April 3, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here.
When my older son was in third grade, he decided to change his name. The name he had been given at birth was no longer an option. A girl in his class had the same name. It was spelled differently, but it sounded the same. They were both Gail. And that would not do. So for several months, he tried out different options. The one that lasted the longest was “Spike.” Over the summer, the name thing seemed to be less of an issue, but when school began in the fall, I wondered what he would want to call himself. I didn’t have to wait long to find out. On the afternoon of the first day of fourth grade, I got a phone call from my son’s teacher.
It seems she had distributed index cards to each of her students at the beginning of the day, and had asked them to write across the top of the card their full names, as those names appeared in her official records. Then she said, “Underneath your full name, write the name you want me to call you. For example, if your name is Robert but you want me to call you Bobby, write it down so I’ll know.” My son had written “Gail Young II” across the top, and underneath that, he’d written, “Kevin.” The teacher wanted to know where this name had come from. I had to think a minute. It did sound familiar. Then it struck me. Kevin is Bruce’s middle name. My son, Gail, had decided to name himself after his step-dad, Bruce. That name has stuck, more or less, for more than 25 years.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare’s Romeo once asked Juliet. While a rose by any other name might smell as sweet, in the Bible, a name has great significance. A name carries with it the essence of a person’s character. Your name defines what kind of person you are. But what happens when your name changes? As we move from the shock of Easter morning into the beginning of the Christian era, we find a group of Jesus’ followers who struggle to define their identity. Like my son, who had to try on several names before he found one that fit the way he saw himself and wanted others to see him, these early followers of Jesus didn’t know quite what to call themselves.
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on them and galvanized their movement into one that could be named. On that day, when the 120 or so who had been gathered in an upper room since the resurrection headed out into the streets proclaiming the good news in every imaginable language, the people of Jerusalem thought they were crazy. Or drunk.
In his very first sermon, Peter tells the crowds in no uncertain terms that these believers are not drunk, but filled with the Holy Spirit. That the truth they are proclaiming is this: Jesus was Messiah, and the religious leaders had murdered him. But that was not the end of the story. Jesus was alive, and these people who were preaching to them had seen him with their own eyes after he had risen from the dead. What’s more, Peter told them, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Acts 2:21)
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. – Acts 2:37-47
“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (v 21). Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ,” (v 38) Peter preaches. What did this mean to the people who heard it? What did calling on The Name and being baptized in The Name of Jesus Christ really entail? Through the next few chapters of the book of Acts, we find miracles being performed in Jesus’ name and the apostles preaching in Jesus’ name, to the point that the religious leaders start to get worried. In chapter 4, when Peter and John are brought before the high priest and other leaders for healing a man, the high priest’s only question is this: “By what power or by what name are you doing these things?” (4:7) Even the high priest recognizes that whatever the apostles do in Jesus’ name, they are doing it by Jesus’ power.
A name contains more than just the essence of a person’s character, then. A Name gives all the power and authority of the person who carries that name to anyone who claims it. So the only answer Peter and John can give to the high priest is “let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. … There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:10, 12)
The name of Jesus carries with it the power and authority of Christ. When we become followers of Christ, our name changes, and we can call upon the power and authority of the Son of God, who gives us that new name. We take on the essence of Christ’s character as we identify ourselves with him.
And here’s something interesting about names in the New Testament. Beginning in the book Acts, the twelve disciples are no longer called “disciples.” For the first time in the Bible, these twelve are called “apostles.” The whole community of believers may be referred to as disciples, but the Twelve have been given a new name. Their name has changed to reflect what Jesus asks them to do. It reflects the character of whom they have become since Jesus sent them out after his resurrection. A disciple is a student, a follower, but an apostle is one who is sent. We who follow Jesus are also sent by Jesus, into the world, to make more disciples.
And there’s one more important name change that we find in Acts:
Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.” (Acts 11:19-26)
They’d called themselves “followers of The Way” in Jerusalem, or disciples of Jesus or apostles of Christ. They’d called themselves “believers” and all these names were good ones, drawing on the essence of what it means to follow Jesus. But this growing community of faith had to suffer persecution, be scattered like seed, be planted and take root outside Jerusalem, outside Judaism, before it could come up with a name that would stick. It was among the Gentiles in Antioch, eleven chapters into the book of Acts, that the followers of Jesus were first named “Christian.”
What name describes the essence of who you are as a child of God? By what power and under what authority do your actions identify you? Claiming the name “Christian” is no light matter. In some parts of the world, even today, claiming that name can put your life in danger. Is it worth the risk?
What name best describes our church? ‘First’ seems to be pretty important to us, especially when we remember that there was opposition to establishing a church here in the 1850s. Our HCI report recommends that we shape our identity around the theme of hospitality. Not the kind of hospitality that just serves lemonade and cookies, but the kind that offers care and welcome to members of our community who can find it nowhere else.
Hospitality comes from the same root word as hospital – a place where hurting people are cared for and find healing. But a church offers this care and healing in the strong name of Jesus, and that makes our brand of hospitality unique. We don’t just reach out to help people because we think it’s a good thing to do, or because we want to be seen as socially conscious. We do it in the name of Jesus, embodying the character and essence of Christ to offer spiritual healing as well as physical care.
As we try on different names for ourselves, re-forming our identity around the idea of hospitality, we might think what adjectives better describe us than “First.” Maybe “open” or “caring” or even “blessing” United Methodist Church. As we open our Lord’s Table, we welcome all who seek Christ to partake of this Sacrament. As we open our hearts, we show love to people no one else will love. As we open our minds to God’s possibilities, we allow for differences in thinking as long as this central truth endures: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. As we open our doors, not just to welcome others into the fold, but to go out as apostles, we are sent into the world to be Christ’s hands and feet.
This evening at 5 pm, every voting member of this congregation has an opportunity to claim the strong name of Jesus, as we vote on the Recommendations given to us by our Healthy Church Initiative consulting team. Those recommendations are to Claim a Brand Identity – that’s just a 21st century version of the word “name” – Around Hospitality, to Create an Environment for Pentecost to Happen, to Boost Sunday Morning, to Build Relational Bridges within our community, and to Develop a Future-Focused Governance.
Each of these recommendations carries with it a number of suggestions for how we might go about making them a reality. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of this report and wonder how on earth we can do all these things, given our existing resources. I will tell you right up front that we can’t. We shouldn’t depend on our own existing resources, our own strength. This is a God-sized vision for us as a congregation. We need to remember that God’s already got this. It’s in our weakness that God’s strength is made known. If we claim the name of Jesus, and ask him to do this mighty work in his name, he will provide us with all that we need to carry it out in his power and his authority.
There’s a gospel song by Robert Ray that comes to mind as I think about the future we have together, if we will stay centered on Christ as faithful disciples, and allow ourselves to be sent by Christ as apostles into our community to share good news. It goes like this:
He Never Failed Me Yet (Robert Ray)
I will sing of God’s mercy: Every day, every hour He gives me power.
I will sing and give thanks to Thee for all the dangers, toils and snares
that He has brought me out.
He is my God and I’ll serve Him no matter what the test
Trust and never doubt; Jesus will surely bring you out
He never failed me yet…
He never failed me, he never failed me yet. He isn’t going to start now, friends. Let us call on the strong name of Jesus, and boldly claim the name Christian. Together, let us head into the future Christ calls us toward, confident that he will not fail us, as long as we believe and act in Christ’s name. Let us approach this Table in the full assurance that this Bread and Cup extend to each of us the essence of that character, the power and authority contained in the Name above all names, Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.