A New Name

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16Mark 8:31-38

There is power in a name.

In 1900, a child was born to a dentist and his wife in rural Tennessee. It was the fourth child for the couple, and was to be named after maternal aunts. However, the child was born a boy, and the couple had to get creative. They took the names of the two aunts – Martha and Mamie – and put them together to get “Marthame.” When Marthame’s first son was born, he passed this family name along. And when Marthame, Jr., had a son, he continued the tradition: Marthame Elliott Sanders, III.

To avoid confusion, Marthame, Jr., was called “Marty,” and Marthame, III, that’s me, was called by his middle name: Elliott. When I was six years old, I returned home from what seemed to me to be a particularly painful day of playground teasing. Chuck Alexander had realized that “Elliott” sounded a lot like “Idiot,” and had begun calling me that: “Idiot Elliott.” At the dinner table that night, I announced that I was to be called “Marthame.” And I’ve never been teased since.

There is power in a name. At Thursday night’s Bible Study, we went around the circle sharing stories about our names. For some, it was the relative after whom we were named. For others, it was the meaning of the name in its original language: French, Old English, Scottish. For others, it was the nickname we chose for ourselves or was chosen for us by others. But for each of us, our names evoke something deep, visceral, personal. Our name is central to our identity as a person.

And this is not merely a modern phenomenon. We can see it throughout the Scriptures. God’s divine name in Hebrew, Yahweh, was so fearsome and powerful, it was not to be pronounced. When God called the prophets, God did so by name: “Moses, Moses”; “Samuel, Samuel.” Names have meaning in Scripture: Adam means “man” or “dirt”; Ishmael means “God listens”; Jesus means “savior”. Names change at pivotal moments in Scripture: Jacob wrestles all night and is renamed Israel, he who strives with God; Simon proclaims that Jesus is Christ and becomes Peter, the rock on whom the church is to be built; Saul, the persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, a convert to the Christian faith.

There is power in a name. There is something crucial and pivotal. Our story from the Hebrew Bible is a perfect example. Abraham and Sarah enter the story as Abram and Sarai. Abram has a son by Hagar, Ishmael, who is thirteen years old. Sarai has had no children. And God announced to Abram something unbelievable: that this couple in their nineties will bear a child, and this child will be heir to a divine covenant. It is no wonder that this child is called Isaac, meaning, “He who laughs.” And to mark this moment, God announces that this couple will be renamed. Abram, which means “God is exalted,” will now be called Abraham, or “ancestor of a great multitude.” Sarai, which means “princess,” will become Sarah, which also means “princess,” but in a newer form of the word. Even if the meaning stays the same, there is significance in the simple act of the naming and the changing. Abram becomes Abraham; Sarai becomes Sarah.

For Peter in our New Testament story, however, the name change isn’t so positive. Simon, the listener, has already become Peter, the rock. But as Peter listens with the rest of the disciples to Jesus outlining his fate, he becomes distressed. This isn’t the way the story is supposed to end! Suffering? Death? That’s not what I signed up for as a disciple! That’s not what I want for my teacher, my Christ! And as Peter pulls Jesus aside, perhaps to suggest that there is another way for the story to go, another strategy that his Messiah might consider, as Peter rebukes Jesus, Jesus renames Peter yet again: “Get behind me, Satan!” Satan, the adversary, the one who tempted Jesus for forty days in the wilderness. Is it that Peter, in his desire to protect Jesus, is also tempting him to follow a safer path, one that leads from death and destruction but also leads away from salvation?

To our ears, there are few words in Scripture harsher than these: “Get behind me, Satan!” And so there remains power in the name.

I am aware that, prior to my arrival as your pastor, there was much conversation in this place about names, particularly about the name of this church. Should we remain Oglethorpe Presbyterian? Should we become Brookhaven Presbyterian? What about the compromise candidate, Oglethorpe Presbyterian in Brookhaven? And in the past few months that I have been your pastor, these conversations have occurred periodically. And there is nothing like unanimity on this topic in our midst.

I do not deign to put such a decision on the level with those in our texts this morning. The possibility of changing the name of a church is not as globally transformative as Abram the patriarch becoming Abraham the ancestor of a people of faith. Nor is that possibility as diabolical as falling from Peter the disciple to Satan the adversary. Nevertheless, any discussion of our name should take very seriously the power that a name invokes and carries. Whether we are Oglethorpe Presbyterian, or Brookhaven Presbyterian, or Grace Presbyterian, the important point is that our name signifies something about who we are, from where it is that we’ve come, where it is that we’re being led, and above all, to whom it is that we belong.

Friends, before we even begin to wrestle with the question of our name, we need to embrace the most important part of that name: not Oglethorpe, not even Presbyterian, but Church. In English, the word means the Lord’s house. In the Greek of the New Testament, the word is ekklesia, a community that has been called out. And in this place, in this sanctuary where we gather for worship, at the center of our lives together, it is this identity that we must claim and know deep within our souls, even deeper than that name which our parents chose for us or we chose for ourselves.

We are a community, a precious fellowship of sisters and brothers in Christ. And we are a community not called to be separate from the world, but to be deeply planted where we are, in this place, in Brookhaven, behind Oglethorpe University, in Northeast Atlanta, with members from Chamblee, and Dunwoody, and Norcross, and Duluth. But above all, we are a community that belongs to the Lord, called out to be Christ’s disciples. And to understand what that calling is, we return and take our place with Peter and the twelve in our text from Mark.

And there we find that Jesus does not rebuke Peter in private, but he looks firmly at us, that we might understand what is at stake. If we truly seek to follow Christ, let us listen again to his words: we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him. If we want to save our life, we will lose it. And if we are willing to lose our life for the sake of Christ and his gospel, then we will save it.

Friends, this is the way of the Church, the way of the Christian, the way of the name we were given at our common baptism. And as we continue this season of Lent, of our personal reflection and communal introspection, we stop to consider that precious vocation. Our calling as disciples is to be as those who deny ourselves, not as those who self-flagellate for the sake of pain, but to recognize that our gathering here is for the sake of our Lord and for the sake of the world which Christ loved and for whom Christ died and rose. We put aside the ways of humanity, and turn our minds to the things of God.

And our calling as disciples is to take up our cross. This is not merely some minor irritation, but a whole way of being.

Friends, this is our calling. And this is our name, Church. May we be forever changed.

sermonsMarthame Sanders