Jesus calls us by name. But in scripture, Jesus sometimes called the disciples by a new name. What new names might await us this year? What could use a new name in our lives? What new visions and dreams did the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr share that must be reclaimed and renamed as priorities in our lives today?
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!”
The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
Last week, we marked “Baptism of the Lord” Sunday. We journeyed with Jesus and John into the Jordan River. And my colleague Cal reminded us of the promises made at our own baptisms, encouraging us to renew and to reclaim those vows. Today, Jesus and John appear in our story once again. Cousin John, as was foretold, prepares the way for Jesus, leading people, even his own disciples, to the one who will save. I love that John’s two disciples who were with him, hearing what John says about Jesus, just up and decide to go and follow Jesus from now on. And presumably John seems to have no problem with this. After all, his job is to point others to the Christ. Now, if you’ll remember John the Baptist is, shall we say, “of the wilderness.” According to the Gospel of Mark, he wore camel’s hair, ate locusts and wild honey, (Mark 1:4-6).
I imagine he was very comfortable sleeping under the stars; perhaps not the most well-groomed or well-dressed, a little rough around the edges. I imagine that as former disciples of John, these two had followed him into that wilderness/outdoorsy kind of life. So it doesn’t surprise me too much that the first question they ask Jesus is, “Where are you staying?” Ok, that’s their first question! “Where are you staying?” And sometimes we forget, that this Jesus whom we worship and honor today, was a homeless, itinerant preacher who walked around relying on the hospitality of strangers.
He wasn’t quite like his cousin John; Jesus wore more conventional clothing and ate what most other people did. But in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says, “‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” (Luke 9:58). Jesus wasn’t staying at the Ritz Carlton or a nice Air BnB. I imagine from town to town, the question of the day would be, “Where are you staying?” followed by “And where are we, as your disciples, staying tonight?” Now, the culture of hospitality in Jesus’ day was very different from our own. It was not unusual to put up guests in your home and to be expected to help provide for them for the night, even if they were strangers. In our society, where we don’t or can’t always host our own family members when they’re in town, it’s hard to imagine putting up a stranger. But that’s often what ended up happening. Now, today’s story doesn’t actually tell us where Jesus was staying. It doesn’t tell us what Jesus and these two disciples did for the rest of the day as they remained together. But something about this whole experience convinced Andrew that Jesus was indeed the Messiah. And he could not hold onto this news just for himself. He had to tell his brother Simon.
This story is so rich:
full of ways we all should be pointing and preparing the way for Jesus like John did;
full of ways we should be choosing to follow Jesus like these two disciples;
full of ways we should be sharing the good news of the gospel with others and inviting them to come and meet this Jesus like Andrew does. But what captured me in the reading this week was what happened with Simon. Simon wasn’t one of the original two who went from being disciples of John to disciples of Jesus. I’m not sure what Simon was doing or where he was. But he was close enough for his brother Andrew to go and get him. And when Andrew brings Simon to Jesus, Jesus says, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter),” (John 1:42).
Now, the name Simon in Hebrew means to listen or to hear. It’s a beautiful name with deep meaning. And the name Cephas, or Peter, means rock. And this very Peter is whom Jesus will later say will be the rock on which the church is built. But as we get to know this disciple, we find out that he does not have the most steady, level-headed, or rock-like personality. He’s impulsive, excitable, eager, and passionate. These aren’t necessarily bad attributes, just not attributes you think of when you think of someone who is a “rock” in the relationship.
I wonder if his brother Andrew, witnessing this name change, was thinking, “Ummm.. Maybe you should get to know him a little better first.” But God, throughout scripture, and Jesus here, did this from time to time, changed the names of people as they saw something in them that was more than who they currently were.
One of my favorite quotes by Anne Lamott is, “I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.” There’s this sense that Jesus meets Simon exactly where he is and for who he is. But Jesus can see beyond that, too. And Jesus does not leave us where he finds us. Jesus knows the transformation that will take place.
The person whom Simon is meant to be, the person whom Simon is called to be, is Peter. Long before Simon is like a rock to anyone, let alone the church; Jesus calls him Peter, petras, so that he can start living into that role however imperfectly that may be. Now, names are tricky. Our family has been trying to come up with a name for the new baby without much luck or agreement. And some people love their name; some people hate their name; some people even choose to change their name; or for some immigrants in this country, have their name changed for them. But all names hold some kind of meaning or significance or story to them.
My name is Joann Haejong Lee. My parents found my first name, Joann, in an baby naming book. Its Hebrew roots mean, “God is gracious” which they liked, and it kind of corresponded with my Korean name, so they went with it. My legal middle name is my Korean name: Haejong, and it was given to me by my dad’s dad, my paternal grandfather. Every graduation someone would butcher the pronunciation of my middle name, no matter how many times I said it for them. Joann Lee is easy enough, but Joann Haejong Lee is apparently impossible to pronounce. The first part of my Korean name: Hae means “grace”. And the second part, jong, means “bell.” So together, Haejong means to ring out God’s grace like a bell. Now, I’m sure that in some ways this was my grandfather’s hope for my life: that I would ring out God’s grace to a world that is too often deprived of grace, that somehow who I am and how I live might be a bell signaling the grace of God to all. But lately, I’ve been wondering and rethinking that perhaps this name wasn’t just meant to be outward and performative, but perhaps my grandfather’s hope would also be
that I would hear and experience the bells of God’s grace for myself, in my own life, each and every day.
So what does your name mean? Are you named after someone? Who got to name you? Does it resonate with you? Is it something you strive for, or is it something you’d rather put behind you? Whatever name is given to us by our parents or grandparents or whomever, I believe when we choose to follow Jesus, we are all given a new name.
We are each called Beloved.
We are the Beloved children of God.
And there’s nothing more we can do to deserve that name. And there’s nothing we can do to have that name stripped from us. You are beloved. Period. Full Stop. End sentence.
Now, this weekend, we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King was a preacher, and he knew his name was also Beloved. People called him all kinds of things as he marched, was imprisoned, was slandered in the media, and eventually assassinated. But he knew his name was Beloved. And he was not shaken by what others chose to call him. Dr. King knew he wasn’t perfect, but he was still Beloved. And so even with all his faults and flaws, mistakes and missteps, he had the audacity to dream and hope and proclaim justice for all. In his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, Dr. King named for us, the American people, some of the deep ills and sins of this nation: the sins of racism, materialism, and militarism.
Still today, we, as a nation, struggle with these deeply embedded sins. In recent years, we’ve seen extreme racism rear its ugly head in bold and unapologetic ways that we thought were behind us. Our planet, our people, and our purses suffer from the greed and dissatisfaction caused by materialism and conspicuous consumption. And oh, how easily we turn to violence and war to solve deeply complicated issues that will not be won by killing each other or sending troops to other countries. Racism, materialism, and militarism – some would even say these are the names of our country. But even as Dr. King named these as three of the primary sins of this nation, he also believed we could be so much more than that. “…Grace…meets us where we are but does not leave us where it found us.”
Dr. King dreamed big, and he dared to dream of a country whose name could be justice, liberty, freedom for all, and equality for all. He dreamed of what he called “a Beloved Community,” note that word Beloved, where this dream might be realized. That name Beloved, not just for us as individuals, but for the whole community. As Maya Angelou once said, “While I know myself as a creation of God, I am also obligated to realize and remember that everyone else and everything else are also God’s creation.” So how do we honor the name beloved, in ourselves and in others? How do we help usher in the kind of world that Dr. King dreamed of? He didn’t live long enough to see that dream realized. But he had hope that it was within reach. And there are so many ways we might take part in making it a reality. For each of us, we are called in ways that are unique and specific to our gifts and strengths. I preach, but I will never preach like Dr. King.
We can march; we can lead; we can serve; we can inspire others; we can feed one another and make each other laugh. We can write letters; get arrested; sing together or weep together. We can run for office or phone bank for someone we believe in. We can refuse to be silent or choose to keep silence so that the voices of those who have been long-silenced might be heard. We each have a part to play in building that Beloved Community. At Dr. King’s funeral, Aretha Franklin sang his favorite gospel song “Precious Lord.” So, friends, perhaps, today and every day, one thing we can also do is to come together with others, allow ourselves to dream, claim the name of Beloved, and simply let God take our hand and lead us into unknown futures yet hoped-for dreams; into a home where all belong; where all are safe; and all are indeed beloved.