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Pentecost (Whit Sunday)

26 May 2023

28 May, Acts 2.1-21; Psalm 104.26-36, 37b (or 104.26-end); 1 Corinthians 12.3b-13; John 20.19-23 or John 7.37-39


HERE I go again, fussing about a Greek translation. At Pentecost, too — when we are celebrating the Holy Spirit breaking down language barriers. But translating is a tough job. No translation conveys its original perfectly. Language concepts rarely overlap completely across the obstacles of time and space. We go on needing the Holy Spirit to enable us to communicate.

Despite that first Pentecost, then, languages can still be barriers. The divisions of Babel are the fallout of the Fall. Without translators, we would have to learn Hebrew and Greek to read the Bible. Our holy writings are open to all, because the Spirit, who inspired the writers inspires translators, too. And the Spirit and the translators alike inspire us. Instead of the letting the Bible be an obstacle, they make it an invitation. So, spare a moment to say “Thanks be” for translators this Pentecost.

I still want to say something, though, about the NRSV translation of John 7.38. It is not wrong, but it does remind us of the barriers of word and thought which we all need help — from preachers, writers, fellow-Christians, even the Church Times — to break down, allowing scripture to speak afresh to every generation. In that verse, we read that rivers of living water will flow out of the believer’s “heart”. But koilia does not simply mean “heart”. A more natural translation would be “womb”. In John 3.4, for example, koilia is the word that Nicodemus uses when he speaks to Jesus about being born anew from his mother’s womb.

Whenever I feel that my love of language may be distracting from the gospel message, through the tempting intrusions of linguistic questions, I try to keep in mind an observation of Augustine’s, to bring me back to what matters. “People whose nature is good”, he says, “love the truth in words, not the words themselves” (Teaching Christianity 4.72). He was a man who loved words. But he loved the Lord more.

What is the truth in these words, then? It is not as simple as choosing between one bit of anatomy and another. Koilia begins as a word for a hollow or cavity, particularly for hollows within the human body. The ancient medical writer Galen refers to the upper koilia (from neck to waist) and the lower koilia (from waist to groin). That shifts the focus from “hollow” or “cavity” to “container”. Now I am reminded of George Orwell’s depressing remark (in The Road to Wigan Pier) that a human being “is primarily a bag for putting food into”.

In a natural shift of language over time, this “bag” came to refer also to its contents. Thus, koilia can refer to organs in the body — to intestines, lungs, heart, liver, and the like. “Innards” has not the emotive power of the word “heart”. It sounds unappealingly squelchy. This was probably why the translators felt that “heart” was a better option. But Matthew 15.11 holds me back from agreeing with them. There, Jesus uses two terms in strong contrast to refer to internal organs, saying, “Whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach (koilia), and goes out into the sewer; but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart (kardia), and this is what defiles.”

I love words. But I love the truth in words more. So I need to discern what is the truth in the words of Jesus. When he refers to “the believer”, he means us. When he speaks of “rivers of living water”, we have to ask what they are, and where they come from. The answer drops into my mind like a mechanism locking into place. Forget hearts, stomachs, chests, and wombs. Turn to that deepest meaning of koilia. It is a hollow. A cavity. A space.

Without a koilia, we are full only of ourselves. There is no room in us for the love of God. This hollow is the place within us which stands open and ready to receive the Spirit of God. Only when we are filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3.19) can those living waters flow from us to water a thirsty, gasping world (Psalm 143.6).

I believe with all my heart, stomach, womb, innards, and koilia that, without the Holy Spirit filling that hollow within me, I am an empty shell. Or just a bag, for putting food into. And rather an old bag at that.

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