Sunday, April 29, 2012

What's in a name?

Texts: Psalm 23 (The Lord's my shepherd); Acts 4:5-12 (saved by Jesus' name); 1 John 3:16-24 (love in word and deed); John 10:11-18 (Jesus as the good shepherd)

"There is no other name than Jesus Christ by which we must be saved." So says Peter in our reading today from Acts. Salvation, of course, is the chief work of God in Christ. But how does the name Jesus Christ help save us? We hear a similar comment about Jesus' name in our reading from 1st John. The author urges us to "believe in the name Jesus Christ." Belief in Christ is central for Christians, of course. But why does the author urge us to believe in the name Jesus Christ instead of the person?

Names do carry a lot of power. A good example, I think, is found on Easter Sunday morning. Mary Magdalene talks with a man outside of the empty tomb, but it is only when he says her name, "Mary," that she realizes the man to whom she has been speaking is not a gardener, but is the Risen Jesus.

Names are especially important when they refer to God. The ancient Hebrews had many names for God: El Shaddai, Adonai, Elohim, Shekinah, and so on. But the most important of the Hebrew words for God was so sacred that it was spoken aloud only once a year, and then only by the High Priest in the Holy Temple on the Day of Atonement. In the Hebrew Bible it appears as the four letters YHWH, and it is translated into English as Yahweh, Jehovah, or the Lord God.

Yahweh is the name for God used in Psalm 23, which we sang a few minutes ago. In English, the first line of the Psalm is, "The Lord is my Shepherd." But the original Hebrew could also be translated into English as "Yahweh is my shepherd," or "The Holy-Name-One-Must-Never-Say is my shepherd."

Today's scene from Acts occurs a few weeks after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Peter is under arrest in Jerusalem for healing a lame man whom he encountered outside of the Temple. At his trial, Peter says "it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth . . . that this [lame] man stands before you healed . . . Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved."

For many Christians, Peter's statement stands alongside that of Jesus in John 14:16 -- "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Together, they are said to prove that only believing Christians can be healed in this life and saved in the next. But is this what Peter means by the phrase "no other name," and is this what we should preach?

One of the first things that can to my mind in thinking of this question was the phrase "What's in a name" from William Shakespeare’s play "Romeo and Juliet." The phrase is found in a speech delivered by Juliet from her balcony after she learns that Romeo, in whom she has fallen in love, is a member of the Montague family. The problem is that Juliet is a Capulet, and the Capulet and Montague families are sworn enemies. So here, now, is her famous balcony speech:

O 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.

In her love for Romeo, Juliet is willing to overlook his family name, and audiences usually applaud her decision. But given how important and powerful names are, should we ever disregard names, especially the names we use for Jesus?

This question leads me to another one: "Just what is Jesus' name?" It turns out that answering this second question not an easy task.

When I was a child, I assumed that Christ was Jesus' surname -- that his parents were called Joseph and Mary Christ of Nazareth.

Later, I learned that Christ is a royal title given to kings in Jerusalem. To be more precise, it is the Greek form of the Hebrew royal title Messiah. English forms of Messiah include Chosen One, Anointed One, and King. Jesus' surname would have been Ben Josef -- "son of Joseph" -- and not Christ.

Then there is Jesus' given name. Like Christ, Jesus is Greek even though Jesus and his family did not speak Greek. During his lifetime, Jesus would have been called Yeshua or Joshua, which are the Aramaic and Hebrew forms of Jesus.

Jesus spoke Aramaic while the gospels were written many years later in Greek. English translations of the gospels usually translate personal names from Greek into English. For example, Petros becomes Peter and Paulus becomes Paul. But English translators do not translate the Greek name, Jesus, into an English name like Joshua or Josh.

Perhaps translators shy away from translating "Jesus Christ" into English because of the importance given to the name and title by the authors of Acts and First John. Still, it only takes a moment's reflection to realize that Peter would not have uttered the words "Jesus Christ" in his trial before religious authorities in Jerusalem. Like Jesus, Peter spoke Aramaic, and so he would have said something like this: "There is no other name than Yeshua the Messiah by which we must be saved." The puzzle remains, at least for me.

Finally, there is the meaning of the name Jesus/Joshua/Yeshua. The first part of the name refers to the sacred name of the God of Israel, Yahweh. The second part of the name means "rescue" or "save." Together they give us another possible translation of Jesus into English: Yahweh the Salvation.

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus uses the metaphor of Good Shepherd to refer to himself. In doing so, he connects himself to his namesake, Yahweh, who is called the Good Shepherd in Psalm 23. The metaphor can be seen as another indication that Jesus truly is Yahweh the Salvation.

Jesus then goes on to say that "I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also . . . so there will be one flock, one shepherd." Jesus' mission is a universal one that extends beyond Israel, even if this mission is carried out under the particular holy name and title of Jesus the Christ, or Yahweh the King.

Given passages like today's from Acts and First John, I can understand why many Christians are anxious to use the right forms of Jesus' name in prayer and worship. However, anxiety about getting things "right" is sometimes a sign of idolatry.

We talked a lot about idols and idolatry in the confirmation class here in Coronach on Thursday. I suggested that from one perspective, no one is truly an atheist, for all of us worship something or other. The trouble comes when we worship false gods instead of the one true God who is Love. False gods come in many guises: sports teams, nations, celebrities, addictive substances like alcohol, desire for wealth or fame, and so many others. Even aspects of our religion can become idols, as when Christians seem to worship the Bible more than the God to whom the Bible is supposed to point.

I don't believe we should be too hard on ourselves when we realize that we have worshipped a false god. Idolatry seems to be an unavoidable sin for most of us most of the time. Perhaps the best we can hope for in life is that each succeeding idol we worship take us father away from anxiety and closer to the God of Love revealed for Christians most clearly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

The passages from Acts and First John we heard today remind us of the importance of sacred names, as do the 10 commandments and the Lord's Prayer. Nevertheless, I hope that the points I have raised about the origins of our names for God and Jesus might help us feel less anxious about using sacred names.

Perhaps the best translation of the holy and powerful name of God in Christ might sometimes just be the word "Love." Every language has a word that refers to that elusive but central concept we call Love. Since God in Christ is best known in acts of love, why not carry out out the mission of Jesus under the sacred name of Love?

Further, how we speak of love is not as important as how we act in love. The author of First John reminds us of this today when he writes, "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." As the 1960s hymn puts it, "They will know we are Christians by our love."

Actions speak louder than words, and loving action fulfils the mission of Jesus regardless of the name we use to describe the God who is Love. This is another good reason, I believe, to not be too anxious about how we name God as known in Christ.

What's in a name? A great deal, I think, and also not much. Love heals us at Easter, as at any time, regardless of the name we use for it.

For Christians, the strong name of Jesus is the sweetest name for love we know. We respect the name and try to use it properly in prayer, worship and mission.

We are also confident that Love remains the source, calling and destiny for all people. This is true regardless of the names we use for God and regardless of the idols we falsely worship along life's road. At the end, we know that this road surely leads us back to the God who is Love.

Thanks be to God,


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