March 1, 2015
"New Names for Everyone"
“New Names for Everyone”
March 1, 2015
God said: “No longer shall your name be
Abram, but your name shall be Abraham . . . As for . . . your wife, you shall
not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.”
Our names say something about who we are
and in some sense, even shape who we are and how others see us. I remember a
conversation that took place—I think at a Council meeting—early after I arrived
here, seven and a half years ago. Someone asked: “What should we call you?” And
I replied, as I have every time I’ve been asked that question: “You can simply
call me Bill. That’s what I like. And if there is occasion to speak more
formally, ‘Reverend Lovin’ will work.”
People nodded and smiled. And then I
added: “Just please don’t call me ‘Pastor Bill.’”
I knew I had come to the right church
when one member quickly replied: “Oh, thank goodness!”
Here and there in scripture we encounter
stories of people whose names change when they encounter God in a significant
Jesus tells the
impetuous Simon, who would later deny that he even knew Jesus: “You will be called ‘Peter,’” the Greek for rock .
The Hebrew name of Saul becomes the Greek “Paul” when God calls him to
bring the good news of Jesus to Gentiles.
This morning we heard of the new names
given when God chooses Abram and Sarai.
Why Abram? Why Sarai? The question is
neither asked nor answered in the story from Genesis. When Paul later turned
his thoughts to this event, he understood that God’s call was in no way
connected to any good works they might have done or to anything else that might
have earned God’s favor. The choice speaks of grace.
God calls us as we are.
And because this is God’s call, it means that we are not left as we are. The call of
God means change in our lives, change in who we are.
In the case of Abram and Sarai, the call
of God is a radical one.
The childless Abram, whose name carries
the ironic meaning of exalted ancestor
now becomes Abraham, the ancestor of a
multitude . Sari is to be called Sarah, that is, princess . When someone receives a new name it is as though the old
one is no longer sufficient to describe who they are becoming, what they will
do. The new name speaks of the new possibility in their life.
It’s been said that Sarah’s name change
is particularly significant. While several men in the Bible are given new names
by God in recognition of their spiritual transformation Sarah is the only woman
accorded this honor. Her change of name reflects her elevated status after God
declares that she alone will be the matriarch of this clan, and that God’s
covenant will be with her son.
These new identities are part of the
covenant that God makes. And it would be passed on to each succeeding
generation. Whether slaves in Egypt or inhabitants of a great nation, they will
be those people bound by a covenant with the God of Abraham and Sarah.
There’s one curious part of the story of God speaking to Abram. God
says, “I am God almighty.” Old words to us, but they were new—unheard of—to
Abram. As Abram and Sari become Abraham and Sarah, the very name of God changes
as well. “I am El Shaddai ,” God says—not,
as many Bibles translate it “God almighty” but literally “God, the One of the
Mountains.” This new name does not come with an easy interpretation, but it
suggests at least grandeur, strength, endurance.
The God who gives new names is also the God who will be known by
different names, the God whom no name will completely encompass. The God who
gives new names will continue to be known in many new and previously unheard of
with Abraham and Sarah is a covenant with all humankind as well, for God
promises to bless all the families of the earth through them.
In many ways, the whole story of
scripture is the story of blessing—of God looking upon creation and calling it
good; of God giving human beings all good things so that we might care for
creation; of Abraham being blessed and through him all people, including, by
God’s grace in Christ, even you and me.
Naomi Rosenblatt says that blessing is
the unconditional love that a parent confers upon a child that makes that child
feel protected, whole, and connected—able to go out into the world with a sense
of purpose and responsibility. Those who have experienced such love and those
who seek to give it to their own children would probably agree that this is
indeed what makes for well-being, peace, and success in individuals.
When Paul tells the Christians in
Rome—and through them tells us: “Love one another with mutual affection,” he is
speaking of the blessing we give to one another, commending the loving respect that is found
in families at their best—and often even in families not at their best. John
Calvin had the sense that Paul was grasping for words here, unable to find a
sufficient way to “express the ardor of affection with which we are to embrace
one another.” Created in God’s image, we are called to live up to our high
human potential. And part of our humanity is the active desire to build a world
in which all people might live in peace and enjoy their days.
We are called to lives that show mercy,
lives that are engaged in the struggle for justice in the world.
We are called to live as though this
world is the creation of a loving God and that we are stewards of that
creation, called to care for the land and water and air.
We are called to seek and work toward
the peace and wholeness that God offers—not just in our hearts, but in our
community, in our nation, and especially now, in our world.
Being a part of a congregation helps
with this. As a church we have a long memory and we can look toward the distant
future. What we are doing together here is not simply about the coming month or
even the coming year. We dare to keep moving into an unknown future because we
remember that God has been with us through all the prosperity and all the
adversity of the past. This community helps us to take the long view needed in
We’re moving through times when the road ahead is not clear, sometimes
it seems as if the road isn’t even there. Old names no longer seem to fit. Old
possibilities seem to have vanished.
We are becoming something different. We are being called to new ways of
living. What the future will look like, no one knows.
This is a time to listen carefully ,
for God is still speaking to us, calling us by new names. This is a time to look closely , for God is still working
in our lives and in the world, opening up new opportunities and challenges.
The first followers of Jesus were
Jewish, as was Jesus. They were children of God’s covenant with Abraham and
Sarah. As the good news spread to Gentiles, those who followed Jesus claimed
that through his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus had expanded the covenant
of God to allow all nations, all people to participate in it.
So it was that one Jewish follower of
Jesus, Saul—or Paul—could write: “This is why it depends on faith, in order
that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all the descendants of
Abraham and Sarah—not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who
share the faith of Abraham and Sarah, the ancestors of us all.”
That God would bring into a covenant
relationship not only those who were the physical children but also those who
were the “spiritual” children of Abraham and Sarah was a mystery to
Paul—something wonderful, but not completely understood.
It did not and does not mean that Christians
have replaced the Jewish people, as if God would break a promise once made. On
the contrary, the covenant that God made was not broken. But now those who were
once aliens and strangers to the covenant promise—you and me—are, as Paul put
it, “engrafted” into the people of God through the life, death, and
resurrection of Jesus.
When we respond to the love of God that
comes to us, we become new people. We are part of a new creation. We change,
not only by the work that we do, but also by God working in us.
Why would God choose you? Why would God
choose me? Maybe we shouldn’t even bother with such questions. Certainly no
answer is given. At some point, however, we, too, received a new name. At some
point the name “Christian” came to be the name given to us.
Now, I confess some discomfort with that
name at times. I often find myself hesitant to use it because for so many
people “Christian” has become a label for a restricting, excluding approach to
life and faith. Others in this congregation have expressed a similar uneasiness
with our name—as though we have to say with apology: “I’m a Christian, but not that kind of Christian.”
“Christian” originally might have been a
term of reproach. It meant something like “little Christ” or “Christ-person.” My
dictionary tells me that colloquially “Christian” has come to mean a “decent,
respectable person.” I hope we can do better than that.
Maybe we can reclaim some of the goodness of that word as we love one
another—not just those in this room or in this congregation—but as we seek to
bring more life— blessing —to the
By the grace of God we are called Christian.
By that same grace
we move into the unknown, knowing that God always fills the future with new
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