About a month ago the Mennonite Weekly Review carried an essay by a pastor in Kansas named Bruce Bradshaw about his participation in the recent efforts of Mennonite Central Committee called “New Wine, New Wineskins.” (March 30th, 2009 edition) This process is designed to get feedback from MCC’s constituents about the future ministry of the organization. The issue that the essay highlights is MCC’s use of the phrase “In the name of Christ” that accompanies their ministry work. Labels that are placed on canned turkey that MCC ships all over the world, for example, include the words “In the name of Christ.”
Here are some of the comments in the essay: “In an assignment to tell what excited us about the work of MCC, the people at my table cited ministering “In the name of Christ,” which they believed was a non-negotiable aspect of MCC’s ministry. Their commitment reminded me of Shakespeare’s Juliet, who asked Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Would MCC’s ministry, without mentioning the name, be any different?
I fully support ministering in the name of Christ. However, the name needs interpretation. Otherwise, it will be misunderstood and become meaningless. When I pasted labels on cans of turkey for MCC’s meat canning ministry, someone commented that the turkey would taste the same with or without Christ. The taste might be the same, but the meaning will change.
Serving people in the name of Christ makes a difference, but we have to interpret the difference.”
This essay came to mind when I read through the passages from Acts and 1 John in this week’s lectionary. Acts seems to be full of different instances when the disciples are acting in Jesus’ name. Jesus had told them “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” In the case of Acts 4, Peter and John had come upon a man born lame from birth who was being carried in to the temple during the hour of prayer to beg for alms. The rush hour traffic was probably a good time for this, not to mention he would have been catching people at a time when they were feeling the most pious, since there does seem to be dissonance between going to pray and then immediately walking by a person asking for change. After walking up to him, on their way to prayer, in a moment of inspiration, Peter had looked at him, and said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” And the lame man gets up, and walks, and dances around, much to people’s astonishment. Later, Peter and John are arrested for being the source of all the commotion that this caused. They are questioned, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” to which Peter answers “this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth….there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
In this story and other of the apostles, it is the name of Jesus that takes center state. Those who use the name, or witness to the name, seem to carry the extraordinary power to do the same things Jesus himself did.
If you read the email on Friday then you have had a little warning about what I would like to try and do with the sermon. I think the Menno Weekly Review article does a good job of raising some good questions, important questions, and I think those questions are best addressed when we are able to hear from different people’s experiences. How do we use the name of Jesus, or Christ, or Christianity? What difference does it make, if any? What does it mean to us to be witnesses of Jesus? To bear that name and somehow represent what all that means.
So what I get to do, rather than making a definitive statement and saying Amen and being done with it, is to stir the pot a little bit and see what rises to the top for you all. I’ll ask us to consider different aspects of the naming process, especially as it relates to faith, and what the name of Jesus means to us.
Listen not only to consider these things, but consider how you may share some response that could address any angle of this. Feel free to jot notes, flip through your Bibles, think of stories that relate. And we’ll see what happens. And just so you’re clear as to what to anticipate, the format will be similar to regular sharing time. I’ll open the floor and you can feel free to share. And if we have some time of extended silence together……that’s OK too.
Consider the different paths taken by Christian ministers during the inauguration celebration of President Obama. The opening inaugural event on Sunday of that week began with a prayer by Episcopal priest Eugene Robinson. In the hearing of the diverse crowd, from all walks of life, gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, Eugene Robinson began his prayer with the words, “O God of our many understandings.” He went on to ask that God bless us all at this time with tears, with anger, with discomfort, with patience, with humility, and with compassion and generosity. Two days later, this time to begin the official swearing in part of the inauguration, Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren stood before an equally diverse crowd, and gave a prayer. Throughout the prayer , Rick Warren made references to the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. As part of the conclusion of his prayer he offered, “I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus [Spanish pronunciation], Jesus.”
Praying to the God of our many understandings. Praying in the name of Jesus.
If you were asked to pray for such an event, how would you address and name God? Or maybe you would decline! How universal and how particular would you allow your language of faith to be? Or, perhaps, more concretely, when you do pray, whether in public or in private or with your household, do you ever use the words, “in Jesus’ name?” If so, why? What do they mean to you?
Consider the humility and caution that scripture speaks of in the human attempt to name God. A time when God ventures to reveal the divine name occurs in the burning bush incident with Moses. God tells Moses that God will deliver the children of Israel from the bondage of slavery, and Moses will lead the way. Moses asks this burning-plant-with-a-voice, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, “I am who I am” “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am” has sent me to you.’” This isn’t much of an answer to Moses’ question. Not much of a definitive name. “I am who I am” could just as easily be translated “I will be who I will be.” In other words, I can’t be easily named or contained within your fragile frameworks of understanding. As soon as you try and name me, you’re already in error. If you need a name for me, call me “I will be” and then watch me be that which I am. You’ll know me by what I do, and what I’m about to do is deliver you from bondage. This is God’s name.
When Jacob wrestles with the angel of God, or God’s own self, he wins a blessing, and gets a new name. Israel. God-wrestler. But then Jacob asks to know the name of the one with whom he has struggled all night. The answer he receives is “why do you ask my name?” In our walk with God, or our wrestle with God, is it we who get to name God, or is it God who names us?
Consider how fundamental it is to our humanity to give and receive names. The creation account of Genesis 2 imagines that one of the first acts of the human creature who has been formed from the dust, is to name all of the other dust creatures. “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the human to see what he would call them; and whatever the human called every living creature, that was its name.” This is surely much more intimate than something like branding cattle, or an assembly line of smacking a UPC label on an object for strictly identification purposes. Our naming of our environment, of each other, is a way of connecting ourselves with that person, or animal. A bond of relationship.
Expectant parents sit down together and go through lists of names, looking for just the right one that their child will carry with them the rest of their lives. The final name has to sit right with both partners. The name may be that of a relative, connecting the child in some way to the family story. It may come from a beloved Bible character, or a valued person in history. It could come from pop culture, or be a direct product of the sheer creativity of the parents who would like their child to have a name like no other. Even if the story behind our name is that it’s just a name our parents liked, then we have already been given a sign of love that we carry with us and that we answer to. Someone calls our name. We pause, we pay attention. We have been named, and we will give names to others, to animals, to places, to our faith, because we’re human, and that’s what we do.
Consider Jesus’ own teachings that relate to the use of his name. There are some teachings that indicate that acting in the name of Jesus is a continuation of the life of Jesus. The name of Jesus stands for everything that Jesus stood for. Acting in the name of Jesus is an extension of all that Jesus was. “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name, welcomes me.” (Matthew 18:5). For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:20). The extension of Jesus self through the life of the disciple who bears that name can also lead to a similar counter-cultural stance. “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life.” (Matthew 19:29). “Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name.” Matthew 24:9 Followers of Jesus are forever linked to his name, and that directly influences how we live.
But then there are instances when Jesus downplays and even seems to shun the use of his name. Also in Matthew, “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’” (Matthew 7:22-23). Apparently it is possible to use the name of Jesus, but still be doing evil. It is the doing, not the using of the name, that is what is of value. And remember Matthew 25, where Jesus teaches that those who have compassion on the least of these, even if there was no knowledge at the time that they were acting in Jesus’ name, they will inherit the kingdom of God. It would seem that one can act in Jesus’ name without ever saying a word.
Consider how names, traditions, identities, come to take on certain freight, certain connotations over time. Whatever something meant originally, it becomes altered and re-formed, for better or for worse, by how it has been represented through history. Several years ago Nelson Kraybill, President of AMBS seminary wrote an essay that elicited a lot of conversation about how the future of the Mennonite Church was evangelical. One of the points of his argument was that since evangelical means oriented toward good news that we should fully claim that title. Those who felt this was a bad idea argued that there are certain elements of the current evangelical community they don’t want to be identified with. One argument was from the basis of what a name should mean, while one was from what it has come to mean over time. However one feels about that, we who bear the name of Christ are in the same boat. We have to acknowledge that the name of Jesus does not only point back to what we like to think of as the pure form of Christ, but also bears the weight of the good and the bad that has been done in the name of Christ throughout history. How do we represent Christ given this reality?
A final thing to consider, before you may want to offer plenty of other things to consider: Consider the way 1 John holds all this tension together. 3:18, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” On one hand words and speech and names matter little. Our love acts itself out in truth, and that truth can be true no matter how we name it or leave it unnamed. But then 4 verses later: “And this is God’s commandment: that we should believe in the name of God’s Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as we have been commanded.” There’s still something about that name to hold on to.
I think that’s plenty to consider for now, for starters. I wonder what kinds of thoughts this has brought up for you. Or what kinds of experiences you’ve had that relate with this that you’d like to share. You may want to speak to one of the questions I raised, or ask your own question. Or tell about a time when you feel like you represented Christ and whether or not the name of Christ came up during that time. Or if you feel like you are often on the defensive for feeling like the form of Christianity you believe in is not the one that most people think of when they think of Christianity. What does it mean to live “in Jesus’ name?” Or to pray “in Jesus’ name?” Or to give a cup of cold water, or a can of turkey in Jesus’ name?