What's in a Name?

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16; Mark 8:27-38

Who here has a pet – any kind of pet?  And what are some of your pets’ names?  Isn’t one of the best things about getting a new pet that you can give that pet a name?  We have all kinds of names and reasons for naming our furry (or scaly) friends.  Our pets’ names, for example, are Delores (the cat) and Dirk (the dog).  I got my cat as a kitten, dropped off at the church/day center where I was a volunteer coordinator.  Someone had left a box full of adorable kittens and I couldn’t resist.  And her name came from a frequent guest and volunteer to the drop-in center, Delores Chodachek, whose personality and demeanor were much more bull-dog than kitten, but who had a soft spot for cats and often talked about hers.  She was tickled when I decided to name my kitten after her.  And our dog is named Dirk Willems, for that most famous Anabaptist martyr.  We also had a dog named Carlos Zambrano, for the Cubs pitcher.

All this to say: names carry meanings.  They connect to identities.  We often hear naming stories when we bless and dedicate our new infants.  Think about your own name.  Do you like it?  What does your name say about you?  Our names connect us to others.  They (often) have a cultural or ethnic significance and define us as a part of a community or heritage.  You don’t have to be in most Mennonite churches long to figure out that there are Mennonite names.  I understand this is true here in North America – where names like mine – Epp – or Melanie and Jonathan – Neufeld – recall that we are Russian/Ukrainian Mennos.  I think I’ve heard this can also be true in Mennonite churches in Latin America or Indonesia, for example, where certain families have become known for their Mennonite affiliation (don’t quote me on this).

Our texts today are about naming.   They are about new names and the ways that what one is called connects and defines and identifies.  Last week we talked about the rainbow covenant – God’s sign that God would forever more be the God for all flesh and all living things upon the earth.  God’s covenant continues and is renewed through the sign of naming in the story of Abraham and Sarah.

Now Abraham and Sarah are, of course, most well-known by those names.  But they didn’t start out as Abraham and Sarah, their names for the first almost century of their lives were Abram and Sarai.  God comes to Abram with a gift of covenant.  God doesn’t make the covenant but literally gives it to Abram.  And the sign of the covenant? The gift of new names – both for Abram and Sarai, his wife.   A slight change – in both cases only a letter in Hebrew – but an amplification of what their names already promise.  From ‘great or honored father’ to ‘father of many nations’ and from ‘princess’ to ‘queen’ or ‘chieftaness’ or something of that nature – the Hebrew hay at the end symbolizing the grace received in the covenant promise.  The promise (again!) of God’s unfailing presence with Abraham and Sarah and their ancestors beginning with their own unborn son, who is also given a name: Isaac, meaning laughter.

Why?  Because Abraham’s (and later Sarah’s) response to this idea – the names, the son (at their age!) a covenant that spans unborn generations  – laughter.  He fell on his face, not in prostrate worship as perhaps he had at first, but in hilarity at the absurdity of the situation.  “He fell on his face and laughed. He said to himself, Can a 100 year old man and Sarah, a 90 year old woman have a child?”

But God is totally serious.  Even God has a new name, not seen before: el Shaddai – the name made famous by Amy Grant – “age to age you’re still the same, by the power of the name” (thank you Amy Grant!) in English usually translated to ‘God Almighty’ but perhaps ‘God of the mountains’ or even, some say ‘The Breasted God’ (What??  I don’t think Amy Grant knew what she was singing!) Either way a more earthy and creative and generative name than ‘Almighty’.  This is a God who is there with you on the earth.  This is a God who is never going to say to humanity or to the created earth, “Forget you guys, I’ve had it, you’re on your own now!”  This is a God who sticks around.

This is a God who doesn’t just stick around but who deepens covenant with the world through incarnation.  Actual flesh and bone (and not so much breasted) God in Jesus.  In Jesus, the covenant love is deepened, broadened, made more explicit.

The Jesus story from Mark, takes us right back, though, to names.  What do people call me?  Who do you call me?  What’s my name?  The names we use for Jesus and the name Jesus calls himself give clues to what a new covenant relationship might look like with the incarnate God.  He asks Peter, “Who do people say that I am?”  And Peter is dutiful: “Some call you John the Baptist, some Elijah, some other prophets.”  And Jesus goes on, “So what about you?  What do you call me?”  And Peter answers immediately – knowingly, “You are the Christ.”  Or in some versions, ‘Messiah,’  But Peter’s suggestion: shot down.

Instead of affirmation Peter is silenced.   And turning to his Disciples, Jesus names himself.  “The Human One,” he says, “must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the legal experts and be killed and after three days rise from the dead.”  Well, that is not what Peter was expecting.  In fact he corrects Jesus.  Scolding him, even.  Jesus must be wrong!  I think maybe Peter couldn’t comprehend or get his brain to the ‘rise from the dead’ part.  He was stuck on his name for Jesus – one that necessarily means “royal triumph and the restoration of Israel’s collective honor.  Against this Jesus argues that the Human One necessarily means suffering.” (Ched Meyers)

Jesus identifying as the Human One is identifying by a name that means something totally opposed to the name that Peter gives him.  Jesus is not a political, triumphal military hero, gaining status in the eyes of the world and restoring Israel’s honor.  No, ‘The Human One’ means suffering, means conflict with the powers, means death.

It is the Human One who is making a call on his disciples.  With which name will you identify?  He said it all plainly.  Adopting the name ‘disciple’ means following the way of the cross.  It is a shameful thing.  The cross has only one connotation to the the disciples: it is the weapon by which dissidents against Rome are executed.  It is inflicted on the low, those with no rights, those shamed.  It is a shamefully humiliating end.

Sometimes people take on new names to disassociate themselves with a shameful past, or with a family who has shamed them.  A young woman I knew in high school changed the names that she had been given as a child so that she would no longer have her father’s last name (she began to go by her mother’s last name) and so that she could chose a first name that was entirely new.  She wanted to disassociate herself with her father, whose behavior and actions she has found shameful.

And sometimes taking on a shameful name is a way of redeeming that name.  Anabaptist was meant as a slur to the first practicers of re-baptism.  A rebellion against the way of the church and state.  And it was claimed proudly by the first practitioners who claimed that the only true baptism was that accepted by choice.

When Jesus gives his speech about taking up the cross – the way of the Human One – he is asking his followers to take a shameful name.  Possibly a name that means death.  In fact this speech sounds something like that given by Hellenistic officers to soldiers – rouse them into battle and possibility death – noble death.

But Mark is not goading the disciples to military heroism; he is introducing the central paradox of the Gospel.  The threat to punish by death is the bottom line of the power of the state; fear of this threat keeps the dominant order intact. [That is, we are fearful enough of punishment that we don’t rock the boat.] By resisting that this fear and pursuing kingdom practice even at the cost of death, the disciple contributes to shattering the powers’ reign of death in history.”

It’s only by accepting the name of one willing to die for God’s covenental love for all people and all things that live on the earth that the power and fear of death will be broken.  Ultimately we get to that second part of Jesus’ proclamation to his disciples: the Human One must die – a political inevitability – and then on the third day rise again.  New life, risen life, life that has defied the reign of the death and of the powers.

These days in this area of the country especially, it seems to me that we may have some shame around identifying by the name ‘Christian’.  It might even be a little bit for the same reason that Jesus told Peter to shut it: ‘Christ’ has become associated with empire and violence and dominance and dominion. Using the name Mennonite is more palatable and less shameful for many of us because no one knows – or has only a vague understanding of what that name means.  It gives an opportunity to explain.  I challenge you to use the word Christian in  the first sentence of that description.  Before peacemaker, before doer of justice, before seeker of simple living: Christian.

Take it back.  Claim Jesus as the risen Christ – the Human One who in death and resurrection redefined – re named – what it means to be Messiah as the cross-taker-upper, the new covenant bringer, the God’s love bearer.  And also know that even if we fall on our face laughing, like Abraham, or even if we try to correct Jesus, like Peter, we will still be known by name in God’s covenant of Love.  Thanks be to God.