I have always found names fascinating. And names can be very powerful things. The names that we were given can play a significant role in defining who we are, how we perceive ourselves, and how the world sees us and relates to us.
I myself am known by three different names, by different categories of people in my life. Most of the world knows me as Alison – no surprises there, of course, because that happens to be my correct given name. But members of my birth family would never dream of calling me Alison, unless they felt obliged to do so in polite company – because they all know me by a family nickname that is completely different and wholly unrelated, and it would never occur to them to use anything else. And just to complicate things further, I was known by another version of my name when I was at school and university, into early adulthood – which is still used by those friends and acquaintances who have known me for more than thirty years. And actually I respond very happily to all three names, because at some level I remain all three of those manifestations of me – so long as people from category A, don’t start calling me by one of my other names without my consent – which always feels extremely presumptuous!
Anyway, we may love the name we were given at birth; or hate it; or find that we grow into it over time, or feel the need to jettison it and adopt another name to feel that we can be ourselves. A significant change in our role, or identity, or status may be accompanied by a change of name. Indeed, I can remember when my own children were born, feeling a great weight of responsibility in the task of choosing names for them, because so much seemed to be at stake.
And it is also the case, of course, that the refusal to address someone by their proper name can be a means of dishonouring them; denying them their identity – or even their full humanity. I can well remember when I was still quite young, and was reading about the slave trade at school, being profoundly affected not only by the horrific and unspeakable brutality of slavery, but by the fact that enslaved human beings were deprived even of their names – because it was, of course, standard practice for enslaved people to be called ‘Boy’, or ‘Jacko’, or ‘Scipio’, or some other generic designation, just as dogs were traditionally called things like ‘Fido’, or ‘Rover’, or ‘Rex’. Names matter – they really, really do.
And names regularly have a particular significance in the Bible. It is commonly the case that a change in an individual’s status or significance is marked by a change of name in the stories in Scripture. In our first reading this morning, from the book of Genesis, we heard how Abram (the name means something like ‘Exalted Father’) is given by God the new name Abraham (which means ‘Father of a multitude’), as a sign of God’s covenant and promise to him. At the same time Abram’s wife Sarai is given a new name, too – Sarah. St Paul, the author of today’s reading from Romans, began life as Saul before his conversion to Christ on the Damascus road. In St Matthew’s Gospel we are told how when Simon recognises Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, for the first time, Jesus bestows upon him a new name – Peter (the Greek Petros means ‘rock’): and Jesus goes on to say, ‘On this rock I will build my church.’
The only one whose name eludes us entirely is, appropriately enough, Almighty God. You may remember perhaps that when Moses encounters the angel of the Lord in the burning bush in Exodus Chapter 3, Moses asks God for his name – and receives the reply: ‘I am who I am’ (which can also be translated: ‘I will be what I will be’). Fast forward to Chapter 8 of St John’s Gospel, where the Pharisees are asking Jesus who he claims to be, and Jesus replies to them: ‘Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was … I am.’ Perhaps no surprise that his hearers were so horrified that they picked up stones to throw at him for what they regarded as his blasphemy. Because the implication of what he had just said did not escape them.
But let’s reconnect with the issue of our own names for a moment, because there is one final dimension to this theme in Scripture, in Revelation 2:17. There, the author of Revelation makes reference to the giving of a white stone, with a new name written on it – a name that is known to no-one except the one who receives it.
Now, if I can be allowed to lift that image out of its specific biblical context, I love the idea that we each have a name – a true name – that we have yet to discover. A name that at the present time is known only to God. A name that bears within it the full revelation of our identity – an identity that even we can only glimpse in the present world, but which will be revealed to us in the fullness of time, when we are finally at one with God, and when all our layers of insecurity, self-delusion, and pride, are finally stripped away. I love that thought. I love the idea that whatever our relationship with our given name may happen to be, eventually we shall discover our true name. A name that is at present known only to God.
In my youth, one of the things that always rather put me off the idea of exploring the Christian faith was the fear that if I did so I would somehow end up losing my individuality and my identity. That somehow, everything that was distinctive and unique about me would end up being subsumed under a system that dictated what I did, and what I thought, and how I behaved, and the choices that I made, because for me that is what adopting a religious outlook seemed to imply. And Gospel readings such as the one we have just heard didn’t seem to help – with all that talk of the need to deny yourselves – before taking up your cross and following him.
These days, however, I would interpret that passage in exactly the opposite way: namely that it is precisely through freeing ourselves from the superficial and unnecessary paraphernalia of life, and the barriers that we erect around ourselves to protect our pride, and our fragile egos, and to do so by denying ourselves such things – it is precisely by doing that, that we take the first steps towards discovering our true name; the name that for now is known only to God.
The problem is, of course, that when we take the risk of shedding all that is unnecessary and distracting, by denying ourselves, we have nothing left to protect us from the reality of our shortcomings; our sinfulness; our guilt; our shame. But it is precisely there within that vulnerability that we also recognise the true extent of God’s love and grace.
Yesterday, 27th February, is the date on which the Church commemorates the Anglican priest and poet George Herbert. And I can do no better than to leave you with one of his most famous poems, which takes up the theme at precisely this point:
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes, but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear then, I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.