A Nonsense of Nouns?

I have to say that I am fairly sceptical about the valid origins of many of the more whimsical collective nouns – you know the sort of thing I mean: “a hastiness of cooks” or “a blush of boys”. My wife has a china mug from a series called ‘Collective Nouns’ that has “a peep of chickens” on it. All good fun, but I suspect that most of these were made up on the spot for a bit of a laugh. A few have entered into more common usage, “an army of caterpillars” or “a pack of dogs”, but most of the time the more entertaining ones tend to be produced with a flourish, like an old joke – “did you know that the collective noun for cattle is “a belch””? Well, of course you didn’t, I just made that one up. Feel free to pass it on though – it might make it into the Oxford English Dictionary next year.

What can be said of most collective nouns, and what makes some of them mildly amusing, is that there is some descriptive element to them. The correct collective noun for cattle is ‘a herd’ – and indeed they do. Ants are even more social creatures and so “a colony of ants” tells us how they structure their lives – even if you knew nothing else about ants you could have a pretty good stab at their social organisation from their collective noun alone.

Somehow though, the collective noun for followers of Jesus Christ has lost this descriptive quality. In Acts 11v26 we read that “the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” The word ‘Christian’ is intensely descriptive – it follows a Roman pattern that simply denoted ‘an adherent of Jesus Christ’. Of course this was intended to be insulting to the early Church. Writing near the end of the first century, the Roman historian Tacitus says, “The vulgar call them Christians. The author or origin of this denomination, Christus, had, in the reign of Tiberius, been executed by the Procurator, Pontius Pilate”. Well that’s clear enough – so what has happened? The noun ‘Christian’ has been adopted as a descriptor of whole nations (e.g. America is a Christian country), of cultural or ethnic groups (e.g.’Syrian Christians’), even of terrorist groups! The connection to the Jewish teacher who was executed as described by Tacitus and to His teachings seems to have been lost. If you were advised that some individual belonged to a group collectively known as ‘Christians’, would that give you some idea of how they would live? I suspect not.

What about you? You may have been baptised as a child, you may even have been confirmed – but can you honestly apply the label ‘Christian’ to yourself? The Lord Jesus described what His followers would look like, He said:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?”

Just to be clear, He was not preaching that His followers should volunteer for death. What He was saying is that they should be willing to give up their stake in this life in exchange for becoming one of His followers. When Paul writes in the letter to the Romans, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”, that acknowledgement of His Lordship is not a theoretical thing – it is very real. In Roman times if you had the label ‘Christian’ you might indeed need to pay for it with your life. A Christian would not say, “Kaiser kurios”, ‘Caesar is Lord’ – as might be demanded of you on pain of death. Instead, the Christians said “Kristos kurios”, ‘Christ is Lord’ and accepted the consequences.

In the matter of being right with God and being ready for eternity, reality is what matters, not the label. Let me leave you with a children’s chorus:-

Are you a real Christian?
Have you been born again?
Has Jesus ever entered into your heart to reign?
Are you are real Christian, with sins all washed away?
Has Jesus ever entered into your heart to stay?


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