Tuesday, May 19, 2015

What's in a name?

My sermon for this week was based on John 17:6-19.

To download a podcast of my sermon, click here.

"A rose by any other name would smell as sweet", wrote Shakespeare.  Arguably, what he meant to imply is that the word we use to refer to a person or thing bears no relation to the nature of that person or thing.  So we could call a rose a "truck" and it would still smell nice.

But unarguably, words and names become loaded with meaning.  For example, most of us know our fair share of Marys and Matthews, but have you ever met someone named Judas?

I have not, and the reason why is that the very name Judas has become a byword for treachery and betrayal, and no one in their right mind would want to invoke those characteristics when naming their child.

In the Gospel for this week, Jesus yet again makes a statement that likely goes unnoticed by many 21st century readers, but which would have been shocking to his listeners.  Addressing God in a prayer he makes on behalf of his disciples, he says, "I have made your name know to those whom you gave me from the world".

Here's the thing about the name of God.  Observant Jews in Jesus time were not supposed to know the name of God, speak the name of God or write the name of God.  This holds to this day.  If you read a book or article written by an observant Jew, you will notice that if they have to refer directly to God, they will spell it "G-d" or refer to God as "hashem" (Hebrew for "the name").

This is because of the Jewish understanding of the 3rd Commandment, traditionally rendered in English as "Thou shalt not take the Lord's name in vain".

To this day, modern Jews respect the name of God and all words used to refer to God so much that the try to use them as rarely as possible.  They only use these words in the context of prayer or in Scriptural study.

Therefore, Jesus' statement would have been heretical in a way.  He should not have known the name of God as this was only known by the high priests, and even if he did, he should not have been speaking it aloud.

But here is the thing: he wasn't actually referring to the literal name of God (Yahweh).  It is fairly clear that he was speaking figuratively when he says he made known God's name to his disciples.  He was actually referring to the nature of God.  In reality, he was trying to convey "I have made known to my disciples who you are and what your nature is".

Most of us probably know people whose names evoke reactions when spoken in mixed company.  Perhaps they invoke murmurs of approval, perhaps smirks and eye-rolling.  Sidestepping for a moment whether or not Christians ought to engage in the latter, the fact of the matter is that when you and I are gone, the only thing our loved ones will have left is our names and our memories.

What does your name mean to others?  Is your name synonymous with charity, honesty and acceptance?  Or is in associated with greed, dishonesty and discrimination?  Does your name stand for godliness or worldliness?  And what do you really want it to stand for?

Today, make sure your name stands for something good.

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