by the Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
May only God’s Word be spoken and only God’s Word be heard.
Both today’s Old Testament reading and our Gospel have name changes in them. So today, let’s talk about the power of names.
In Genesis 17, God talks to Abram for the fifth time in scripture, and in this passage God clarifies a covenant. In this covenant, God will give Abram children, and Abram and Sarah will “give rise to nations.” Abram and Sarai and their descendents fulfill the covenant by following God’s ways.
And as part of this covenant, God re-names Abram to Abraham and renames Sarai to Sarah. With both these name changes, a letter was added that sounds like a breath or wind or spirit. That “heh.” With this name change, every time the name Abraham or Sarah is spoken, “Spirit” is right there in the center of their names. Every time the names are spoken, we are reminded that God’s Spirit is with them.
Abraham and Sarah, by being given this covenant, are changed. God is in the midst of them, and everyone who speaks their name knows it.
Now, unfortunately, this covenant and this name change did not make Abraham and Sarah’s lives magically easy, nor did it mean that they always did the right thing all the time. Abraham and Sarah continued to be fallible humans. And they continued to have hardship in their lives. But even in the midst of their failings, in the midst of their difficulties, God was with them. And their name change reminded them–and others–of this truth.
Our Gospel reading from Mark today is connected with a lot of naming. We’re in the midst of a conversation between Jesus and Peter. You probably remember that Peter was named Simon at birth, and then Jesus renamed. Matthew’s gospel tells us the story of Jesus naming him Peter because the name means “rock” and Jesus proclaims, “on this rock I will build my church.” So today we’re coming into chapter 8 of Mark’s gospel with a name change already in the books. And right before today’s passage there is another naming.
Jesus asks the disciples who they think he is. Peter is the one who responds, and he calls Jesus, “Messiah.” So Jesus now has this new name Messiah — but it doesn’t mean what the disciples think it means. Peter imagined the Messiah to be a great warrior who would overthrow the political leaders of the time and take the throne and rule the world. So when, the very next minute, Jesus explains that the Messiah will not overthrow the government — and in fact the Messiah will be rejected by the religious leaders — it doesn’t go over at all well.
Peter pushes back against this idea. Perhaps he tries to convince Jesus to embrace the world’s idea of what Messiah really is. Peter encourages Jesus to use force to bring down the government, and to avoid suffering. In response, Jesus calls Peter yet a new name, “Satan.”
Who is this guy talking with Jesus? Is he the rock on which the Christian church will be built, or is he Satan? Well… yes, and. Peter is both the rock on which the church is built AND an incredibly fallible human being who slips so easily into encouraging his friend to do what he wants rather than to follow what God has asked of him.
So in today’s readings we encounter Abram/Abraham, Sarai/Sarah, Jesus/Messiah, and Simon/Peter/Satan.
Each of these name changes signify a change in relationship. Either a drawing closer to God’s intention for the person, or moving further away from God’s purpose.
When Jesus calls Peter “Satan,” he is boldly claiming that Peter is drawing him away from God’s call on his life.
Every other renaming is about claiming connection with God more fully.
And connection with God does not mean having an easy life, or getting things right all the time, or even knowing what God wants from us.
Being named and claimed by God is about having an ongoing connection with God.
Being named and claimed by God is about deepening our connection with God.
Being named and claimed by God means we are listening for God’s guidance in our lives. Being named and claimed by God means having the humility to acknowledge our mistakes and to learn from them.
Being named and claimed by God means that we know God is with us in the midst of whatever is happening in our lives.
Remembering that you, too, have been named and claimed by God, Your name can be an anchor point, a holy center for you to come back to again and again. How can your name be a sign and symbol for you? A reminder that you are God’s beloved child, that you are in covenant with God, that you are dedicated to knowing God more and more?
Maybe you’ve got a “heh” in your name like Abraham and Sarai. Maybe, like Elohim or El-Shaddai you’ve got an “el” in your name. Maybe like Yaweh you’ve got a Y or W in your name. Or a J or an S like Jesus.
Think about your name. Think about all the names for all the parts of the Holy Trinity. Find a connection.
And then remember that connection each time you hear your name or say your name or write your name or see your name. May it be a reminder that you and God are in relationship; that you are a building block of Christ’s church. That–whether or not you get things right all the time–you have been named and claimed by God. And that no matter what, you are a beloved child of God.
I speak in the name of the One, Holy Triune God. Amen.