What is in a name? It’s Juliet’s famous question as she bemoans Romeo belonging to her family’s sworn enemy as a Montague. A rose would smell as sweet if we called it something else. Physically it would, but the reality is that naming things changes how we see them socially because words are social constructs and as such reflect culture, values and assumptions. These are largely taken for granted, working in the background, like an operating system for our psyche.
So names matter and the old adage of sticks and stones breaking bones but words never hurting is of course rubbish. Words hurt very deeply and bullying is often reinforced through words, name calling and the abuse that comes with it. So Juliet’s teenage angst is her coming to terms with a reality her dreamy love affair will crash into. And we know it has a disastrous outcome.
Names can also be used to bless. I had a letter from the daughter of a woman who had received a small gift from a trust I am involved with. She had read the letter to her mother and it began, as I do without thinking too deeply, by addressing her by name. The woman’s response was
“He used my name! No one uses my name any more – I’m always Mrs and never called by my name.”
It had felt personal, direct and brought more blessing, it would seem, than the cheque which accompanied it.
Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning is brought up sharp when Jesus calls her by name, “Mary”. It cuts through the tears and grief, the darkness of the early morning just like the sunrise breaks through the night. Jesus had used name changing as a confirmation of calling. Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which the church will be built. And Justine Allain Chapman, in our first Lent Talk on Thursday, spoke about Peter and how although he falls. Jesus is faithful restoring him for service so he becomes fruitful once more.
Abram and Sarai in our first reading (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) both have their names changed. It seems a small thing, no one really knows what the difference is between the names. Abram and Abraham mean the same thing – exalted father or father of many nations. Sarah means the same as Sarai – princess or joy and delight. I think two things are happening with their name changes.
Firstly they are having their status, their calling and vocation, confirmed. Yes, they really will be those things. Abraham will be the father of many nations and Sarah will find and become joy and delight. Abraham is part of the common heritage of Christians, Muslims and Jews. Through him we can regard ourselves as being spiritual siblings, brothers and sisters with a common heritage and therefore who look to a common goal in God’s grace, one that bridges divides we would otherwise see as being insurmountable.
Secondly Abraham’s name gets bigger. It’s a literary joke. It is just an elongated form of the same name. Abram short for Abraham. Tim short for Timothy, Jenny short for Jennifer. The bible is full of little jokes, that brighten up the text and make the story sparkle with playfulness. It acts out the message: a bigger name to show the bigger vocation.
There is more blessing in our gospel reading (Mark 8:31-end). Peter gets it wrong again. He refuses to accept that Jesus’ vocation can be to die, not having caught the great twist in the story which comes to light when Jesus meets Mary that first Easter morning in the garden. This time Peter is not called ‘rock’ but ‘Satan’. His mind is in the wrong place and so he needs to give his head a shake to let the grains of sand in there settle again.
The real name, the real vocation we all have is not to high status but to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Whatever we do, wherever we are, however much responsibility is given to us in whatever form that comes, it is our primary calling and trumps all others. Someone sent me an email this week asking about how you come to be a Dean and asking in effect about ambition.
I wrote back about true ambition being to make a difference for the sake of the gospel, not about personal advancement. There is always an ego lurking under the surface and scaling the greasy pole is always a spiritual danger, not least as the titles get longer – Rev to Canon to Very Rev. It could go to your head if you let it. But my real name remains ‘Ian’, which is what I was baptised and that remains the true vocation.
The real ambition, which Peter must learn, is to proclaim the love of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and raised for us, to become an agent of God’s kingdom advancing faith, hope and love wherever and with whomever we find ourselves. Different places just bring different challenges and opportunities, and in God’s grace the gifts the meet them.
What’s in a name? Quite a lot, but only because of what it carries. So Juliet is quite right. The rose smells sweet, so we need our language to reflect that, to see and affirm its blessing and not hide or hinder it. Enjoy the jokes of Abram becoming Abraham, Sarai becoming Sarah, but see the true source of the exalting, the joy and delight within them – God’s love for us. And use this season of Lent to grow in that love, that joy and that delight.
Sermon for Lent 2, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 28th February 2021