Thursday, April 21, 2016

People or Peoples?


These days, the bible seems to be the only place where the distinction between person/persons and people/peoples is maintained. Somehow, everywhere else in life, the plural of person has become people, but "people" is not merely more than one person. According to the online etymological dictionary, "people" comes from the Old French "peupel," which means "people, population, crowd; mankind, humanity." Sure, it's more than one person, but it's not just more that one person. It's a group--a defined, contained, understood group.

Today, we had a funeral at St. John's, and one of the lessons was Revelation 21:2-7--almost the same as Sunday's reading, which includes verses 1-6 instead. In my preparation for both sermons, I keep getting hung up on  a phrase in the NRSV translation of verse 3: "they will be his peoples." I note that the ESV, KJV, NIV, and RSV all use "people," but the ASV, NRSV, and CEB use "people." They will be his peoples. It sounds funny, doesn't it? But theologically it's powerful.

The reading from Acts 11 ends with the line, "Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life." That might not seem like much, but, as that reading makes clear, the expansion of salvation and new life to include the non-Jews was historic. This weekend, I have been invited to a Seder celebration--my first--and I am very much looking forward to it. I know a little of what to expect, but I do not know all of the traditions. I keep waiting for someone--the rabbi or my host--to ask me about my ability to satisfy the requirements of Exodus 12:48, but no one has. And, of course, I feel certain no one will. But this weekend's Seder and the scriptural requirement for circumcision remind me just how Jewish the message of salvation from Israel's God has always been.

But, it seems, not any more.

John of Patmos sees the new heaven coming down to earth. He sees that, on that great and glorious day, God himself will make his home among mortals. And which mortals? The peoples. Not the "people" of God but the "peoples" of God. By the time Revelation is written, that makes sense. By the end of the first century, the Jesus Movement has become as much a Gentile sect as a Jewish one. But, still, it is remarkable. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shall live among the members of all the tribes of the earth.

I'm not a manuscript expert, but I can see from my Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament that both "people" and "peoples" have a long list of manuscripts associated with them. Still, I think the preacher has a choice, and, in light of Acts 11, I think "peoples" fits in perfectly. Let the awkward plural noun catch the congregation by surprise this week. Maybe they'll be listening. Even if you don't preach on it, it's worth hearing.

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