Exegetical Underwear

I had a seminary professor who encouraged his homiletical students never “to show too much of your exegetical[1] underwear” meaning that you never want to turn your sermon into a college or graduate class on the topic of the day. I have also learned in 21 years of preaching that when a complicated idea arises, the best strategy is not to take it head on or avoid it (as many do), but to get playful and have fun with it. This Sunday’s sermon focuses on the poorly understood and under-appreciated idea of grace (I refuse to call it a “doctrine”).

I framed it in a fun setting of Alice in Wonderland. The talking portraits on the wall represent some of the key church figures who have formed (or deformed) the church along their understandings of God’s unmerited favor towards us that we call “grace.” This article is some of the nine pages of notes I gleaned from over a hundred pages of study for this sermon. This “cliff notes” version is as much exegetical underwear as I dare expose, lest I suffer the fate of Jan Hus (burned at the stake in 1415 for “heresy” but more likely because he pointed out the moral failings of priests, bishops and the pope from the pulpit).

The idea of grace (noun) as an unmerited gift from God in mercy and forgiveness towards us appears in both the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) and the Christian scriptures (New Testament). The evolution of the Greek word from its proto-Indo-European roots can tell us a lot about what they meant back then and what they were thinking. Speakers of any language may not know the exact etymology or history of meaning of a given word, but how a word is used often carries with it the nuances and understandings of its original roots.

The Greek word for grace (noun) is “charis” or “Xaris.” In antiquity (500 BCE during philosopher era), “charis” was a greeting to the gods even though it is not a specifically religious term. Later, the term would come to signify the secular ruler’s favor towards the subjects. Charis was also the gift from the older male sponsor to their younger male intimate who was being paid to go through the Greek schooling system. It is delight in the beauty of something, a favor or gift received, or that which pleases. In Jewish and early Christian thought, “charis” becomes the giving of thanks to God.

One Episcopal theologian summed it up nicely, “Grace is the opposite of karma, which is all about getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.”

The root of “charis” is “gher” meaning to like or to want. The root predates “charis” at least 2000 years. “Charis” and its root appear in lots of modern words: eucharist[2], charisma, whore, carol, choir, chorus, cohort, court and others (but probably not charity or its Latin antecedent, caritas). There are also connected roots in “ergo” (energy or labor) and “gaia” (earth). It is very likely all three roots come from a much earlier root connected to the earliest days of farming and building enclosures. The joy or happiness that is in the original Greek “charis” may have to do with enclosing the land, farming it, and being connected to one’s fellow villagers.

I sometimes turn to a scholarly site to understand biblical words, Abarim Publications. Here is what they said about the verb form of “charis” or “being joyful.”

Being joyful has nothing to do with quietly gloating or feeling in any particular way, but with having a secure shelter and being surrounded by and connected to a whole bunch of equally secure others. Our verb χαιρω (chairo) originally described the formation of a social network and expresses the security that comes from connectedness and diversity. Nuclear fusion (the reason why the sun shines and why there are elements other than hydrogen) is all about sharing resources and extracting the subsequent surplus, which is exactly the reason why sufficiently compact societies can generate and store wealth. In fact, the more diversely intra-connected a society is, the more wealth it can release and the brighter its social “star” shines (hence MATTHEW 2:2, Genesis 15:5, Daniel 12:3).

Our verb refers to social compaction, describes the opposite of social scattering (MATTHEW 26:31) and goes hand in hand with the adjective αγιος (agios), which is usually translated with “holy” but literally expresses social convergence. This adjective was also used substantively, in which case it denoted “the holy [place]” or temple.

I do not want to go head to head with John Calvin, whose managerial philosophy in being mayor of a city became his undergirding theology of grace. It remains today the cornerstone of Baptist and Evangelical churches. Instead I prefer the work of Abarim Publications in unpacking how these terms evolved and were understood at the time Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “Grace to you and peace.”

The joy we experience in God’s unmerited gift of mercy and forgiveness towards us is related to that joy those early farmers and villagers experienced when their labor enabled them to feel secure, diverse, and connected. But there is more – Diving deeply into the language of the bible, we find the active voice of the verb “chairo” is used in key scriptural passages. This will lead straight away to the idea that proclamation of the gospel is much more an insight into how the natural world works and less a religious manifesto.

This last insight will make Calvin rise from the grave screaming “No!” Perhaps we should tackle that next time.


[1] “Exegesis” is the process of “reading out” of the text, the meanings and understandings of the text. The process involves diving deeply into the original language, the culture, the grammar and structure, and the relationship of the text to the larger body of text containing it. It is the research a preacher should do to have any integrity to their preaching.

[2] Modern Greek speakers pronounce this word (ev’’ char ist o’) which just means “thank you” today. The Koine Greek of Jesus’ day pronounced the word (yoo’  char  ist) with the religious meaning of giving thanks. The nuanced meaning of acknowledging the joy and pleasure received from a fellow farmer who worked hard to enclose the land and put food on your table is still with us on the streets of Athens 5,000 years later.

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