9708%20 The%20 Meaning%20of%20 Words

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					                  The Meaning of Words
                               John 6:35-40

      A few months ago I happened to watch the final round of the
National Spelling Bee. I have always considered myself a reasonably
good speller with a decent vocabulary until I realized that the
majority of the words these pre-adolescent geniuses correctly
enumerated were unfamiliar to me. If most of them hadn’t bought
additional time by asking for a definition and its use in a sentence, I
would have simply taken it all in like I was reading the bottom row of
an eye chart.
      Now I don’t like to be proven as stupid as I often am, so a few
days later I found myself perusing through an online dictionary,
looking for other entries that were a mystery to me. As you might
expect, I found a number of words that were personally undiscovered
or unexplored buried deep within the pages of the Oxford English
      For example, I found the word, “erinaceous,” which means “like
a hedgehog.” I’m not quite sure where you would use that term
sufficiently enough to warrant coining such a word, unless of course
you come across a person who slugs around with a spiny back and
then defensively rolls into a ball whenever they are attacked!
(Actually, come to think of it, after watching the political conventions,
I think that might aptly describe some people!).
      I also learned the meaning of “woofits,” which refers to the
“unwell feeling” one has following a period of gluttonous indulgence—
a word that actually sounds like its meaning (“Aagghhh…I have an
awful case of the woofits!)!

      Then, I discovered the underutilized term,
“floccinaucinihilipilification” (pronounced, flockə-nowsə-nəkələ-pələ-
fək-ation). This 29-letter word refers to what it actually amounts to
being, i.e., an estimation that something is completely valueless. I
suppose, though, it could be useful when you need to put someone
down without them even realizing it. “Pastor Hayes, your sermon this
morning was crafted with such theological
floccinaucinihilipilification!” “Why thanks, Mr. Anderson, that’s very
generous of you!”
      Finally, I came across the term, “widdiful,” which refers to one
who deserves to be hanged. Apparently, in medieval England, this
word had tragic results for those who suffered from a lisp and were
gaily announcing to the world that they were feeling just “widdiful!”
      Speaking of merry Old England, there were a number of words
that developed as euphemisms—euphemisms, of course, are indirect
and inoffensive expressions for something that might be a little more
insulting or disgusting. For example, aristocratic women didn’t
sweat, they “glistened.” “French cream” was the colorful word for
brandy that was added to afternoon tea. Indigent males were
referred to as “Gentlemen of Three Outs”, meaning without money,
without wit, and without manners. If you wanted eggs for breakfast,
you asked for “cackling farts” (which I’m not sure was an
improvement). An undertaker advertised himself as an “embalming
surgeon,” furniture upholsterers were referred to as “bug hunters,”
and a man alluded to his wife as his “comfortable importance.”
Fortunately, the English language has evolved over time!

          However, euphemisms are used quite widely today as well, and
no more evident than in the language of politics, economics, and war.
A little online search and I came up with some of the standard forms
of doublespeak that are common to our vernacular:
        Tax increase = “revenue enhancement;”
        Firing workers = “downsizing;”
        “Small government” = absence of all social welfare programs;
        War = “forced disarmament;”
        Genocide = “ethnic cleansing;”
        Killing of innocent civilians = “collateral damage;”
        Torture = “enhanced interrogation techniques” and “pain
As Dr. Willard Gaylin of Columbia University observes:
          English is such a deliciously complex and undisciplined language; we can
          bend, fuse, distort words to all our purposes. We give old words new
          meanings, and we borrow new words from any language that intrudes into
          our intellectual environment.1

          Gaylin is right—the words we use often are abused, confused,
and infused with new and different meanings as time and experience
change us and old notions are recast in fresh and novel ways. So what
that tells us is, when we consider the meaning of words, it isn’t
enough to simply look them up in a dictionary and accept the
definition outright; we must also take into account the various shades
of meaning that are expressed in its connotations and in the manner
in which people use the word to communicate their thoughts and

1   Dr. Willard Gaylin, located on

ideas. For the meaning of words changes significantly as time and
experience alter us.
      One of the places where this occurs is in our theological and
religious languages. Virtually every major religion around the world
today has its origins in centuries long ago, including our own. The
present generation has merely inherited theological concepts, ideas,
words, and meanings that were formulated in a different culture and
era. Yet, so often we are led to presume these terms are the infallible,
inspired word of God and thus lay upon them the sense that they are
utterly unchangeable in their definition, interpretation, and
application to life.
      What I mean is, we assume that our interpretation of ancient
texts is fairly accurate on the surface, without taking into
consideration the significant variances in cultural cues and social
meanings between the ages. What you and I know of the world today
is dramatically different than what was known when Moses walked
the earth or when David ruled Israel or even when Jesus taught in the
villages of Galilee. The meaning of words has changed over time,
impacted by many factors, including the worldview of the original
writers who wrote down what they remembered or believed. We
typically overlook the fact that most of the text of Scripture is in
reference to a specific people and their minority status and chronic
vulnerability in a hostile environment, and it wasn’t originally
intended to be a general, all-purpose moral and theological document
for the entire human race. In fact, some of what was proclaimed to
Israel thousands of years ago has to remain there—it doesn’t easily
translate or apply elsewhere.

      The meaning of words is further hampered by the translation
into English of that which originally came to us in Hebrew, Greek, or
Latin, and by the manner in which manuscripts were originally
copied—none of which match up, side by side, word for word. Then
it’s largely shaped by the cultural differences between a world that
was perceived to be geocentric, finite, and closed, instead of
cosmically open, indefinable, and largely unknown.
      So all this is to say, it’s precarious for us to assume that when
biblical words describe or define something as being true that the
same definition and understanding of the words is conveyed to us
centuries later and worlds apart fully and accurately. There are many
factors that have altered the meaning of words over time, so one has
to remain humble in one’s interpretation and moral claims.
      For example, the term “salvation” is a central part of our
understanding of faith, but how would that have been understood
2,000 years ago? Was it in reference to one’s personal life, akin to
how we, evangelistically, interpret the notion of spiritual conversion,
especially those of us who come out of traditions with revival
meetings and altar calls? Actually, no! More often than not, for the
earliest believers, “salvation” was a collective experience based on
deliverance for Judah and Israel, where the individual believer was
mainly concerned about being a part of the saved community that
would be generated out of the messianic movement of God, later
identified with Jesus!
      In the same way, did everything hinge on the death of Jesus on
the cross, as if to say that the only way to be saved was from one’s
personal sins through divine forgiveness? As much as that lies at the

heart of traditional Christianity and brings wisdom, meaning, and
comfort to many today in their own faith, the truth is very few first
century believers would have associated that particular meaning with
Jesus’ death and resurrection. The early take was that Jesus’ death
was a tragic consequence of opposing the corrupt and powerful
establishment set up by Rome—the Jewish religious and political
leaders who, out of self interest, worked against the true deliverance
of Israel. Jesus’ resurrection was viewed as a divine vindication that
the God of Israel would not allow the message and the messenger to
be vanquished by the corrupt and arrogant powers of the Roman
Empire and Judean elite—that it had more to say about Jesus’
message than about him being a universal atonement for human sin.
That understanding came later, particularly with the Apostle Paul and
the early church fathers.
      Now does that imply that everything that we have inherited is,
by definition, wrong? No, in fact, it strengthens the argument that
the Bible is still being written by divine inspiration and human
experience (John 16:13). What you and I believe theologically about
God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, about humanity, and all
other matters constantly evolves into deeper shades of meaning as we
broaden our own minds and understanding, individually and
collectively, through the stages of life and throughout the eras of time.
What we strongly believe and hold as truth in one age may give way to
another emphasis and understanding at a later time, as life
experience and divine inspiration teaches us wisdom and humbles us
with perspective. What seems as the orthodox and only way to
appreciate God’s place in our lives at one point is challenged and

changed by new experiences and expressions. This is what spiritual
growth consists of: an ongoing process of adding to our
understanding of God’s ways and learning new meanings to old
traditional words.
      I can’t underscore this enough, especially as I see it illustrated
even in the Gospel texts. For example, this passage about Jesus
recorded by John reveals one of many instances when Jesus
attempted to shed new light and meaning on an old notion religiously
held by traditionalists. In this particular case, it was the long-held
sacred value of bread, especially as it was preserved in the Passover
ceremony. The bread of affliction and the bread from heaven were
rooted in the Exodus story—unleavened bread at the night of
Passover, the manna from heaven later in the wilderness. In both
ancient accounts, the value of bread was as a symbol of Yahweh’s
providence and protective presence over the people of Israel.
      Yet, in this passage, Jesus offers a new understanding—a new
meaning associated with an old concept. Here his charismatic life
and teachings were the present-day evidence of Yahweh’s providence
and presence for Israel. It wasn’t just defined by the experiences of
an earlier age. He embodied the wisdom of the Holy One; Jesus’
powers expressed the healing presence of the Almighty One; his
nonviolent leadership demonstrated the guidance of the Strong
Deliverer, even in the midst of the oppressive dominance of Rome,
akin to Egypt long ago. In that sequence, Jesus made the audacious
claim to be the “Bread of Life”, offering an entirely new meaning to it
by concentrating its relevance on his Gospel message. “I am the
Bread of Life.” At that moment, he doesn’t appear to be soliciting

remorse and contrition for personal sins from the religious leaders, as
much as he was recruiting them to be among his following—the new
people of Israel. It was his Gospel—his ways and his worldview—that
offered hope and would lead Israel to eternal life (which is not so
much about a place to be, but a quality of life to enjoy).
      Here again is a word that has taken on different meanings.
When Jesus used the expression “eternal life,” it wasn’t about some
future afterlife; it was about a quality of life on earth that is a mirror
reflection of life in the presence of God. It’s about experiencing a life
with the everyday values of God, as expressed by Jesus, in terms of
compassion for the poor, justice, mercy, care, right-relations,
generosity, selflessness, peace, and love, instead of surrendering
constantly (as human beings do) to a mindset of looking out for
number one—a life marked by selfishness, egotism, turmoil,
foolishness, and destruction. It was about experiencing the abundant
life of heaven while living on earth!
      To get to the quality of life that Jesus spoke of known in
eternity, you and I, too, need to be saved, delivered, and redeemed
from that which is like hell. It will mean different things to different
people. If it means getting a fresh start and securing forgiveness for
past sins, then that is the meaning of your salvation. If it means
finding relief from an unbalanced and stress-filled life, then that is
“salvation” for you. If it means discovering hope and developing
positive goals for your future, then that is what salvation means to
you. If it means healing from a chronic state of pain—physically,
emotionally, psychologically—then that is the Gospel of salvation for
you. If it means finding purpose and value to a life oppressed by

various forms of injustice—social, racial, economic, political—then
salvation is expressed in terms of deliverance for you. If it means
breaking out of old habits, behavioral patterns, addictions, and
harmful attitudes, then the salvation Christ will bring will be
understood in that way.
      There is no single solitary definition of salvation, for we
experience life differently and when Jesus leads us toward the quality
of life that is known as “eternal life,” what we are saved from will be
as varied as our lives and experiences. It’s for each of us to work out
our own salvation (or our multiple deliverances), so we can feel a part
of the great company of followers who discover the presence of God in
their lives. For salvation is all about reconnecting with God and with
the world around us and with ourselves in a fresh and positive
manner on earth as it is in heaven.
      There’s a word for this (and it’s not a euphemism, nor multi-
syllabic!); it’s called, “faith”—the ability to be open and trust God
when life leads us through its inevitable ages and stages. That’s the
beauty of it. Faith is a word that is already familiar to us, yet it is
constantly refreshed as we discover new relevance to what it means in
our lives; a word with shades of meaning that continually inspire us; a
word that challenges us to move beyond rigid certainty and dogma.
      And faith is a word that holds us together from one generation
to another believing in this remarkable Gospel story, narrated by the
Spirit of God, where the end has yet to be written.
                                      The Rev. Dr. Paul C. Hayes
                                      Noank Baptist Church, Noank CT
                                      7 September 2008


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