Lay Preachers

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26  - Psalm 1 - 1 John 5:9-13 - John 17:6-19

When I’m working with groups one of the ways I like to help people get to know one another is to have each of them say their full name aloud, and then talk about why they were given that particular name and how they feel about their name. This exercise reveals a great deal about a person’s family context and history, and also about that person’s sense of self.

For instance, I was named after my paternal grandmother – she was Elise Anna Feyerherm, and I’m Elise Anne. She died when I was only a toddler, so I’m glad to be connected to her in this way. But when I was younger I disliked my name – people could never spell or pronounce my last name, and my first name would often turn into “Elsie.” There’s nothing wrong with the name Elsie, but it’s not my name; and I also grew up during the era of Elsie the Borden Cow. It’s complicated.

Names matter, at least where human beings are concerned. I feel that I don’t really know someone until I know their name. It matters to us that we are known by name and can be addressed as something more than just, “hey, you!”

Names in the bible matter as well. They are more than just labels – they carry great meaning about the identity and vocation of the person who is being named. Names change when a person moves into a new relationship with God – Abram changes to Abraham when he enters into the covenant; Jacob the supplanter becomes Israel, the one who wrestles with God. Simon the fisherman becomes Peter, the rock who is called to gather disciples for the Lord Jesus. Names in the Bible reveal deep identity, and they proclaim God’s intended purposes for those who are called to walk in God’s way.

So it struck me in the gospel reading for today how important God’s name seems to be,
for Jesus and for those for whom he is praying. Jesus prays to God, saying “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world.” A little later he asks God to “protect them in your name,” continuing what Jesus began when he was with the disciples on earth. What is it about the name of God that is so powerful?

The name of God is a potent reality throughout the Bible. When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, he asks for the name of this mysterious presence. Without knowing God’s name, the people will be entering into a relationship with a stranger; if they prayed, they would have to say “hey, you!” The name God reveals to Moses is “I AM WHO I AM” – or, “I cause to be what I cause to be.” God is the source of all that is, the One from whom all things flow and without whom nothing would exist.

God has other names in Jewish tradition – Elohim, El Shaddai, Sabaoth, Adonai, or simply, Shalom. But these are, in a sense, nicknames, because they only hint at part of who and what God is. God’s true name – I AM WHO I AM – is synonymous with being itself, all that has been and is and ever shall be. God’s name is not just a label or convenient hashtag – it gets at the heart of who God is and how God relates to the world.

Jesus says that he has made God’s Name known to the disciples – don’t they already know God’s name? They’ve known the story of Moses since they were children; the Name I AM WHO I AM is all over Torah and has already been imprinted on their hearts. All through the gospel of John, Jesus has been repeating this ancient Name, proclaiming, “I am…I am the bread of life…I am the light of the world…I am the good shepherd…before Abraham was, I am…I am the resurrection and the life.” This ancient name of God has not changed – so what is different? Perhaps it is the One who is making that name known: Jesus.

In the gospel of John, it is not the human Jesus we encounter first, but the Word – God’s logos or creative wisdom that is in all things and through which all things have been created. The Word is from God, with God – the Word is God, from before all time. And this Word, become fully human in Jesus of Nazareth, is the One who is making known the Name of God, and who is lifting up the disciples in prayer, asking that they be cherished and protected.

So it comes down to this: the One who is interceding on behalf of human beings, to God, is God. God, Jesus the incarnate Word, is praying to God the Father, for us! In doing this, I think that Jesus is making known another of God’s names – the Name that will gather the gentiles into the ancient covenant and will define us as Christians. That name is the Name of God the Incarnate Word – God the Son. It is why we sing, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.”

Throughout the entire Easter season we have been learning of this divine Name. On Easter day, we learned that, like Mary Magdalene, we could call God by the name Jesus, our Rabbi. The following week Thomas taught us that amid all his scars we could call Jesus our Lord, and our God. Throughout these fifty days we have learned other divine Names: the Name of Messiah, in whom forgiveness has been proclaimed. We learned that Jesus shares with God the name of Good Shepherd; that God is called both Vine and the Vinegrower; and that the Name of Love binds us all together. Next Sunday, on the day of Pentecost, we will learn to call God by another Name – the Advocate, or the Comforter – the Holy Spirit.

Names matter – they reveal history, and identity, and even destiny. As he prays for his disciples, Jesus is hinting at, then and now, a Name for God that manifests above all the power of Love. This Name is the name of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ. Suffice it to say that this Name doesn’t define God so much as it provides a starting place for our exploration. It reminds us that we are in communion with a God who, as the source of all that is, loved the world so much as to become fully a part of it and who is continually embracing and transforming that world.

So here is the question that matters the most: If this is the divine Name that Jesus has made known to us, the Name in which we live and move and have our being, then what does that make us, who are created in the image and likeness of God and bear the Name of the Christ? I think it makes us people who are both in need of prayer and protection, and those who, like God Incarnate, pray for and protect the world. We are, like the Incarnate Word, both those who suffer and those who seek to heal the world’s suffering. We are, like Christ himself, called to be both receivers and givers of love, in one continuous and eternal circle.

We are, like the Word made flesh, in the world, yet not of it – vulnerable to pain and sorrow, and because of that able to hold others up in their anguish. God’s Name – the Name of Jesus Christ – reveals to us our way of holiness, and sends us into the world with the same holiness in our lives.

As we are invited to communion, we hear the words, “Holy things for God’s holy people.” We come to the table to know more deeply the Name of God who is Jesus Christ. We come to be filled with God and to grow in holiness. Happy are we who are called to this supper; happy are we who have learned that God’s Name in Jesus is Love – Love that gives everything for the life of the world.

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