quickly, to get it out of the way – they say ‘Hello, very well thank you” before you have even had the chance to finish saying, Hello, how do you do? How often do we realise when we say ‘goodbye’ that its real meaning is ‘God be with you’?

Jesus says that the gift of peace that he gives as a gift is “a peace the world cannot give”.

He goes on to say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” These are an exact repetition of what Jesus said right at the beginning of His talk at the Last Supper.[3] The Greek word translated into English here as ‘do not be afraid’ actually means more than just ‘fear’ – it brings with it the idea of the cowardice induced by fear. So it could easily be translated also as ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled or cowardly’.

This word that implies ‘cowardly fear’ is often found in the official Greek Translation of the Old Testament used at the time of Jesus by the Jews[4]; but this is the ONLY time the word is found in the New Testament.

Jesus is very clearly telling His disciples, and He is telling us, His disciples here on earth today, to be BOLD, to be CHALLENGING. The actual Greek version implies that this ‘fearful cowardice’ is already at work amongst the disciples present at the Last Supper. I don’t think there is any doubt about that. They are really worried about the immediate future, not knowing what is going to happen but aware from what Jesus is saying to them that it is something mind-bogglingly significant.

Although the disciples themselves do not understand the significance at the time, Jesus repeats these words in the full knowledge and confidence that after His terrible crucifixion, He will rise again, and His disciples will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit ever-present in them to guide and comfort them. This really is ‘The Peace of God’.

With the Holy Spirit Jesus knows these frightened, weak disciples will have no need to be troubled or afraid. And we certainly can recognise this transformation in the Apostles’ attitude before and after the first Easter, from being terrified, running to hide, fearing for their lives: to fearless preachers, defying the Temple authorities – fearless and emboldened because they now know what Jesus said was true, they have witnessed the amazing phenomenon of The Resurrection and after they have received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost they are fearlessly determined to spread the good news.

So today’s gospel is a rallying cry to us Christians not to be timid, not to be frightened. In using this Gospel today Holy Mother Church is preparing us, just as Jesus prepared His Apostles, getting us ready for the forthcoming descent of the Holy Spirit at the tremendous feast of Pentecost in three weeks time.

Incidentally, on the subject of not being afraid or cowardly, I was amused to see in yesterday’s Times a piece by the journalist Melanie Phillips criticizing Pope Francis’ ideas about the need to protect the environment.[5] I was delighted to see that her article was accompanied by a picture of the Pope with the caption ‘Francis is a dangerous, revolutionary leader of the Catholic Church’. I thought, ‘Oh yes. The Pope MUST be on the right track if that is what the people of this world think of him!’ I suspect she would have thought St Peter in exactly the same way.

We must pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire us to be bold Christians, spreading the message of Jesus as He commanded us to do, challenging wrong-doing, upholding justice and peace, defeating complacency wherever we find it. Our Holy Father Pope Francis is leading the way; and the role model for every one of us is Jesus Christ, who has left us the tremendous power of the Holy Spirit. If only we would realise it.

[1] 1 Samuel 1:17

[2] Luke 7:50

[3] John 14:1

[4] The Septuagint, or LXX

[5] The Pope’s anti-capitalism will hurt the poor. Melanie Phillips. The Times of London 4 May 2015 p.26

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