As was the tradition in ancient times, I was baptized when I was three weeks old. During the service, the priest asked my parents to name me. My mother, who was holding me, said “Amy Morkan” – the first name for the character from Little Women, and my middle name in honor of her grandfather. Stopping the service, the priest declared that he would not baptize a baby without a saint’s name. Mom got her Irish up, replied FINE, and turned on her heel to walk out of the church. He caught up with her in the vestibule, and behold, I have the name my mother chose. (Perhaps an early sign I was destined for the Protestant part of the world). I hope I have lived into the symbolic identity of my names: Amy, the character who works hard at her vocation, and of Patrick Morkan my great grandfather, whose life changed so dramatically when he emigrated to a new home.
I have been thinking about the process of naming. The name we have influences what people think about us and can even have an impact on our success in life. Many parents choose unique names for their babies, and some adults choose a new name. In the Bible, naming is important. To name someone is to exercise power in determining their identity. Adam names creatures. Parents name children. When the Almighty changes someone’s name, their relationship with God is redefined.
Today we hear that Simon has named Jesus the Messiah (in the Greek of the Gospel, the Christ). He has witnessed the miracles of Jesus, the transfiguration of Jesus. Simon has come to know God more deeply through the teaching of Jesus. In the context of the tradition of the Jews, Simon expects Jesus to establish a kingdom of peace and justice for the Chosen People.
We may find it surprising that Jesus does not want this insight shared with anyone, but it is clear that Jesus seems to want to define his own identity, the Messiah whose context is his cross and suffering. Jesus wants his identity kept as a secret until it is time for him to be revealed to all people as a Messiah who suffers. That tells us something about the mind of Christ, who is decidedly more interested in humble service than in celebrity.
In response to Simon’s acclamation, Jesus gives his friend a new name: Rocky. Well actually Peter. Peter (Kephas in Greek) means rock. On this rock I will build my church. Jesus tells Peter that he is the foundation of the great community of Love that will come to be. There is some irony in this naming, because Peter is hardly a rock. He is consistently clever as a bag of rocks in the gospel stories, rarely understanding what Jesus means. And he is not steadfast. He denies knowing Jesus three times. He is not at the foot of the cross. With the other frightened disciples, he hides after the crucifixion. Peter needs some time to grow into his new name. Only after the arrival of the Holy Spirit does Peter emerge as a rock, preaching the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, with courage grounded in his faith. Jesus’ renaming of Simon is prophetic.
One of the most powerful teachings in the Bible is that God knows our names.
Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. (Isaiah 43.1)
Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you. (Jeremiah 1.5)
He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10.3).
In my home, sometimes I was called by my whole name. All three of them, all in one breath. Occasionally this was because I was in trouble. Occasionally this was because I had done something really good. Only my parents ever did this, probably because only they knew all my names.
God knows all your names. Perhaps the Holy One inspired the name of your birth, or the name of your baptism. I propose to you that God also knows the name that God hopes you will live into. With God, you are always known by name and you are loved. You are holy and cherished in God’s heart.
Close your eyes for a moment. Imagine the voice of God calling you by your whole name.
Imagine God telling you that you are the source of the great Love that is to be.
Imagine the Almighty whispering in your ear that all you can be is completely possible.
Feel the trust that God has in you, for all you are and all you shall be.
The Almighty has called you by your name. May we all live into our full identity.