What’s In a Name?

Sermon at St Matthew’s, Guildford – Lent 2B, 4th March, 2012

Readings: Genesis 17:1-1-7,15-16; Mark 8:31-38

In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is lamenting the fact that, because his family and hers are sworn enemies, there is no prospect of her romance with him being tolerated.  It has no future because he is a Montague and she a Capulet.  She says,

‘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.

The name defines the person and creates, in this case, barriers that are seen as impenetrable.  And, as we know nothing but tragedy comes of the hapless romance.

In today’s reading from Genesis, names become of great significance for an elderly – aged, really – couple when God comes a-calling.  Abram is ninety-nine years old and his wife a sprightly eighty-nine.  God had first spoken to Abram when the Abram was only seventy-five, and called him leave his home and wider family in Haran to settle in a land to which God would show him, and which we know to be Canaan, roughly the current Israel and Palestine.  Along with the call went God’s promise to make of Abraham a great nation and to make him a blessing. [1]  Abram obeyed God and travelled west and south, settling around a place called Shechem.

After a few adventures involving his nephew Lot, as well as trip into Egypt, which you can read about in chapters 12-14 of Genesis, God comes to Abram and makes a covenant with Abram, sealed with the blood of a ram, a goat, a turtle-dove and a pigeon, promising again that Abram will become the father of a great nation.  But no offspring come to Abram and Sarai.  So, Abram decides to give God a hand and produces, with Sarai’s maid, Hagar, a son, Ishmael, who becomes the centre of another difficult saga in the history of the future Israel.

But there is still no God-given genuine son and heir for Abram through Sarai.  And they ain’t getting any younger!

And so to today’s reading from Genesis.

There are three new names which occur in this passage: God reveals himself as “El Shaddai”, here translated as “God Almighty”, which was usually rendered in the older translations as “God of Hosts”.  And God changes the name of Abram to Abraham and of Sarai to Sarah.

All of these changes are part of the altered status of the relationship between God and Abraham and Sarah.  God reveals more of who God is, showing a commitment to this couple.  Abram, which means approximately “Great Father”, becomes Abraham, which is something like “Father of a multitude”.  “Sarai” and “Sarah” both seem to mean “Princess”, but the change to the new form is, like Abram to Abraham, God’s way of expressing the new relationship declared in the covenant God makes with them.  New relationship = New Name.

God goes on to stipulate the responsibility of both parties to the covenant:

  • God will yet give Abraham and Sarah a son (something about which Sarah understandably laughs – she is almost ninety, after all; and she ends up calling the son “Isaac”, which means “Laughter”) ; and from this son will come many generations; God will give Abraham and his descendants “all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding”; and God will be their God forever.
  • Abraham, for his part, is to be circumcised, along with every male who comes of this promise, as a sign forever of the covenant.  Not much to give up, say the ladies!   But a significant sign which marks them as God’s chosen people.

Similar name changes occur in other places in the Scriptures, as people encounter God:

  • Jacob, whose name means “Cheat” is called “Israel”, meaning something like “he prevailed with God”, after the wrestling-match at Penuel.[2]
  • In the book Hosea, we find Hosea’s wife having a daughter and a son. God tells Hosea to name them Lo-Ruhamah and Lo-Ammi meaning, oddly enough, “Not my daughter” and “not my son”, respectively.  God uses this as a sign of the people of Israel who have gone astray and promises to restore Israel to favour and wholeness, saying

“I will have pity on Lo-ruhamah,*
and I will say to Lo-ammi,* ‘You are my people’;
and he shall say, ‘You are my God.’”[3]

Like the story of Abraham and Sarah, each of these name changes comes in the context of “covenant”, a situation in which God is making promises to a person or people – promises of God’s blessing and care of the person or people and, sometimes at least, the responsibility of the one to whom promises are made.

When you and I were born, we received at least two names – a family name and one or more names specially chosen by our parents with or without the influence of family and friends.  A couple whom I married here a couple of years ago, and with whom I’ve been able to keep in touch, had a baby girl on Thursday.  They have named her Harriet.  I don’t know the particular reasons for that name yet, but she is no longer “Baby ……”, but Harriet ……, loved and belonging to a delightful family.

Until quite recent – “politically correct” – times, we used to refer to the names chosen and given by parents as “Christian names”.  Today, of course, it is more “proper” to refer to “first” or “given” names; and maybe that’s OK.

But the tradition of calling them “Christian names” comes from the fact that, when a child was baptised – usually just a few days after the birth – names were given at the “Christening” hence “Christening/Christian names”.

Today, whenever I baptise a child, I ask the parents, “Name this child” or, “What name/s have you given him/her?”  And as I pour water three times over the child’s head, I say, “Mary Jane/John Paul, I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”.  This action, along with the making of the sign of the cross, brings the child into the Kingdom and family of God.

All of us who are baptised have been welcomed into God’s family and given a name – “Christian”.  And that “new name” indicates who we are and whose we are.

In the Baptism service to be held at Morning or Evening Prayer, we find this prayer:

Merciful God,
in your infinite love you have made a new covenant with us
in your Son our Saviour Jesus Christ,
promising to be our God and the God of our children.
Enable all who are baptised in your name
to live as a covenant people.
Fulfil your promises to this person, we pray,
and grant that he/she may grow in faith and in your service
until his/her life’s end; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  [4]

Baptism is set – as were the name changes of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and the children of Hosea – in the context of “covenant”.  In our Baptism we heard God’s promises and were called to follow Jesus, wherever that leads and – in the context of today’s Gospel – at whatever cost.

Another word for Christian – and a more biblical one – is the word “disciple”.  In baptism, our parents and godparents promised that we would be disciples of Christ to our lives’ end; and in Confirmation, we took on those promises for ourselves.  As “disciples”, we threw in our lot with Jesus, just as did the original twelve, and many others who are called disciples in the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, and with the disciples of Jesus ever since.

Christianity is not for wimps!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus says loudly and clearly, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  And we all know where carrying a cross leads!

Jesus calls all who bear his name – all who are willing to call themselves “Christian” to walk the journey he has walked and to be willing to pay a price.  This is more than just “giving up something for Lent”, valuable as the discipline may be.  It is nothing short of a whole life committed to living for the good of others, to “denying oneself”, and to seeking to be more like the one who covenants to be with us, even to the end of the age.

[1] Genesis 12:1-2

[2] Genesis 32:28

[3] Hosea 1:6-9; 2:23

[4] A Prayer Book for Australia, p 80


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