As some of you know, I am fascinated with the meanings of names. We have lost that sense of our names being something more than just a way to refer to that person over there. There are still places in this world where a name is chosen for a child in hopes of claiming some characteristic for them or acknowledging or celebrating something they achieved or lived through. If you were here for Breakfast Church on New Year’s Day, you’ll remember that we did an activity looking up the meanings of our names. (I still love that the meaning offered for Bernadette was “brave as a bear”!)
If you don’t know what your name means, I encourage you to look it up.
In the Bible, names OFTEN have meaning, and we sometimes lose the subtleties of the story by not knowing what the name means. Adam gets his name because he is taken from adamah, the dust. Eve is given her name because she is the source of life, Chavvah. Abram, “high father” becomes Abraham, “Father of Multitudes,” when he enters into the covenant with Yahweh. His son is named Isaac, “he laughs,” because his mother Sarah (“princess”) laughed when she heard the impossible news that she would bear a son in her old age. Isaac names his sons Esau (“hairy”) and Jacob (“Heel grasper”—an idiom for cheat or liar). Imagine going through life with the name Cheat…Makes you understand some of Jacob’s underhandedness a bit better doesn’t it? He was just living up to his name.
And then he has that incredible encounter with God on the ford of the river Jabbok, and he gets a NEW name, a God-given name, “Israel”—one who has wrestled with God and survived. A name that gives him a new way of seeing his life’s purpose. He didn’t settle easily into his new name, did a lot of Jacob-worthy stuff in his old age. It’s hard to become someone new.
Today in our readings, we heard about two of God’s children receiving names.
The first is the story of Moses-in-the-bulrushes. Pay attention to who gets a name in this story, and who doesn’t. WHICH Pharaoh is never specified, and his daughter is not given a name—but those two lowly Hebrew midwives are Shiphrah, “Beautiful” and Puah, “Splendid.” At this point in the story we don’t know the name of Moses’ parents or his sister. Only those faithful midwives, and that little three-month-old baby. Did Moses have a different name before he was drawn out of the water? We don’t know. The text tells us that Pharoah’s daughter named him Moses because she drew him out of the water—that would suggest that she gave him a Hebrew name. Most scholars believe that it would be more likely she gave him the Egyptian name Mose, which means “son.” Part of his life’s work was to let go of the privilege and status that his Egyptian name gave him, and come to accept the Hebrew meaning of it—“to draw out”—and to act on it to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, into the Promised Land.
The story wants us to understand that Moses’ purpose in life was clear from the time of his infancy. His job was to discover how he was supposed to live into his name.
As I said, there are plenty of instances in the Bible where a person is given a NEW name, and our Gospel reading is one of the most famous.
It occurs in Caesarea Philippi, and that in itself is interesting. Caesarea Philippi was a completely ROMAN place. You would not expect one of the most important religious conversations between Jesus and the disciples to occur THERE. But that was where they could get away from all the outside influences long enough to really sit and talk.
Mediterranean culture at that time was “dyadic,” meaning a person took his sense of himself, who he was, from the opinions of other people. This can be very hard for individualistic Americans to understand—and indeed, I spend a LOT of time trying to convince people not to worry what other people think of them, as long as they are doing what God wants them to do. None of us can really fully understand what’s going on here. Jesus isn’t give them an orthodoxy test—he is really, truly asking them to help him understand himself. Remember, this story follows right after last week’s reading, in which a woman challenged Jesus to reconsider his mission, to understand that God’s work in him was for ALL people, not just the people of Israel.
So he asks who people say he is. And the disciples give him all the answers—some say he’s John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Others say Elijah, whose return would mean the Messiah was near. Others say Jeremiah or a prophet.
And Jesus isn’t satisfied. He knows there’s something they’re not getting. So rather than look to the wider community for a sense of himself, he looks to those who know him best. He turns to his disciples and says, “Who do YOU say that I am?”
A few years ago I read a book called Imaginary Jesus. It is an amusing story of a man named Matt who has to reject all the imaginary, incomplete Jesuses, in order to get to the real answer to that question of who Jesus really is. The character who is seeking the real Jesus notes at one point that our imaginary Jesuses are kind of like superheroes who show up in a moment of crisis and then disappear when we don’t need them anymore, but that “the real Jesus is inconvenient…he asks for unreasonable things.” And in the book it is Simon Peter who helps Matt see through all the false images until he finally experiences the presence of the REAL Jesus (which he experiences, incidentally, in the Eucharist). The same Simon who gives Jesus the right answer in today’s Gospel reading.
Simon answers, “You are the Messiah…the Son of the Living God.”
And for the first time Jesus, whose name means “God delivers us,” is given the title “Messiah.”
The problem was that among those people, “Messiah” had come to mean something quite specific and not quite what Jesus understands his task to be. He does NOT understand himself as that generation’s Moses, leading the people out from under the oppression of an empire. Something doesn’t quite click until Simon adds, “Son of the Living God.”
Simon has finally lived up to his name, “the one who hears.” Simon, who we come to know as Peter, has overcome all his own stumbling, bumbling stupidity to get it RIGHT. It won’t last long—next week Jesus will chastise him and call him Satan—but at the moment when it was needed, Simon got it RIGHT.
And in response, Jesus gives him a new name, a name that means “rock.” In Greek, that’s Peter, in Aramaic, that’s Cephas. My friend RJ has done a translation of the New Testament in which he has Jesus rename Simon “Rocky” so that we get the sense that it was a kind of affectionate nickname for him, one that names the best in him, that solid foundation of faith that will weather the worst storms—but also reminds him of that episode you heard a few weeks go, when he sunk like a stone because he took his eyes of Jesus.
Jesus is offering him a chance to see himself in a new way, but it takes old Rocky Peter a while to figure it out, to get it right. Just like Jacob. Just like me. Just like a lot of you, I bet.
It can take a while to discover our true God-given name. It can take a while to figure out how to live into that name, once we’ve learned what it is. The blessing is that it’s never too late; every day God is offering you the chance to become who God created you to be. Every day, God is offering you a chance to discover and live into the name God has prepared for you. What is that name? Be one who listens, and you will discover it. And be prepared, because as you begin to ask God who you are, who you’re supposed to be, you might discover a different Jesus than the one you thought you knew. You might discover that he asks hard questions, like “Who do YOU say that I am?”
How you answer that question may change your name, and it may change your life. Amen.