Year B Easter 4: What’s in a name?

Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Freddie Mercury. Machiavelli. What do these names mean to you?

Try Jerry Falwell. Billy Graham. Denzel Washington. George Washington. John Paul II. John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Mother Theresa. Mary.

Then, of course, there’s Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter says, “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

We are not unfamiliar with the power of names. If we hear someone shout, “Stop!” on the street, without our name, we might wonder who is to stop. If we hear, “Stop! In the name of the Law!” we will stop and make sure they don’t mean us. If we hear “Stop! In the name of love,” we might expect to encounter a flash mob, but that’s another story.

Name recognition wins elections; powerful names beget more power. We startle, involuntarily, when we hear our own names. The use of our full names: first name, middle name, last name, used with deliberation and in order, strikes fear and guilt into our hearts. Many of us were named for others, in hopes that the name would bring us luck or virtue. We know the power in a name.

We read today the sequel to last week’s story in Acts, in which Peter and John heal the man born lame, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Peter has told the people that all power and piety that he might possess is nothing, but the power of the name heals all, forgives all, saves all. After they are arrested as rabble-rousers, he and John repeat their argument, “for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Whatever might be done in the name of Caesar, in the name of the High Priest, in the name of the king, in the name of the law; whatever power and authority those names might signify, they pale into insignificance, they fade into silence when the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth is spoken. The boldness of Peter’s claim is wild; this man has just been tried and killed as a criminal. This man, this mortal man, died on a cross. And now you claim the power of healing and forgiveness, you offer God in his name?

We know that names carry power, that the right name wields authority beyond its bearer, that the wrong name closes doors before they are even knocked upon. Did you know that having the right name can buy you an advantage in the job market? Researchers found that identical resumes, in terms of education and experience, were treated differently depending upon the racial and ethnic connotations of the name at the top of the page, even when employers thought they were treating everyone equally.

There are names that enter the social imagination and become more than the men or women for which they stand. Mention Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and you know the hurt that goes with having to assert over and over again that yes, black lives matter. Washington, Gandhi, Lincoln evoke the pride of nations; Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela the hope for something better than our broken systems of social disorganization.

Of course, context matters. The significance of names can change over time: Hitler still evokes horror, but throw his name into any online debate and the desperation of your position is on display for all to see. His name, once strong and terrible, has become the weakest link in any contemporary argument.

We hear Peter’s words, about Jesus’ name, differently than did his contemporaries, a few short weeks after the crucifixion at the hill of Golgotha. Strange stories about unaccountable deeds and happenings were no mystery to the people of our first century; but Jesus was, because he was nobody, born to nobody, laid in a borrowed tomb, no family mausoleum from which to rise.  This sort of thing might happen to anybody, but not to nobody. Robin Meyers writes, in Saving Jesus from the Church,

There is simply nothing unique about claiming that some notable person had been raised from the dead. What was utterly uncommon and turned human history on its axis was the claim that Jesus had been raised from the dead. It reset all the clocks in the Western world. Easter was God’s ‘yes’ to a peasant revolutionary, and God’s ‘no’ to the Roman Empire.*

It was the story of the Magnificat, the new structure of the kingdom of God, that had come to life. In one way, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was God’s reclaiming from Caesar what should have been rendered unto God.

To them, it was madness; to us, it has become dogma. To them it made no sense because of what they had witnessed. For us, unless we are careful, it is stripped of all meaning by endless repetition, adulation, and the decay and dilution of centuries of use and misuse.

Just as the image of the shepherd, which in the days of King David was the fierce protection of one who would wrestle bears and lions to protect his flock; just as that image of the down and dirty shepherd whom you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley after midnight has been cleaned up and dressed in pastel colours for his portrait, so the power of the name of Jesus has divorced from its backstory, retouched and recoloured to the tastes of those who find it useful.

If we are careless, the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth becomes a rabbit’s foot charm or a talisman. If we are foolish, we believe it will be a magic word, an incantation. If we take pride in our own righteouness, it becomes a weapon. If we are sophisticated, or scornful, it has become a joke. And yet martyrs still die with the name of Jesus on their lips.

In our first century, it was an ordinary name, the name given to a boy born out of time to a young woman pregnant too soon and her fortunately faithfully compassionate husband. It was the name by which she called him in to dinner, praised him and scolded him. It was the name that his friends tossed around, that his teachers called upon to see if he had learned his lessons. It was the name bonded to him by blood in the temple on the eighth day, when his mother was warned, “and a sword shall pierce your own soul, also.” It was the name written in contempt above his head as he hung in the noonday sun, dying for the love of God: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

Its power was precisely in that it was an ordinary name, like Freddie, or George, or Gina. It was an ordinary name, and its very ordinariness spoke volumes of the love of God for ordinary people, whose power resided not in the empires or the economy of inequality inflicted upon them, but in the equal love of God; ordinary people whose salvation lay not in the hands of saints or of sinners, but in the saving love of a faithful and forgiving God.

Of course, the name of God remains: HaShem, Allah, Adonai, the Almighty; Jesus is the only name given among mortals, says Peter, to carry with it the connotation, the power, the authority of salvation. In the realm beyond our mortal ken, God knows the sheep of every other fold, and will call them each by name. I have no worries on that score.

But the name of Jesus was given to him and has been given to us to remind us that each of us may find resurrection in the power and faithfulness of God in our own, ordinary lives; that each of us is beloved of God, called each by name.

In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, our everyday companion and our Risen Lord. Amen.

*Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (HarperOne, 2009), 91 

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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