What’s in a Name?
Based on Genesis 17:1-8, Romans 4:13-25, Mark 8:31-38
I suspect that we all have had the experience of going to a large gathering (pre-COVID, of course) and either picking up a pre-made name tag or writing one for ourselves. Many people write their given names unless they prefer to be called by a nickname. My maternal grandfather’s given name was Melvin (which he disliked and never used), he introduced himself to everyone as Bud which was a nickname he had from childhood. We all have a number of names that have been given to us which describe an aspect of who we are, mother, father, sibling, husband, wife, daughter, son (even where we rank in the birth order). Suffice it to say that by the time we reach a certain age there are many, many names to which we are attached. To add to this mix of names, nowadays, people are not only putting down the name by which they prefer to be called but are also putting down the pronouns by which they identify themselves. An example for me would be he, his and him, as a cis-gender male – a transgender female who identifies as a male would likely use the same pronouns.
Humans have many names for God as well – these names all describe something about how humans experience God. Orthodox Jews call God by the name “Hashem” which simply means “the name”. Others include Adonai (which means Lord), Elohim (which means Creator, Mighty and Strong), El Elyon (which means Most High) and El Olam (which means Everlasting God)…there are also many additions to the name Jehovah, such as Jehovah Jireh (which means The Lord Will Provide). God is wholly beyond our knowing, so the closest we can come is to name some of the ways that we recognize God’s presence with us.
This week’s scriptures have a lot to do with the power of naming. God changes Abram’s name to denote his expanding role in God’s plan for humanity. Paul, when writing to the Roman believers, names attributes of God such as the giver of faith, the God who gives life to the dead, and the God who “calls into existence the things that do not exist”. Jesus, in a heated exchange with Peter, names Peter’s viewpoint as “Satan” – mere moments after Jesus named him the rock on which the Church would be built. What’s in a name you ask(?), before we go farther, let us go to God in prayer for wisdom and courage in the search for our God-given names…
Our reading from Genesis comes right after the birth of Ishmael. Hagar had been saved in the wilderness by God and God made a covenant with her that her son, Ishmael would live, but he would be wild and would live at odds with all his kin. Hagar names God, El-Roi (the God who sees) as God saw her affliction and blessed her. Our reading picks up with a 99-year old Abram and El Shaddai (God Almighty) speaking. If Abram walked before God and was blameless, then God would make him the ancestor of a multitude of nations. This covenant meant that Abram needed a name change from his current “exalted ancestor” to Abraham “ancestor of a multitude”. God’s change of name carried with it the promise of El Shaddai to Abraham and all his descendants. Clearly, there is a lot in this name.
The Apostle Paul is writing to the believers in Rome about the faith of Abraham. Since Abraham came before the laws given to Moses, Paul argues that Abraham’s covenant with God came through faith in God alone. Our faith in the same God who made covenant with Abraham – the same God who raised Jesus, is rewarded through God’s grace in the same way that Abraham was rewarded. Our belief in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” leads us like Abraham to trust that God is always able to do what God has promised. Therefore, our faith rests in the grace of God who always lives into God’s promises to continue to bless the descendants of Abraham. Because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, we are now heirs to the kingdom of God and named as beloved children of God.
Peter has just named Jesus the Messiah and Jesus now speaks to the Twelve about what is going to happen to His earthly body. Peter, misunderstanding just what kind of Messiah Jesus was telling them He was, focuses only on the bodily death of Jesus and totally misses the resurrection on day 3. Peter castigates Jesus in private for speaking this way as the Messiah, but Jesus rebukes Peter in front of all the Disciples and names his way of thinking as satanic – or worldly. Jesus needs the Disciples to focus on His divinity and to lose the human misunderstandings of what the promised Jewish Messiah was supposed to do to return Israel to her former glory. Then Jesus tells the gathered crowd that they all have to lose their lives for the sake of the gospel in order to live into their new life through the cross.
What’s in a name? Names carry great weight and import for us humans. Consider how much time prospective parents spend poring over lists of names to find just the right one for their new child. In many families first and last names describe lineages or the town from which a family originated. Many names run in families – especially first sons who often carry the weight of being junior or having a roman numeral after their name. Indigenous cultures have elaborate rules for naming and some even have formal naming ceremonies that give a sacredness to the process of placing a name with a child that the child will grow into on behalf of the community. In times past, infants would be “christened” in the Western world – that is, they would be given a distinctively Christian name and be introduced and “adopted” by a congregation at a ceremony in a church.
Sometimes our given names do not fit us – they just don’t seem to work like my grandpa’s name of Melvin. He never identified as Melvin – he always identified as Bud. All the folks in their small town and especially in his dental practice just called him Dr. Bud. In other cases, the name given may denote a gender that the person does not understand themselves to be. This is how we come to the reality of transgendered individuals. I have spoken before of our friends’ child who was born as a girl and knew herself as Gabriella for about a dozen years. That never fit her, however, and she has been working through all of the psychological and physiologic issues around becoming Luke – the name he now uses to identify himself. This points to the spiritual reality of the need for every person to learn to live fully into our “true” names as a life-long process and discernment.
Throughout the Bible, a new name signals a new God-given reality. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, and Saul becomes Paul. Jesus calls Simon something new: Peter (which in biblical Greek is Cephas or “rock”). It’s an interesting choice that describes something about Peter that Jesus sees in his future. And it’s fitting, as throughout the rest of his time with Jesus, Peter struggles to live into the fullness of what Jesus named in him. He must discover the truth of his name and thus transform into the cornerstone of the Church he would become. Perhaps Peter’s new name is less of a prophecy and more of a promise: God in Jesus is his rock and his foundation. Jesus loves him and names him, and that relationship means everything. That is the kind of naming that resonates with me – a name that is an invitation, a beckoning into freedom and promise. It is a call to recognize the essence of who we are in God. That conception of naming is a gateway into connection and communion; it is space wide enough for me – for all of us – to play, to live, to breathe, to become.
Each of us has a name in God that we have to discover. No matter by what name(s) we are known in the world, God has a specific name of promise for us. God has the power to redeem us from our worldly naming by calling us by our God name. God calls each of us a beloved child and has gifted us uniquely to do work on behalf of God. The season of Lent allows us the time to become intentional about discovering our God-names and what they might mean for us and for our communities. What’s in a name(?) you ask…everything, if it is the name of promise that God gives us. Amen and amen!