Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Give us this day our daily bread.” (Lord’s Prayer)
If you were here last week, you may remember that we were talking about how tricky language can be—especially religious language. We left off by observing that we are faced with the paradoxical task of trying to express in words what is ultimately beyond our knowing, and so beyond our words. Words fail us, and so we are drawn into a life-long spiritual quest for the words to express the idea of God.
What happens, is that when we try to speak of the deepest spiritual truths, words that may seem at first as though they have pretty clear meaning, quickly become unmanageably layered and complicated. Let me give you an example. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, we are all familiar with the words “Give us this day our daily bread.” I want to zero in on the word “daily,” which is one of those words with a pretty obvious meaning—daily, means every day.
But the English word daily translates what in the original Greek New Testament is a very complicated word, “epi-ousios.” The trouble begins with the fact that the Lord’s Prayer is the only place that this Greek word occurs, not only in the Bible, but in the whole of ancient Greek literature—which means, one can only guess at what its actually meaning is. And that’s only the beginning of our troubles.
“Epi-ousios” is a compound word, composed of a root with a prefix added to it. The prefix, “epi-” (e – p – i) ought to be familiar to us Episcopalians, because it’s the same prefix in our name. That word comes from “epi-scopus,” the Greek word for over-seer (which we render as bishop). So epi- means something like expansive, extensive, reaching out.
The root of epi-ousios, “ousios” is a really loaded Greek word, because it refers to what is the essence or substance of something. So, for example, in the Creed when we say Jesus is of the “same substance” as the Father, we are translating another related word, “homo-ousios.”
So put those two pieces together: epi- and ousios. The compound seems to mean something like super-essence—not very clear, and hardly a synonym for the little word “daily” that we use to translate it.
Moreover, behind the Greek word epi-ousios is whatever Jesus really said in Aramaic, which is the language he spoke. Unfortunately, there is no word in Aramaic that comes anywhere near epi-ousios, so what the gospel writers had in mind when they used that Greek word to translate an Aramaic one, we have no idea.
I warned you this was going to get complicated!
Let’s keep going: in the early church, the word epi-ousios was often understood to have Eucharistic overtones. That is, it was thought that the word was both referring to the ordinary bread we need to live, and to the “beyond-ordinary” bread with which Jesus himself feeds us. Only problem is, it seems unlikely that Jesus had that in mind, given that he taught the prayer long before he ever celebrated the Last Supper with his disciples. Nice try, but doesn’t fit the facts. And not only that, but at the time the gospels were written (in the mid to late first century), there was no strongly developed Eucharistic practice that would have given rise to such an interpretation.
So what are we left with? Perhaps the best we can do is to say that “Give us this day our daily bread” seems to mean something like, “Give us this day all that we need to survive, both physically and spiritually.” That’s a bit of a gloss on a simple word like “daily,” but it seems about as faithful to the original as we’re going to get.
So all of this is to illustrate the point, that even simple, ordinary words we use in religious contexts can be loaded with complexity—and with meaning.
In today’s service, we’re trying to explore that observation by being very mindful of how we deploy words that come weighted with overtones of which we may not be fully aware, overtones that can be both inviting and off-putting: especially words like father, lord, king and kingdom, that speak of a model and image of God that is rooted in systems of power and domination.
One of the deepest convictions of the Christian faith as we live it, is that mercy and compassion are the core message Jesus gave us. Pope Francis, for instance, not long after he became pope, published a little book remarkably entitled, The Name of God Is Mercy—not judgment, not division, not lord and king, but mercy. And so, we have become increasingly aware in our day that whenever language obscures the essential mercifulness of God, it does us a disfavor. It distorts our understanding of God, by substituting allusions to God’s power, for what is God’s authentic humility.
Today is Pentecost, and the Pentecost story is all about language. We heard it a few moments ago: the disciples, having felt Jesus withdrawing from them, discover that in the void that he leaves there is suddenly a powerful experience of blessing. The descent of the Holy Spirit, as they come to call it, was like fire from heaven, its glow being so intense in their hearts and minds.
And not only that, but one of the gifts of this spiritual passion was an ability to make the good news of Jesus known and understood to people of many cultures and tongues. Language has suddenly become not an obstacle, but a sacred gift!
One of the spiritual practices which we often use here at church, is Lectio Divina—holy reading. It is a practice of reading a short piece of scripture or other sacred writing, and then in the silence that follows, letting one word or phrase reach out to grab hold of our attention, so that it may become a vehicle for God’s voice.
What word or phrase does that, can either be because of its beauty and reverence, or it can be because of its unsettling and even disturbing overtones. In our worship, we want to be able to identity and wrestle with both types of words, and then to shape our religious speech around those that are most life-giving. That is what we have tried to do today, in planning this service. So let me encourage you to pay close attention to the way the words we use here have been chosen and put together: both the inclusions and omissions are deliberate, and they have a goal of opening our ears to hear God’s voice in new and unanticipated ways.
Such an intention puts me in mind of some my most favorite words in the Prayer Book, words we will pray over the baptismal candidate(s) in a few moments, when we ask God to give them “an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.” I would only add, may they (and we) also be given the gift of a language both subtle and passionate enough, truly to express the ineffable name of God. Amen.