St Bride's: Sermons

All in a name

All in a name
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A couple of weeks ago during my post-Christmas break, I was walking through Marlborough town centre, when I was accosted by what has become known in popular parlance as a 'chugger' - a 'charity mugger': one of those eager young people who roam in packs around our high streets, clad in high-vis jackets emblazoned with the name and logo of one of the big national charities, who home in on unwary passing pedestrians to engage them in conversation, basically with a view to extracting money from them. 

Now, as it happened I was already a regular supporter of the particular charity that my Marlborough chugger was promoting - but I found myself so affronted by his opening gambit that any goodwill that I might otherwise have felt towards him evaporated on the spot. His opening greeting was: 'Hi, my name's Matt - what's your name?'

Afterwards I reflected on why it was that I had reacted so strongly against being asked what was, after all, a very straightforward question. It was partly, of course, that I found the sheer presumption of a total stranger blocking my path and demanding that I engage with him, completely uninvited, thoroughly objectionable. But actually there was more to it than that. 

Because the specific thing that he demanded of me was my name. And that really did feel intrusive. Because names are very precious and very intimate things. A person who knows your name, and therefore knows a key part of your identity, has been given a measure of power in relation to you. For that reason, any of you who have ever worked as school teachers will know very well that the task of controlling an unruly bunch of teenage miscreants becomes infinitely easier once you can address them individually by name. 

And, at a deeper level, whether you love the name you were given, or hate it; whether you have changed your name by marriage, or chosen to be known by another name altogether; or whether you are known by several different names, your name will always contain part of the essence of who you are. My sisters and their offspring invariably address me by a family nickname that is known to, and used by, nobody else - it is a name I would only ever reveal under torture (or possibly in response to a very hefty donation to the Inspire! Appeal). Alongside that, most of my intimates - certainly those who have known me for more than 25 years - routinely address me as something else, which is a variation of my given name. And the rest of the world knows me as Alison. All of which are fine. But each version of my name has its own web of stories and associations woven around it. Our names and our identities are inextricably linked.

Which makes it the more interesting that from very early on, in Christian tradition, naming and baptism went hand in hand. Initially of course, as exemplified in our gospel reading this morning, it was adults who were baptized, and they were baptized by total immersion - which was far more than simply an initiation into the community of faith: baptism combines the powerful symbolism of both ritual purification, and the gift of new life - and the experience of being submerged under water and then brought up again was a vivid metaphor for death and resurrection. And when an individual was addressed by name in the context of baptism that was both a means of publically identifying the baptismal candidate, but also a means by which personal identity was transformed as that individual became a new Creation in Christ.    

From the third century onwards, as infant baptism became increasingly common, the association between baptism and naming gained an even deeper significance. By the medieval period, when children were routinely christened very soon after birth, a baby's baptism was conventionally regarded as that child's first ever public appearance and the occasion on which his or her chosen name was officially made known for the first time. In other words, baptism was the moment at which a child's identity became manifest to the world. 

And in an odd way this echoes the theme of revelation that we see in the accounts of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, one of which we heard as our gospel reading. The incident is a curious one, which even the gospel writers seem to have found rather perplexing (although the fact that they feel obliged to include it points to its historicity) - because if Jesus is the Messiah, why is John baptizing him, rather than the other way round? - and, indeed, why does he need to be baptized in the first place?  In the version that we heard, Luke manages to bypass these questions, instead majoring on Jesus's baptism as an amazing moment of revelation, in which his true identity is made manifest in a startlingly physical way: as Jesus prayed, we are told, the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove; and the voice of God from heaven revealed all: 'You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.' 

When we baptize a child and name that child before God, we are saying something about that child's identity - without yet knowing the full story of what that identity will prove to be, because, at the risk of stating the obvious, we do not yet know what kind of a human being this little person will grow into. In the same way, when, at the very start of his ministry, Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and his true identity as God's Beloved Son is proclaimed from heaven - nobody could possibly have known fully what that meant either. Because it was only in the unfolding story of his ministry, his death and his resurrection, that we discover what kind of a Messiah Jesus is, and the kind of hope and salvation that he offers to us. And to find that out for ourselves, we have to be prepared to travel the journey with him.

One of the saddest little funerals I have ever taken was of a stillborn child. At the Crematorium there was just me, and his mum and dad, who were very young (it was their first child), and an undertaker. And after his dad had carried the tiny casket in and set it down, I can remember sharing the thought with them that although in this life we would never have the chance of finding out who this little person was, there were three things that we did know about him. First that he was very much a wanted child; second, that he was very much a loved child; and third that he had a very special name - they had called him after his great grandfather.  Beyond that the full truth of his identity was known only to God.

In our first reading from Isaiah, the prophet speaks the words of God to each of us:'Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.' I have called you by name. You are mine.

There are always parts of ourselves that remain hidden and unknown - things that we conceal even from ourselves. But God knows us, and loves us, and calls us by name - even if our own name is known to him alone - and by travelling the journey of life in the light of his love, we can begin to discover the full truth of who we really are.




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