By another name

Message preached on February 25, 2018
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 and Mark 8:27-38/Matthew 16:17-18

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             What difference does a name make? Quite a bit to a teenager. When you were going through those years, did you struggle any with your name? Perhaps you are there right now, age-wise. I remember when I made the subtle shift from “Peter” to “Pete” in High School. I’ll grant you it wasn’t a big change, but it was one step along the way of asserting my independence. Did you make, are you making similar footprints?

             What difference does a name make? Our parents somehow made a decision as to what we would be called. They may have put a great deal of thought into it, or chose it “on the fly.” Perhaps the naming process was a source of tension, one more invested in it than the other, or each holding on to what they wanted their child to be, until finally agreeing. Maybe it just happened – a name from a baby book just popped out, a loved relative’s name just felt right, or they picked between a few possibilities in “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” fashion. What names might you have been called?

             What difference does a name make, whether given by our parents or chosen by ourselves? Consider one of the Bible’s most famous couples, Abraham and Sarah… Excuse me, I should begin with the names they were given at birth: Abram and Sarai. Three major world religions consider themselves to be descendants of this pair. In the Bible, their story begins when God calls them to leave the home they’ve known since birth and journey out toward God-only-knows-where, armed only with a promise.

             At the time these two persons were no spring chickens. It says that Abram was 75 years old when they took off. Sarai was 10 years younger. The promise? Well, let’s listen to it. 

              The LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.  I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1‑3)  

             Upon that basis, they packed up and took off. Would you have been so brave, or foolish? Of course, there was one slight detail I have yet to mention, an itty-bitty fact that has some bearing upon the second part of that promise. You see, up to this point Abram and Sarai were childless, through no choice of their own. How can the blessing of a “great nation,” a multitude of descendants come out of what must have seemed to them a curse? By now in their lives, you’d think they would have come to peace with their lot. Who would even consider the possibility of children at age 65 and 75? Perhaps the thought might keep you young, but the prospect makes me tired just considering it.

             The Bible looks to this couple as a model for faith. You better believe it took faith to act upon that promise. Either faith or foolishness. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. A quarter of a century down the road, as the Bible reckons time, neither promise had been realized. Abram and Sarai were still on the road to God-only-knows-where and no baby had been born - at least not to the two of them together (but that’s another story for another time). Again, God showed up with promise in hand. You sort of wonder if this isn’t some big test on God’s part to see how long these two will follow before seeing any results. Our Lord isn’t exactly into immediate gratification.

             God showed up and made a covenant with Abram and Sarai. Think of it like a wedding where one spouse takes on a new name, only in this case the man and the woman both underwent that change. Of course, it was a private affair. No time to send out invitations. El Shaddai, God most high, just came and said “I will...” In the process, Abram became Abraham, and Sarai became Sarah. Not a major change, I’ll grant you. Sort of like the shift from Peter to Pete.

             Linguistically speaking, we’re not all that sure if the addition of a few extra letters added a new meaning to the names. Bible names very often mean something. Take Jacob, one of those promised descendants of Abraham and Sarah - their grandson, to be exact. He wrestled with God beside the Jabbok, and God gave him a new name - “Israel,” which means, “one who contends with God.” The name stuck, and ever after, Israel (that is, Jacob’s descendants) has been wrestling with God. The name fits.

             Or take another character from the Bible, that fellow whom his parent named “Simon.” Jesus called this Simon to follow him, along with a bunch of other disciples. The promise Jesus made to Simon at that time was as inviting and tenuous as the promise God made to Abram and Sarai when they were called to leave Haran and step out by faith at age 75 and 65, respectively. Jesus said to this man of the sea, “follow me and I’ll have you fishing for people.” What on earth did that mean? Only later would Simon find out.

             Anyway, at a certain point on their journey, Jesus performed a name-change on Simon. Along the way Jesus up and asked his disciples about what they were hearing from the people they encountered. Specifically, who did the people think Jesus was? The answers were varied: “Elijah,” “John the Baptist,” “a prophet.”  “Okay,” Jesus then replied, “who do you say I am.”

             This was Simon’s big moment. Was he just kissing up to the master, or was he really putting two and two together and meaning what he was saying? I prefer not to think of him as your average “Yes man,” but as someone whose intuition pushed him into new territory about which he still was a bit clueless. He put a foot forward without really knowing where it would land. Sort of like Abraham and Sarah before him.

             The way Mark tells the story, the name change is omitted. For that, we turn to Matthew, who records Jesus as then turning to Simon and saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church...” (Matthew 16:17-18a) From then on, Simon was known as Peter.

             Because I share the same name, I have played with it more than some others might. For instance, my “handle” on the Internet, as some of you may be aware, has been “rockhay” - a name I chose as my own. Why? Well, when Jesus renamed Simon, calling him “Peter,” there was a bit of humor, and perhaps irony, involved. The name “Peter” in Greek means “rock.” The Aramaic “Cephas” means the same thing. Indeed, Peter became one of the solid leaders of the early church. He was a “rock” of a guy - what the church needed at its birth. Of course, it could also be said that Peter had a hard head, as well.

             Like that high moment when he stepped out and said Jesus was the Messiah. Following Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus went on to talk about the future, and how the Son of Man would suffer and die, and then rise on the third day. Peter the Rock (head) - one moment standing tall, the next falling flat on his face. He took Jesus aside and began rebuking him. Was this stupid, or what? One grand moment of illumination suddenly makes him the expert? Been there, done that. You?  “Get behind me, Satan,” Jesus said. One moment holding the keys to the kingdom, the next holding the gates open for Satan to walk right in. Boy, does that sound familiar.

             I can be just as much a rockhead as Peter, even as Jesus makes use of me in his church. The same could be said of us all, couldn’t it? It’s upon this rock, this earthly material, that our Lord builds his church. And in spite of it, or maybe because of it, or more precisely because of what God can do with these “earthen vessels,” with us, that “the gates of hell will not prevail against” the church.

             Returning to Sarah and Abraham, these paragons of faith were not exactly without faults, either. In fact, they were very human, slipping up here and there along the way to the promised land. And yet, we still look back to them as our spiritual forbearers, along with our Jewish and Muslim neighbors. In fact, if we had continued that reading from Genesis, chapter 17 - the one in which God made a covenant with and gave new names to Abraham and Sarah, we would have caught Abraham’s response. Listen.

              “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, ‘Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (Genesis 17:17)  

             Anyone who tells you that there is no humor in the Bible, has never read it. Whether Abraham was laughing with God, or at God, doesn’t matter. He was laughing so hard he fell to the ground. That’s what it says, folks. Did God zap him with a lightning bolt for it? No. Maybe God has a sense of humor, also. By the way, a similar story is told of Sarah in the next chapter. She also laughed at the prospect of bearing a child at 90 years of age. When God asked, “are you laughing behind that tent flap?” she denied it, but God replied, “Oh yes, you did” (Genesis 18:15) ... Now get this, do you know what they named their child when the promise actually came true? Isaac, which means, “he laughs.” After giving birth, the first recorded words from Sarah’s mouth are: “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” (Genesis 21:6)

             What difference does a name make? Quite a bit to those called by God. By another name they become known, individually or collectively. Like the name “Christian.” The term is found only three times in the Bible, not one of those occasions on the lips of Jesus. It was in Antioch, a city in Syria, that the disciples were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26) That name, however, came to make a difference in people’s lives, as they claimed it as their own. It carried them through some very tough times. Peter later wrote, “if any of you suffers as a Christian, do not consider it a disgrace, but glorify God because you bear this name.” (1 Peter 4:16)

What difference does a name make? Wear it and find out.

©2018, 2000   Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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