January 15, 2023
What’s in a Name?
Rev. Michael Scott
When I read this morning’s Gospel lesson from John, where Jesus renames Simon, I couldn’t help but remember a classic old Monty Python routine. It takes place at the “Bruces Club” in Australia. Every member is named Bruce. They all greet each other: “’Ow are you, Bruce? G’day Bruce! Bruce. Hello Bruce. Bruce. How are you, Bruce? G’day Bruce.” Then one of the members walks in with a friend and says, “ Gentleman, I’d like to introduce a man from Pommeyland . . . Michael Baldwin, Bruce. Michael Baldwin, Bruce. Michael Baldwin, Bruce.” One of the Bruces says, “ Is your name not Bruce?” He says, “ No, it’s Michael. That’s going to cause a little confusion. Mind if we call you ‘Bruce’?”
I know someday I’m going to be struck by lightening for the things that go through my head, but I couldn’t help picturing Jesus when he’s introduced to Simon saying, “So your name is Simon. Mind if I call you Cephas, then?”
It’s pretty bold of Jesus, you must admit, when upon meeting a man, his first words are, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas.” So here’s the question on which my sermon hangs: why bother to so abruptly to rename someone – what’s in a name? After all, as Shakespeare offered, on the lips of Juliet,
“. . . that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as
But even as he objects to placing such value on a mere name, the bard betrays his recognition of the power of naming. Romeo’s next line, not so often remembered, is:
“I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new
Henceforth I never will be
And indeed, henceforth, Romeo is “but love.” The man is not so much renamed as is the name renamed. Love becomes him; love consumes him. The legacy outlives him, as well as his creator. We still today refer to a great lover as a “Romeo.”
Here’s the first thing I want to say: there’s power in a name. When Jesus changed Simon’s name to Cephas, he wasn’t (all my silliness aside) just fooling around. We get a sense of his intention by examining the curious history of the text itself. Cephas (or, as it was pronounced in the original language, KAY-fas) is the Greek transliteration of the Aramaic word אפכ (“Kay-fah”) The word means “rock.” So, the Greek transcriber of the text in which we find this passage first transliterated it as Cephas, then parenthetically translated it into Greek as Petros (the Greek word for “rock). It is from that Greek word Petros that we get the English transliteration and the name becomes Peter. But it still just means “Rock.”
Think about that for a moment. You are introduced to a holy man who looks you in the eye and says, “From now on you will be called ‘Rock.’” That’s the sort of thing that could change your life. It obviously changed Simon’s life. He became a leader among the disciples and among the apostles who founded and shaped the early church. Indeed, he became in many ways the rock on which the church was built.
The ancient Israelites knew about this awesome power of a name. They knew the connection between a person’s outward identity and inner being. That’s why they never uttered the divine name that we have come to know as “Yahweh.” Whenever the consonants of that name appeared in a sacred text, they added no vowels to it for pronunciation. Instead, they uttered the word Adonai, which means “Lord.” To speak the personal sacred name of God, was to presume to grasp knowledge of God’s being. No one was allowed to hold that kind of power.
They knew the truth; there’s power in a name.
There’s power in your name. All you have to do is find it. That happened to my wife, Dadgie, at a critical moment in her life. She was an active layperson in her church, and had decided to take a course at the seminary because it might be interesting. She walked into the classroom, and the professor, the late man of insight and power, Dr. James Ashbrook, saw her and introduced himself. He didn’t simply say, “Ah, you must be Dadgie.” He looked her in the eye and said, “You MUST . . . BE . . . DADGIE!” From that moment her life was changed. Over the course of the coming months and years, she discovered in so many ways that, yes, she MUST BE DADGIE! And as one who came to know her, I can testify: what a Dadgie she became!
To discover the power that resides in your name, you must find what it is that you are intended to be. How do you discern that? It’s tricky. I have only a couple of thoughts to guide you. One comes from Jesus’ encounter with Simon. Jesus looked deep into the heart of Simon’s being in that instant of meeting him, and called forth something that he knew was there, something buried, but solid, dependable, enduring. He was a rock, and he needed to own that.
The Divine intention for you is, I believe, something buried deeply in your soul. It’s not something that comes to you from outside of your being like ET landing in your back yard. It is knit into your DNA and etched on the slate of your life experience. What is needed is for you to dive deeply enough into your own heart that you can hear the echoes of Christ speaking to you, naming you.
Your experience of self-discovery may not be as dramatic as what happened to a little boy named Michael eighty-eight years ago, but it could be as profound and as life-changing.
Michael King was born to a Baptist minister and his wife, Michael, Sr. and Alberta. When he was only five years old his father went on a trip abroad and came to Germany. Michael King, Sr. became absorbed in the powerful and world-changing history of the Protestant Reformation spawned from the Castle Church in Wittenberg. He was drawn to the complex, passionate, and charismatic monk who tacked his list of ninety-five complaints against the Roman church to the door of that cathedral and sparked a massive wave of revolt. Rev. King was so consumed by the spirit of the leader of that Reformation movement, Martin Luther, and, I believe, so aware already of the latent gifts of his little boy, that he made a radical decision. He changed his name; and he changed the name of his young son at the same time. He would no longer be Michael King, and his son would no longer be Michael King, Jr. Now they were Martin Luther King and Martin Luther King, Jr. That little boy, a boy so full of promise, so full of gifts, was given the name of one of the most powerful shakers of the foundations of institutional power in recorded history. Tomorrow our nation will stop spinning its wheels for a day to celebrate the birth, the life, and the profound impact of that little boy who became Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
O, there’s power in a name: power enough to transform a child of promise into a man of vision, power enough to transform an idea into movement, power enough to transform a nation into a more perfect union.
The second observation I have to make is that being renamed doesn’t necessarily mean changing your name. It may mean that your name is transformed. It may simply mean finding the power hidden in your name – the truth about what you are intended to be and do. It may be a little like Dadgie’s experience of learning what it is to be her truest self.
Just a little over seven years ago, a TV series started airing in Ukraine titled Servant of the People, in which a comedian named Volodymyr Zelenskyy played the comic role of the Ukrainian president. The series aired for four years and was immensely popular. Zelenskyy’s name became well known for making a joke of the presidency. In 2016, he left off being a comedian and ran for the presidency for real.
We all know the outcome. During the first two years of his administration, Zelenskyy oversaw the lifting of legal immunity for members of parliament; he had to face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, and an economic recession. It was only a little less than a year ago that Russia invaded Ukraine. That’s an awful lot to throw at a new president whose resume consisted of being a comedian. What the world and Vladimir Putin threw at him drew out of him what Eternity had intended him to be. He became an example of strength, resolve, and courage. The name Zelenskyy was transformed from that of a jokester into a powerfully inspirational leader with a spine of steel and one held in highest respect around the world. The name Zelenskyy is now considered on a par with the name Churchill.
O, there’s power in what a name can become.
I’d like to ask you to join me in a little exercise. I want you to close your eyes . . . and purge from your mind all the distractions, the worries and issues of your life. And I want you to imagine Jesus standing before you, gazing intently into your eyes. He sees what lies unspoken, untouched, undiscovered in the depths of your being, and he calls it forth, calling you by name, and making clear what is intended for you.
What does he say?