Lectionary Year B
May 7, 2000
Acts 3:12-19

Contemporary Address


      Austin, Texas. Bill Clinton. The Eifel Tower. Sunrise Beach Federated Church. Dr. John Alsup. Peter and John. Michael Jordan. Renita. Disney World. Jesus. Glenn Close. Lui, the Lobster. I could go on and on with this, and you would probably think: Has gone completely insane or what? What in the world is he doing? Well, I am recounting names. Names of cities, politicians, institutions, sports greats and movies stars, names of friends and families, even nicknames. All of these names. But what do they mean? What's in a name?

      What's in a name? About a week and a half ago, maybe two weeks ago, thirty-nine members of the cult group Heaven's Gate committed ritual mass suicide in a private estate right outside of San Diego, California. This suicide was most likely the event with the largest death count of its kind in the history of the U.S. during this century. The leader's name of the religious sect was Marshal Herff Applewhite. Applewhite, or "Do" as his "disciples" called him, was a former Presbyterian preacher's son from Texas who was convinced that aliens from outer space had "planted" humankind on planet Earth some time in the past and would come back in a spaceship to gather them into the future. When scientists announced the appearance of the Hale-Bopp comet, a comet that can only be seen every 3000 years or so, "Do" thought that the time had come. He told his "disciples" that the promised alien spacecraft was hidden in the comet's tail and would take up the "true believers" to a "Higher Level of Human," as they fly away to a better place.

      Applewhite gave himself the name "Do" in order to show that names really "mean nothing." And thirty-nine people followed the calling of this name that meant nothing, in expectation of a better world and the hope of a certain kind of salvation. A self-proclaimed, modern-day Christ-like figure, Applewhite promised healing and life. But what his disciples found were only destruction and death. The religious leader even prophesied his resurrection after a few days, yet nobody has seen him up and walking. Applewhite proved his point. His name meant nothing, nothing but death to a group of mislead souls.

      What's in a name? Last Friday I read an article in the New York Times about another cult group in the Philippines with the name "El Shaddai." El Shaddai is an ancient Hebrew name for God and means "The Mountainous One." This sect is another semi-Christian movement, but with much larger numbers than Heaven's Gate. They total approximately five million followers. The leader of this cult calls himself "Brother Mike." He preaches about faith, hope, and most of all "seed money," a creative spin that he attaches to the Scripture passage of 2. Corinthians 9:6 which reads: "Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously." Brother Mike's givers are cheerful and he assures them that God loves them over-abundantly for it. In the name of El Shaddai, this preacher proclaims a gospel of material prosperity. Another name, another interpretation of the gospel.

      There are many more such names. They will pop up like mushrooms in a dark cave as the millennium draws to a close and the expectations of humanity's yearning for healing and salvation are heightened to the umpteenth degree. We have another one of these names right here in Texas, which seems to be a fertile breeding ground for religious cults. Just remember Waco and the Branch Davidians. The cult of which I am speaking has its headquarters in Abilene and Odessa and is called "House Of Yahweh." Their leader claims that his arrival was prophesied in Scripture. As the end of the world draws near, he promises that he alone, his name, offers the only path to salvation.

      What's in a name? The contemporary French philosopher Jacques Derrida concerns himself, amongst others, with this question. Now, philosophers have a reputation of twisting simple things around until they are so complicated that no one can understand them anymore. And French philosophers most of all. But I believe that he makes some interesting observations and asks good questions when it comes to the problem of the "name." He thinks that names are merely supplements. There are titles, epithets, or nicknames, like Hakeem "The Dream" Olajuwon, William "The Conqueror," or "Lui, the Lobster." These are names that do not mean much of anything. They can be changed, repeated, and exchanged at random. All they do is dry out language and diminish what we say until there is nothing left. Derrida's most interesting question that follows from his observations is this: To give a name, is that still to give something?

      What's in a name? If you remember the beginning of this meditation, you will also remember that Jesus was one of the names in the list. During his lifetime, Jesus' name was one that the religious establishment--rabbis, Pharisees, and Saducees--attributed to the "cult leader" of a new Jewish sect who talked about God the Father whose Kingdom was at hand. He talked about forgiveness of sins and salvation in His name and claimed to be "the way, the truth, and the life." Sounds a lot like the rhetoric that many self-proclaimed messiahs at the end of this millennium employ when they are trying to justify their programs and doctrines. Herff Applewhite, David Koresh, Brother Mike. Must we name Jesus in the same breath with them? Or as Derrida would ask: Is this name "Jesus" a name that is merely dried up like a shriveled prune, a name that is totally empty and devoid of meaning?

      What is in a name? A name seems to be an indispensable part of someone's personality and identity. It tells us something about a particular person or about a thing. In the Old Testament, the pronouncing of a name over somebody or something was an expression of relationship between the one who did the naming and the one who received it. This was exhibited in Genesis when God created the world and named things: sun, moon, stars, heaven, day, night. God has the power to give the world a name, to give it identity. This world is God's world, a world which He created, which He sustains, which He reconciles and redeems. And it is a world in which human beings participate in God's reign, as the story of Adam illustrates. The first human being who was created by God was also bestowed with the power to name things. Adam was allowed to attribute a name to every living thing but he was not given power to name his Creator.

      God's name was not disclosed to Adam. It was Moses who heard the Divine Name when he encountered God's presence at the burning bush: "I am who I am, and I will be who I will be." God's name was not manufactured by a human being. It was a gift that was revealed, the side of God which is turned toward humans. God's presence and identity are not something that humans can attach to him. And since humans have no power over this name, they also have no power to control it. When the Old Testament prophets spoke of God to the people of Israel, they spoke in God's name as they acted on His behalf. And the fulfillment of the prophesies that followed showed forth the power of God that was made efficacious in His holy name. The four letters of the Hebrew alphabet that signified the Divine Name were not spoken by the Jews, and are still not spoken today. The Holy One of the Old Testament was enthroned in heaven and only His name dwelled in the Temple.

      And then came a Galilean peasant who spoke about this God in the heavens and called Him Father. He claimed to be His Son, a claim that was validated at His baptism when the heavens opened and a voice announced: "This is my Son, the Beloved. With Him I am well pleased." The name of this peasant was Jesus.

      Jesus. Another name. What's in the name "Jesus?" Jesus is the Greek version of the Old Testament name "Yeshua," or "Joshua," which literally means "The Lord is salvation." It is a name that is attributed in Rabbinic Judaism to the coming Messiah, a name that was in the "mind" of God before it was ever thought of or spoken. It is a name that signifies that Israel's salvation was founded within God's eternal will before the creation of the world. This name of the coming Messiah bears many names in Judaism, and you are familiar with most of them: He is the Son of Man, the son of David, Shalom, the First One for Zion, the King, Consoler, wisdom, guardian, light, the with-the-clouds-coming-One (Hebrew translation).

      Jesus. The LORD is salvation. We attribute all these names of the Old Testament to Him. In Jesus Christ, the name "person" and acting of God in human history are inseparably intertwined, as Jesus repeatedly claims the Divine Name: "I AM." The name of Jesus is the name of the King of Kings, the Lord of lords, in whose name we are cleansed, and through whose name we are forgiven. The lame person at the Beautiful Gate stopped Peter and John on their way to the Temple in order to beg them for alms. But they had nothing of material value that they could offer him. No money, nothing tangible. All they had to give this person was a name: Jesus of Nazareth. As soon as the two disciples gave away this name, the lame person stood up and walked around, praising God. It is this same name that the people who had witnessed the healing of this lame person had rejected and despised. It is this name that the audience in today's passage killed in exchange for a murderer. On account of His name, the Author of life had to lose His life, so that God could raise Him from the dead.

      I believe that our situation today is very much the same. Wherever we turn and look, we can see the needy at the beautiful gate, waiting with outstretched arms for material compensation for their misery. And I also believe that we ought to give of what we have been given in order to relieve their suffering. But a name? Do we really believe that giving a name will help these poor folks who have nothing to eat, who are homeless, who are drug addicts, who need physical healing, who are in need of a ride to the grocery store ... the list of needs is endless. And ought we offer a name? Many people believe that we, who follow this name of Jesus and believe in it, are just kidding ourselves. They would rather follow Marshal Applewhite or Brother Mike who promise them heaven on earth in the form of space travel or material wealth. Which name, then, should we heed? The ones who want to lead us to enlightenment or the One whose name is hallowed and in whose name we are baptized?

      What's in a name? It almost seems that the decision has come down to a coin toss. Heads is cult leader, tails is Jesus. What are we supposed to do? -- We are supposed to listen to the witnesses. Peter and John tell us that they have seen with their own eyes that this Jesus lived, died, and was raised again from the dead, just as God promised, through the mouth of His prophets from long ago. The name of Jesus proved to be true: The LORD is salvation! This is to what we have to hold fast, that faith in His name will make us whole, just as it made the lame person whole to whom Peter and John gave Jesus' name. Faith - the link and the thin thread between us and our God.

      Knowing this, Peter tells us in His sermon that we are supposed to turn to God so that our sins will be wiped out. In the presence of the Applewhites of this world we will only find death, in the presence of God we will experience times of refreshing and life. In the name of the Applwhites of this world, we will only find shallow promises that cannot be fulfilled. In the name of Jesus Christ, we will find the restoration and healing of everything which is sinful and broken.

      There are no witnesses to what the Applewhites of this world promise. But there is a great cloud of witnesses to the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. One of these witnesses who testifies to the name comes from our very midst: Shirley Wiseman, whom we commended to God's eternal care and rest last Friday. Shirley knew that it is Jesus Christ who gives us a name. He calls us His children whose names, the name of each and every single one of us, are written in the Book of Life. He calls us by name so that we can respond to His call in faith, that whoever believes in His name and confesses Him before the world and one another, He too will confess before the Father on the day of judgment.

      What's in the name of Jesus? There is salvation, forgiveness, healing and mercy, resurrection and eternal life. Jacques Derrida has it right. To give a name does not really give something, does not really give anything for that matter because it is we who attribute names to things. But to receive a name, to receive the name of Jesus Christ, means everything. It is for this reason that God " ... gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." For this name we give God thanks and praise. AMEN.

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