What's in a name?

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16

In the name of God: who knows us.  Amen.

     “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
       By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Those now-immortal words from William Shakespeare for his play Romeo and Juliet seem to suggest that naming is unimportant.  No matter what we call a thing, its essence remains the same.  In the context of that play, it’s a declaration of love.  As Juliet proclaims her love for the one she should spurn – the one whose family is feuding with her own – she exclaims that his name – his heritage – is meaningless in the face of their love.  She declares that her love for him supersedes the taboo of their love.

In the centuries since these words were first written and first spoken from the stage they have come to be known as a proclamation that names are irrelevant.  But, the thinly veiled irony that they cover is that if that were true, the words never would have needed to be spoken.  If it were actually true that names were irrelevant, the idea that Romeo’s name was wrong for her would never have entered Juliet’s mind.

The fact is, names are important.  The power to name something, or even to call something or someone by its name, is a mystical power.  And our faith tradition has known that from the beginning.  In one of the stories of creation, God gives Adam dominion over the creation – and to ordain that dominion, he endows Adam with the power to name all that has been created.

In the story of Moses, we hear a couple of stories of naming.  As a baby, he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter on the banks of the river, and she named him Moses because that name tells a part of the story of his origin in her life.  Later, when he is called by God to lead the people of Israel out of their enslavement in Egypt, Moses knows that the people will question him and his legitimacy, so he asks to know God’s name so that he can use it to validate his calling.  Moses, however, learns that God’s name is beyond all other names.  God’s name isn’t some static proper noun, but an active phrase.  We don’t have a sure translation of what God says, but some translations call God’s name, “I am who I am”, or “I am what I am”, or even more actively, “I will be what I will be”.

Naming is incredibly important.  Very often, on Sundays, I begin speaking to you like I did today: “In the name of God.”  This little phrase that we hear so often isn’t unimportant.  It isn’t just some rhetorical punctuation that we use at the start of a sermon to declare that we’re about to begin.  It’s a prayer.  In that little prayer, I’m announcing that I intend to speak to you in the name of God.  Not just for myself.  Not just in the service of my own soap boxes or pet concerns.  But for and on behalf of the God who we understand to be the one who created us, the Christ who saves us, and their united Spirit that encompasses all that is holy.  It’s a profound claim, and in that prayer I’m asking God to guide us both into that intention – me in speaking, and you in hearing.

So, when we hear Jesus ask the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”, it’s more than just idle gossip.  It’s deeper than asking about public opinion.  He isn’t just taking the pulse of his community.  Instead, he’s really asking them to delve more deeply into the essence of what it means to have experienced God, in the person of Christ, in the world.  He’s asking them to honestly analyze and to take in the profundity of the Christ-moment.

Who is Christ?

Recently, an article came out about challenges that evangelical pastors are starting to face.  It’s been making the rounds in Episcopal circles, and in fact, even a few folks here have mentioned it to me.  But, in this article, these evangelical pastors are lamenting that they’ve started to get push-back from their congregations when they quote Jesus.

One pastor recalls preaching on the Sermon on the Mount.  Some of Jesus’ most memorable and impactful teachings were shared there.  Things like: “blessed are the poor…”, “blessed are the merciful…”, “blessed are the peacemakers…”  This pastor reports that after preaching those words, members of his congregation confronted him and wanted to know where he’d gotten those “liberal talking points”.

The pastor goes on to report that he told these church members that the parts they were concerned about were quotes from Jesus.  He thought that would satisfy them, but it didn’t.  They said they didn’t like those quotes – that they were “weak”.  One member even said, “That may have worked for back then, but it can’t work now.”

If you find the teachings of Christ offensive, can you still call yourself a “Christian”?  Names matter.

It may be true that a rose by another name would smell as sweet, but does that mean its name doesn’t matter at all?  If we were to call that rose a stinking pile of manure, would that draw anyone in to really experience its sweetness?  By the same token, what if we call that stinking pile of manure a rose?  It’s just not honest.  It misleads the people who come in search of a sweet-smelling flower.

Names do matter.  They hold immense power.  And who we say that Christ is – not just in our words, but with our actions and in our lives, also has a lot of power.  It can spread the good news of God in Christ through the might of the Holy Spirit to the ends of the earth and to everyone we know.  Or, if we’re short-sighted or we’re not careful, it could shut people out.

It’s never in God’s nature to shut people out or to divide us.  When we do that, we’re not faithfully proclaiming the Christ that we know and who we’re called to proclaim.

“Who do you say that I am?”, he asked.

Peter was given the keys to the kingdom, not because he was perfect, but because he was faithful.  We know Peter wasn’t perfect.  He’s the one to whom Jesus said elsewhere, “Get behind me, Satan.”  He’s also the one who denied Jesus three times as his death neared.  But through his imperfections – through his mistakes – he remained faithful.  And, in time, he also proclaimed his love for the resurrected Christ three times.

Who is Christ?  Who do we say that Christ is?  As Christians, that question follows us every day, in our every action and in our every interaction.  How do we answer?  How does what we do with our lives answer that question?  How will we answer that question as it keeps being asked of us?  Who do we say that Christ is?  How do we say who Christ is?

What’s in a name?  Jesus showed us.  Now it’s up to us to show the world.  Amen.