15 August – What’s in a Name?

View or print as a PDF

Pentecost 12

Ephesians 3:7-21
John 6:51-58

In a sentence
God gives us a new name by making us part of God’s own family

Every one of us has been given a name. Some of us have had the responsibility of giving names to others, and some of have changed their name at some time. Clearly, we need names. Yet recent changes in how we name ourselves indicate that the seemingly innocuous necessity of having a name is rather more charged than it first appears.

It was not so long ago that a child would almost certainly be named to honour a grandparent or an aunt or a king, so that names like John or George or Mary or Elizabeth have had a very long history and been quite common (at least, in Western English-speaking society). This is not because they necessarily sound nice or mean much in themselves, but because they placed us within a certain family, tradition and culture. The same kind of thing happens when women change their family name on being married.

Today, however, a kid can be called anything from Apple to Tiger Lily to Zeppelin, or once common names will be assigned with a spelling no one could possibly guess. This probably reflects a shift from the desire to be associated with another named person – a name as giving communal identity – to a desire to stand out from all other names: naming as individuation. In a similar way, an increasing number of women retain their family-of-origin name when marrying. Retaining a family name after marriage claims an identity which is not to be reduced who your husband is.

These shifts in naming reflect changes in what we think we are, how we stand in relation to each other, and where our value comes from. How I name myself reflects what (and who) I think I am: our names place us, locate us.

The implication of this is that the ‘same’ thing can be quite a different thing if its name is changed. Naming is a process of association – a process of linking one thing with another – and these associations matter for the reality of a thing – for our reality.

Paul touches upon a naming in the prayer at the heart of today’s reading, where he identifies God as ‘the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name’. A more literal translation would run like this: ‘… I bow my knees before the Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth takes its name’. This language is ingloriously patriarchal but is important for understanding what Paul means. His intention is not to be patriarchal, despite all the possible abuses which might be built upon the language of ‘Father’ for God in the New Testament. What Paul is doing is challenging the way in which we name ourselves, and undermining patriarchy along the way.

Paul wrote in a time when who we were, what was expected of us and what we might ourselves expect out of life was starkly determined by what might broadly be called our ‘family’. That these families – whether clans or religions or nationalities – were very often patriarchal was just how it happened to be. But precisely because it was that way, Paul takes the ‘fatherhood’ of our race, culture, clan, religion and nation – our assumed way of naming ourselves – and contrasts this with what it means to live under the ‘fatherhood’ of the God of Israel, the God of Jesus Christ. Paul does then what he always does: he calls us to consider whether our lives are built upon what God sees in us and calls us to be, or whether they are built upon what we call ourselves and see in ourselves. Which name and corresponding set of relationships is most fundamentally ours?

We believe, of course, that we already know who we are, and that the real question is only what we do. This is why, when it comes to matters of belief, we are more interested in action than in talk, more interested in doing than in ‘merely’ being. In the three chapters up to this point in the letter Paul has been giving an extended and rich account of what God has done for Jew and Gentile alike. This tells us who we are – we for whom God has done this – and what we have become through God’s work.

With today’s passage we come to the turning point in the epistle, and from here Paul moves to the question of ‘how then should we live?’ Yet the ‘then’ matters: how therefore, should we live? To understand what we are to do, we have to understand what has gone before – Paul’s account of who we are – else the ‘therefore’ makes no sense. Paul means that to ‘do’ properly, we must ‘be’ properly – we must know our true name.

But this is not easy, and so Paul is moved to prayer:

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. [NRSV]

Paul prays here that we might learn the name by which God would call us. To name ourselves is both necessary, and only a guess at what we are from the vantage point at which we stand. Paul prays therefore that we might yet comprehend – might yet see – with breadth and length and height and depth, that we might know what surpasses knowledge, coming to know more than can be known.

To know more than can be known is to be. Knowing how God renames us is to become something different: children. For God’s naming of us does not just re-label us, it makes us what we are called – children. We hear what Jesus hears: ‘You are my children; today I have ‘begotten’ you’ (cf. Ps 2, Mark 1).

The manner of love God has shown us is one which does not simply ‘forgive’ or ‘heal’ or ‘promise’ – does not merely re-label us – but claims us as children, as those who have in common nothing other than God’s love, and Jesus as Brother, and the Holy Spirit who makes this so.

In our lives many things make us who we are: what my father did to me, what I experienced in school, what my children haven’t done for me, or that I don’t have children, or where I work. Even if they are not the heart of what I am, these things are important because they mark me off as someone unique, for no one else has experienced what I’ve experienced, felt what I’ve felt. These things are part of my name, and give colour to the history which my name brings to mind.

But these details are not yet me, and neither can they be the final ground of my relationship to you, for you are different in the same ways.

Yet our difference from each other is not the most basic thing we have in common; this is the argument of the radical but unreflective inclusivism which abounds at the moment. Rather, as we are children of our parents, children of our age, children of what has happened to us, so now, by God’s grace, all our families are brought together under the one name as sons, daughters, children and siblings.

The miracle at the heart of Christian belief is not this or that wonder or spectacle – whether the healing of a blind person or the raising of a dead one. Rather, the heart is what these ‘lesser’ miracles refer to: that the secret of what we really are in all our living and dying is that God would make us his children, that our naming of our many and varied lives might be coloured by God’s name for us, a naming which declares that we are God’s, and God is ours.

This is the gospel: that, whatever has been the quality of the ‘fatherhood’ or ‘motherhood’ we have known, this God embraces, surpasses and perfects. We have a new name.

This is indeed something far more than we could ask or imagine – being filled with all the fullness of God – and yet the power of God is present to make it happen.

This fullness is the meaning and goal of all that we are and do.

Let us then, be and do as the children of this God, sisters and brothers in this family, that all human families might become one.