Matthew 16:13-20 - What's in a Name?
Preached at St Mark's Church NorthEnd, Portsmouth, on Sunday 29th June.
(Apologies for the late posting of this...I've had internet problems)
When I was a lad, I was not the most popular boy in the school. There were a lot of reasons for this, now I look back on it. I was tall and gangly, and had a face covered in acne. I was also the only musician in the school, which marked me out as rather different from the rest of my rather macho classmates. I was also extremely allergic to sport...and was always the last one to be picked for any team game...mainly because I was rubbish at it.
I did once demonstrate a bit of energy on the rugby field mind you. I can remember that day very clearly. There I was, in the middle of the scrum, when the ball came my way. I picked it up, and ran as fast as my lanky legs would carry me. I pelted down the field, towards the goal, knocking aside a little Jehovah's Witness called Ellis Fisher (bless him), and kept on going straight and unopposed to the goal. In the background, I could hear my team shouting 'Go on! Go on!'. I crossed the line, and victoriously dumped the ball right in the middle of the goal...turned round...to realise that I'd run to the wrong end of the field, scored a try for the opposing team, and that my team-mates had actually been yelling Stop! Stop! (which sounds a bit like 'Go on!') when you are gasping for breath!
As a result of all this...and the fact that I was, frankly, an insufferable big-head...I got called rather a lot of nasty names...very few of which are repeatable from a pulpit. And often I would come home very upset. My poor parents did their best to try to help me cope, including making frequent use of that old saying, "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me".
The trouble is, that old saying is a load of rubbish, isn't it? The reality is that name-calling does hurt, doesn't it? In some ways, a name can be even more hurtful than a punch or a push in the playground. Our names are part of who we are...they are a key part of our identity. And when someone replaces our identity with a horrible word like "idiot" or "scum" or any other number of unrepeatable names, it hurts. It creates what psychologists would call a 'dissonance' between who we think we are, and who others perceive us to be - and that dissonance physically hurts.
For example, when I think of the name 'Tom' it carries with it a whole load of associations...most of them positive. Its the name that Clare uses to call me to dinner (which is always a positive experience for me!). Its the name my parents and family use on birthday cards and christmas cards, and when they ring me or visit me. Its the name I used when I was confirmed, and then ordained, and now recently inducted into this Team. So, the word 'Tom' has a positive ring about it - its part of my positive identity..along with many other names that I use, like Dad, and Uncle.
Thomas - on the other hand - creates a rather different sense of identity. That's the name that Clare, and my mother, use when I am in trouble. When I hear "Thomas!" from the other end of the garden, I tend to think "Uh oh; what have I done now?!"
So names are important - and they were even more important in biblical times. The bible is packed full of examples of people changing their names in order to mark a change or transformation in their deep-down sense of who they are. One of the most famous examples is that of Abram, the father of the Hebrew nation, having his name changed by God to Abraham. According the footnotes in the bottom of my bible, the word Abram meant, simply, 'exhalted Father' - a term of respect for an old man. But Abraham meant 'father of many', and was given as a sign that Abraham was to become the father of an entire nation.
And then, in today's Gospel reading, we hear Jesus changing the name of his chief disciple from Simon, to Peter (or Cephas). The name 'Simon' meant 'to be heard, or to have a good reputation'. It was probably chosen by his parents because they wanted him to be an upright member of his local community. 'Peter' on the other hand, means 'rock' - as I'm sure you know. And, said Jesus, 'on this Rock I will build my church'.
Imagine that. Imagine that Jesus took you to one side and said to you, "I'm changing your name. Your name isn't Doris, or Edna, or Bill, or Fred anymore. I'm giving you a new name...a new identity. From now on, you are going to be known as 'the dependable one', 'the generous one', 'the loving one', 'the reliable one' - or some such encouraging phrase. It would tend to alter your whole perception of yourself, wouldn't it? It would perhaps cause you to ponder "why has Jesus called me that? Could it be that he sees potential in me that even I haven't seen yet?". Perhaps that is exactly what Peter thought. Peter, who was just groping towards an understanding of exactly who Jesus was, and of what that knowledge might mean for his own life, suddenly finds that Jesus has described him as a 'Rock' on which an entire church is going to be built. Boy! I'll bet that was encouraging for him!
Names in the bible, then, are much more than just a word which helps to sort out who is who. Names are words which contain a sense of the full character of the person being named. Some names were also believed to have power in and of themselves - because of whom they are attached to. So, to 'call on the name of the Lord' was to invoke the power of the Lord himself. To pray 'in the name of Jesus' is to pray in the presence and reality of Jesus.
But what does all this mean for us I wonder?
Someone came to see me this week - I won't say who, because our discussion was private - but one of the interesting questions they asked me was 'what does it mean for us to be in a team, rather than a parish?'. They were pondering - trying to get a hold of this new word which has been introduced in only the last year or so. I've been thinking about that question a bit, since we spoke - and I think I'm beginning to grope my way towards an answer.
Who are 'the Team'? YOU ARE. The team is not Bev, Di, Ruth and me - we are just the co-ordinators, the animators, the leaders whose task is to hear what God is saying through all of us, and then to give shape to it. The team is not the Churchwardens, or the PCC. They are the people who take the tough decisions, and the legal decisions, on behalf of all of us. They are the custodians, and the vision-holders for us all. But we, all of us together, are the people who make up the North End Team Ministry. We describe ourselves as a 'Team' - that's our collective name for ourselves. And its a word which has power...if we will let it shape us. Its a word which implies working together, using all of the talents which we have; the talents of our ordained ministers, yes, but much more importantly the talents of everyone here. The word Team is meant to convey a sense that it is not up to me, or any of the ordained ministers, as to how we move forward in this place...its up to all of us. A team is a group of people who pull together for a common purpose. A team is a group of people who support and lift up their weakest members, and enable them also to be full members of the team.
We are the people who have been called out, by our Lord, to be salt and light to his world. We are called out to give flavour to the world, and to bring light to its darkest places. We are people who have been called out to be the body of Christ - Jesus' hands and feet to a world which desperately needs him. We are people who have been called out to live in community with our brothers and sisters - joining our hands and feet to their eyes, ears, mouths, noses, and even their knobbly knees! The body of Christ is at its most effective when it is the whole body of Christ - the complete Team, able to use all of its talents in the task of sharing the love of Jesus to the community of North End.
That's why this word, the name, 'Team' matters. That's what I believe we have been called to be, and to do - a team. That is the rock on which we are going to invite Jesus to build his church here in NorthEnd, Hilsea and North Copnor. And that's the vision that I hope and pray we can all embrace.