Monday, June 27, 2016

What's in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson

June 26, 2016

at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia

Genesis 2: 15-20

John 15: 9-18

Let us pray,

Help us to see despite our eyes

Help us to think outside of our minds

Help us to be more than our lives   

For your eyes show the way

    Your mind knows the truth

    Your being is the life.


This morning we will be inundated with the idea of names. All of the hymns this morning are about “names”. . . “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” we have sung already, then later we will look at “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” and then “Blessed Be the Name.” The introit was “He is Exalted” which includes the prominent line, “Bless His Holy Name” and my anthem just sang was about Jesus’ name being the “Sweetest Name of All.” The Old Testament Lesson, Erick just read goes back to the beginning, when Adam was given the unique responsibility of “naming” the animals. I could have chosen and I want to mention to put it into our heads as we begin, Moses and the Burning Bush when he asks and is given the name of God, or perhaps in the Ten Commandments where it says to not take the Lord’s Name in Vain. But finally this morning in The Call to Worship, Psalm 91 offers a promise of deliverance and protection to those “who know [God’s] name.” Our New Testament Reading echoes that promise, assuring the people that anything asked in Jesus’ name shall be granted by the Father. . . here is John 15: 9-17:

As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants  any longer, because the servant  does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

So what is the basis of all of this name stuff? Names seem to certainly have serious importance in the Biblical landscape, and that has made its way also into the tapestry of Christian history through the years. We can see in those hymns and songs how the idea of the name of God or the name of Christ, deserve praise, honor, and glory, or simply the hearing or the memory of such a name could give its hearers a sense of joy, comfort, sweetness, strength, love, hope. . . the list goes on and on. But one thing is true in today’s world and that is that the name Jesus, depending on the audience, means a very different thing. I have been called to speak numerous times to a mixed audience over at Blue Ridge, whether to the students, who have been forced to attend a chapel service, or to a group of parents, friends, families, alumni, etc. at a graduation ceremony. In either of these settings, whether or not it is deserved, it is real, the mention of the name Jesus would close the ears of at least, and perhaps more than, half of the audience. It is interesting that the name that can give so much hope, love, joy, sweetness, etc. can also at the same time turn people completely off, or in some cases create disdain and rage. It is a shame to say the least, but I do not think that we can ignore the reality of it in today’s world. . . especially if we are to be fishers of men, or faithful disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In keeping with the series of this summer, it was Shakespeare again, who gave me the inspiration to wrestle with this challenging topic. This famous speech comes from Romeo and Juliet. Juliet is speaking; she is overheard by Romeo, whom she has just met, but she doesn’t know he is beneath her balcony in the garden. She has found that the man she has fallen in love with at first site is in fact a Montague, and therefore a sworn enemy of her family. . . here she offers a counterpoint to our question, “What is in a name?”

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

I’m sure you have heard it before, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” Is there a more famous line in all of the English Language. . . perhaps other than John 3:16? It’s right up there. . . and of course wherefore does not mean “where are you” but instead “why”, “what is the reason,” She is asking, why are you called Romeo, because it is the name that is her enemy. It is the name that makes him apart of his house. It is the name that is the enemy of her father. It is the name that they are supposed to hate. . . because we are told that nobody even remembers why the Montagues and the Capulets are fighting in the first place. . . now it is all about names. . . and what is a name, when compared to love? She hopes Romeo will simply “doff” his name, and exchange it completely for her. . . and why not, what are names anyway. . . does a name give a rose its sweetness? No of course not.

Now this is an idea that I’ve always had a fondness for. . . as a poet, as a linguist. What are words? What are names? Are they simply tools for us and our communication? Or do they come to mean so much more? Are they all caught up somehow in a greater concept of identity? For instance, some months ago in another sermon, I asked you to think of the color green without the word green being a part of it, or actually I think it was the opposite to think of the word green without the color. . . in many ways they are inseparable in our minds. . . but if you spoke another language, say Spanish, you wouldn’t see the word green at all you would see “Verde,” so there are examples of cultural differences when it comes to words. . . rather than some universal human concept. . . we might say Jesus. . . in Spanish, Jesus. . ., which both come from the Greek word for his name, but in original Hebrew you had the name Jeshuah, every language may have their little tilt on the name. . . but if we were to focus in on the name itself, it means “salvation,” and it is the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary to give him that name. So there is even more importance to the name than just the title, the word itself has meaning. . . just like so many names in the Old Testament. . . like Jacob, “he who grabs the heel” or “Adam” is the same word for the ground, dirt. . . and according to what Erick read, it was this Adam who game all the animals their names. . . but of course it was in a different language. . . though many may argue with me, Adam did not call a lion a lion, and a sheep a sheep, but instead possibly their Hebrew counterparts, and even that is not for sure. What is the connection of things to words. . . things to names. . . people to names. . . concepts to the letters and sounds that represent them?

Just to add to our muddy waters and thinking, I want to share another poem, this time my own, on this subject. I even allude to Shakespeare, I call him Willy in what follows, here is my poem “The Lights”

The lights go on; the lights go off,

But the room just stays the same.

The lights do not give off the light,

Despite that it’s their name.

For our words have no meaning

Without our belief in them.

I could call a light a buzzlebaggle,

And it would not make it dim.

Willie said a rose would smell sweet

If it were not a rose called,

But if you call it something else,

Most of us would be appalled.

For though language gives shape to thought,

It also tends to bind us,

And so the eternal job of the poet

Is to continually remind us.

That we are not slaves to words,

Rather they are tools for us.

No subject is too sacred nor offensive

To not freely be discussed.

This poem at its heart is about how much I loathe political correctness, where words have taken on baggage, that we as a society cannot get past; it is as if they, the words are in control and not us. . . or more likely how we use words to control others: that if you can decide what others mean when they use words, there is great power in that. . . someone might mean something completely different, but the meaning can be twisted to something far from what was actually intended, and when power and politics get involved, it can get out of control quite quickly. There is great power in controlling language because words and language are the tools of communication. . . imagine if you had a hammer, but someone else was determining what you were allowed to do with it. No that hammer cannot hammer nails anymore. . . no instead it can only rip nails out. . . I know that is a crude example, but it captures the point. Words have limitless possibilities as tools, but we often limit them greatly. . . for ease, efficiency, or to achieve our agendas of control.

This is what happens with the name Jesus, and we are mistaken if we think that it is a new phenomenon. . . names have been used and abused for centuries. . . or longer. . . probably even since words first came into existence. . . which is why the name of God was so sacred to the Hebrews, and why they had so many restrictions about how it could be used, and was never to be spoken. . . it actually is unpronounceable in itself. There is no sound, just the wind, yhvh. . . and think about why Moses wants the name anyway, so he can use it against the Pharaoh. What if they ask me who has sent me, whom shall I say? What name do I give? It is the basis of the Commandment as well, and taking it in vain. . . though many times today that commandment is used to control other aspects about language as well. I’ve heard it watered down for children to be “Watch what you say” completely altering the purpose. Bending the original meaning to fit an agenda. . . you see Christians are just as much to blame as anybody else. No the idea is that names have power because they can be wielded. . . Moses knew it, which is why he wanted the name. . . and God knew it which is why the many laws restricting it. . .

So what does the name Jesus mean to us. . . and how do we preach about Jesus, how do we spread his love, when the word itself turns people off? . . . perhaps it might be a good idea, before we get to that question, to own why people feel that way, to own the baggage. I don’t think that it is Jesus himself that has created the problem, but instead the way that his name, his church, and we his people have misused his name. We have in a sense, and I mean the 2000 year Christian, wholistic ownership we, we have used his name in vain and have wielded it as a tool of power. Jesus’s name throughout the years has been associated with horrible things. . . and though we want to explain them away, it is difficult for many to forget. . . things like witch trials, and crusades, and inquisitions, of course we could say that those all happened so long ago, and we have since repented, but we seem to get no credit. . . but then they may bring up something like slavery, how Jesus’ name was used to preserve the institution, and we might say how it also was responsible for ending it, but no one listens. . . or more recently, the name is connected with bigotry, small mindedness, intellectual flimsiness, and general ignorance, ambivalence, and resistance to matters of proven scientific fact. It may not be true, but it is the perception, and the perception is reality the world wants to propagate, and the world has many means with which to perpetuate the narrative and definition they want people to hear and believe. . . of course the truth becomes irrelevant in those battles, and fighting against it head on, seems to only make things worse, doesn’t it? Christians keep losing each battle we choose to fight, and slowly retreat, growing more and more angry. . . and again we miss the point. . . we are holding onto the name as if it is something we can protect, as it if is something that we can use, as if it is something that can be taken from us. . . and when we do it becomes merely empty letters. . . and if there is such a thing as winning and losing, we have already lost. We have allowed Jesus to be put back into a tomb, where he can be confined. We have allowed God to be made into an idol that can be destroyed or found wanting. We have become the protectors of God and Jesus instead of the other way around. . . and such is the upside down fraught with hypocrisy landscape of the fallen world. . . there is simply more to the story than that, there is more to the name than that.

Juliet tells Romeo to doff his name and forget it, move forward, in love, with love, and for love, but he is unable, and the play ends in tragedy. We can’t simply lose the name. . . we can’t simply erase the past. We have to own it, name and all, hypocrisy and all, and our fallen sinful natures, and ask for forgiveness and protection and salvation from Christ. We have to act as he calls us to act, not for our sake, but for his, such is the beginnings of love. We get all caught up in the name business of John 15, and how the name is a secret pass code to get what we want, the magic word, the “open sesame” of prayer, that we miss the context entirely. Love, as the father has loved me, I have loved you, abide in that love, by keeping commandments, just as I abide in the father’s love. . . love one another as I have loved you. . . that is the commandment he speaks of. . . no one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . you are my friends. . . I have chosen you. . . I am giving these commands, so that you may love one another. . . This seems to be the crux of the name business. . . . If we want Jesus’ name to be seen as love then we need to love. . . or else not bear his name. . . the shame is the name  has been used too often in vain. . . not out of love. . . therein lies the problem. . . We will do better loving than we ever would defending the name outright because God forbid we would ever be successful. . . if we were, what then would the name become?

In the 4th century, the Emperor Constantine had a vision, it was a great cross in the sky, and a voice that told him to conquer under this sign. . . He did. . . he was successful. The name Jesus was forever tied to that success. Therein lies one of the great problems of winning, or at least apparent victory. . . It results often in the taking on of baggage, and the making of idols. . . We are still dealing with these results today. We cannot simply doff the name and hope to have success. . . instead we must love, and let Christ who gave his life for us protect us. Can we have such a faith in a shifting world? God may it be so. . . . amen.