Fourth Sunday of Easter 2018 — Preaching Notes



“What’s in a name?” wrote William Shakespeare in 1597. “That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” In the case of this quote, Juliet is speaking these words about her one true love, Romeo. In the play, Juliet does not know Romeo is eavesdropping on her lament as she wrestles aloud with the problem of his name: not Romeo, but Montague, the sworn enemy of her own family, the Capulets.

O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Tis but thy name that is my enemy.
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.

The scripture lesson for today, which wraps up our first series for this Easter season, centers on the power of a name. In this case, it’s the name of Jesus that, according to the disciples, through the power of the Holy Spirit provides healing and salvation for all who believe in him.

The setting for this conflict continues to center on the story we have been talking about for the past three weeks: the incident in Acts in which, by the power of the name of Jesus, Peter has brought healing to the lame beggar by the Beautiful Gate. Because so many people knew this man, and had passed by him as they made their way to the Temple to pray every day, and because they had witnessed the power of Christ that was in Peter and John to heal him, trouble had arisen for these early church planters. Trouble, in the form of Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John and Alexander, all of whom belonged to the high-priestly family. These priests were powerful and influential men to the Jewish worshipers who came to pray at the Temple.

You remember from the last couple of weeks that the healing of the lame beggar had not gone unnoticed by the temple worshipers, nor the temple authorities. The people who witnessed the man who had been lame from birth walking, leaping, dancing and praising God, asked by what power Peter had been able to heal the man. And Peter gave a sermon about the death and resurrection of Jesus, telling them that the healing in Jesus’ name that had come to the beggar was also available to all of them.

Many people responded to this Good News by repenting of their sins and asking for baptism in the name of Jesus. This aroused the concern of the temple priests, who confronted Peter and John, arrested them, and ordered them to stop preaching about Jesus in front of the temple. But Peter and John refused to back off. So today we find them in another confrontation with the temple priests.

The priests ask them a specific question: “By what power or by what name did you do this [heal the lame beggar]?” Power and name are directly linked by those in power.

Names are significant. They can designate important people and things, and they can also designate those who are unimportant. For example, in the Bible, there are many people, who remain nameless. There are women who are known not by their own name, but by the name of their father or husband. The Samaritan woman at the well is unnamed.The unimportant status of the lame beggar is made evident by the fact that he has no name, but the gate he sits by every day does. We know him as the beggar associated with the Beautiful Gate.   

We also know that some are important because they do have names. The twelve disciples each have a name. Certain prominent early female church leaders who are also thought to have been disciples have names. The dear friends of Jesus, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, are named. Jesus’ name is connected to the names of prominent people through his lineage.

In our world today the same sorts of things happen. The names of people who are wealthy and powerful show up to mark their importance. The names of corporate owners adorn buildings. Companies are named for their founders. Bridges and highways are named for prominent individuals from the community.

Names can also be used to denigrate people. Bullies will often brand individuals with a disparaging nickname, refusing to acknowledge the identity of their nemesis in an attempt to embarrass and cause harm.

People sometimes change their names in order to mark a new start. In some religious traditions, the act of Christening or baptism involves giving a new, specifically Christian name to mark the person’s initiation into the body of Christ. Correcting gender identity often involves claiming a new name. And sometimes people choose to call themselves by a new name as a mark of transition. My eldest son Gill (his middle name) now goes by his first name, William. He chose to re-name himself when he graduated from high school and moved out of my house, marking his independence and adulthood.

Giving names to the unimportant, the oppressed, the victims of injustice, is a way of reclaiming their identity and personhood. This is in part what is behind the “Black Lives Matter” initiative to say the names of black men and women who have lost their lives in part because of racial injustice.

When I was at the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, I remember being struck by a call-and-response performance by Janelle Monae. Ms. Monae had invited the mothers of several black men whose names rose to national prominence because they were shot and killed by police officers to join her in the performance. These mothers who had lost their sons were invited to join their voices with hundreds of thousands of women, men and children who had descended on Washington D.C. the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States. As Ms. Monae called us, the people in the crowd, to join her in the chant, “Say his name!” each mother, one by one, stepped up to the microphone to say the name of her deceased son. It was a powerful act of remembering and naming, and marking as important each person who had lost his life in a violent and unjust manner.

In today’s scripture lesson there seems to be a great deal of importance placed on the name of Jesus. Not just importance. Power. There is power in the name of Jesus. Saying his name points everyone to the importance of Jesus, not just as a man, but as the promised one sent from God. Jesus Christ of Nazareth, who is identified in Peter’s sermon as “the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22).

“In the name of Jesus” speaks to his power, now residing through the work of the Holy Spirit in the disciples. For Peter and John, to do something in the name of Jesus is to do the same as what Jesus did. It is to claim the power of his name, and the power he held, as their own. It is to trust that the same power that lived in him now lives in the church established in his name. It is to believe salvation is in the name of Jesus Christ.

We may love to sing that there’s something about that name, and yes we need to say his name. But as disciples we do more than say his name. We claim the power that lived in him for ourselves, and we use that power to offer healing and hope in his name. We use that power to transform the world and make it a better place for all of God’s people. We offer salvation in Jesus Christ.

Do we believe that this same power, the power given by the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, that enabled Peter to heal the lame beggar, now resides in us? Do we believe that claiming that name and that power is our path to salvation? Do we understand that it isn’t just about saying the name, but also claiming the same power?

I have written in this space over the past few weeks about my mother’s struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. One of the most devastating consequences of this disease, which affects some 5.5 million Americans and for which there is currently no cure, is the loss of names. My mom is in early moderate stage, and she is starting to lose names. The nature of the disease is that there are periods when she is fairly lucid and pretty much like her old self: her sense of humor remains intact, she remembers who she is and where she is, and she enjoys the same activities she always has.

Other times—especially mornings—she finds herself completely lost. She doesn’t recognize the house she has lived in for nearly twenty years. She can’t remember the names of her children or grandchildren. She doesn’t know what she is doing or what is wrong with her. Sometimes she can’t recall my name even though I’m sitting in front of her. She is slowly losing her ability to recognize her family.

On more than one occasion she has expressed devastation over not being able to remember the names of her own children. She is aware of what that loss means, and it hurts. It is in those moments, as I contemplate that these days in which she recognizes me and remembers my name are numbered and sacred, that I know I must believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to help us through this time of sorrow and change. I’m still her daughter Dawn whether she remembers me or not, and she’s still my beautiful mother Mazie. My dear friend Claire, who is a deacon who works as a chaplain, has been reminding me for years to be thankful for each day with my mom, because with Alzheimer’s Disease, today is always the best day you will have with the patient.

Salvation in the name of Jesus Christ doesn’t always look the way we wish it did. Sometimes salvation comes in the small things, the glimpses of God’s spirit in a touch, in a moment of normality, or in something completely unexpected.

I’m thankful for salvation in the name of Jesus Christ each day, even the ones that are hard. I’m thankful for the power of the Holy Spirit that is sustaining my family through the prayers of the faithful near and far. I’m thankful for the church that I attend on Sundays, and for the opportunity to be reminded of who I am in Christ. I’m thankful that when my mom no longer says my name, or anyone’s name, that power and bond we have in Christ will keep us connected in ways that reach beyond words or names. And I’m thankful that one day, on the other side of this disease, and this life, both mine and my mom’s, we will be united around the banquet table of the Lord, healed and made whole by the savior we both love.

The good news is that the power of Jesus Christ is with us. His spirit resides in us, the body of Christ. His spirit gives us not just power to heal, but to be transformed by the power of love when we proclaim his name and love one another as he loved us. Salvation comes in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.

This brings us to the end of our first mini-series of this Easter Season, “In the Name of Jesus.” Next week we will begin our second series, “And in the Power of the Holy Spirit,” as we continue our study of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts. As you close the series be sure to invite people to come back next week, and give a preview of where you are heading for the remainder of the Easter season.