By what name are you known? That’s what I’d like for you to think about in the sermon this morning.
Truth to tell, each of us is known by many names. The same woman might be both mother and daughter, sister and aunt, grandmother, godmother, wife, teacher, volunteer and elder of the church.
To give you a sneak peek at where we’re headed, here’s the bottom line: We’re known by many names, but the one that’s most important—the name above all names—is Jesus Christ. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to be known by his name, redeemed by his death and resurrection, empowered by his Spirit. When all is said and done, it’s the only name that matters.
Let’s take it from the top. Naming begins at birth. In most cases, you’re given a first, middle and last name.
Your last name denotes the family to which you belong—your clan, if you’re Scottish; your tribe, if you’re native-American. Your first and middle names denote your place in the family. That’s so your sister doesn’t have to say, “This is my brother, Larry, and this is my other brother, Larry.” From earliest childhood, your name is the cornerstone of your self-identity.
I used to do a children’s sermon in which I’d greet the children as they came to the front by intentionally calling them by the wrong names. “Good morning, Mary!” I’d say to Julie. “Nice to see you this morning, Bobby,” I’d say to Billy. They weren’t buying it. They’d give me an incredulous look and say, “That’s not my name!”
We learn the sound our names in the earliest days of childhood, and it becomes music to our ears. It’s the name by which we’re known. It connotes the family to which we belong.
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The downside of family identity is that it can become exclusive and clannish. What’s the old saying? “Blood is thicker than water.” It can easily lead to polarization: Us, as opposed to Them. Jesus pointed his disciples to a broader understanding of family than this.
He was teaching in a home when his mother and brothers came to the door. They’d been told that he was “beside himself.” So they came to take him home. But the place was crowded and they couldn’t get in. So, they sent a message saying, “Tell the teacher that his mother and brothers are here.” Jesus got the message and replied,
“Who are my mother and my brothers? …
Whoever does the will of God,
the same is my brother, and my sister, and my mother.”
By what name are you known? Be careful about putting too much emphasis on family identity. Remember what Jesus told his disciples:
“He who loves father or mother more than me
is not worthy of me;
and he who loves son or daughter more than me
isn’t worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37).
As we get a little older, say by early-elementary age, we become aware of another name by which we’re known, one that’s related to where we live.
If you were born and raised in one community, it’s your home town, and that becomes part of your identity. Merle Haggard said it best: “I’m just an Okie from Muskogee.”
Not everyone has a home town, of course. If you grew up in a military family—or if your daddy was a preacher—you probably lived all over the place growing up. But for many, home town gives you a warm feeling and a sense of belonging: “I still remember a place called Hope.”
The upside of having a strong hometown identity is that it can give you a feeling of security. The downside is that it can lead to a rather narrow view of the world.
My brother-in-law, Charlie, grew up in Winnie, Texas, a small farming community just west of Beaumont. For the first eighteen years of his life, Winnie was all he knew. Then he graduated from high school and went off to college; first, to Houston; then to Atlanta. We were home for Christmas one year, catching up on where our lives had taken us, when Charlie said, “All my life I thought the whole world was like Winnie, Texas, only bigger. Little did I know.”
Hometowns have the power to nurture us and make us strong; they also have the potential of standing in the way of God’s kingdom. Here’s what Jesus said about two small villages near Capernaum:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! …
it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom,
on the day of judgment,
than for you” (because you would not repent).”
In addition to hometown identity, we often develop a regional identity: You folks live in North Louisiana, as opposed to South Louisiana … we live in the South, as opposed to the North. You get the picture.
By upper elementary age we form a national identity. We learn what it means to be citizens of the United States of America. We study American History and learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. We stand and put our right hands over our hearts to sing the Stars Spangled Banner.
Make no mistake about it, national identity is important. We have every right to be proud and patriotic Americans. But, like everything else, this can go too far. Just as the world is bigger than Winnie, Texas, so is the world bigger than the United States of America.
Yes, we want our country to be strong and free; but not at the expense of other countries. Yes, we have a proud heritage to uphold and defend, but so do other nations of the world. One of my favorite hymns puts it this way:
“My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.”
In addition to family identity and regional identity and national identity, we also develop a religious identity.
When it comes to your religious identity, by what name are you known?
I grew up Methodist. I became Presbyterian in 1991. You could say I’m Presbyterian by choice, as opposed to Presbyterian by birth. There’s a bumper sticker that says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could.” I could say that about becoming Presbyterian.
Growing up, I had classmates who were Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics and Church of Christ. We all had different beliefs and practices. For example,
• You could be baptized as an infant in the Methodist church. Baptists had to wait until they had a conscious conversion experience and made a profession of faith and were “saved.”
• Methodists baptized by sprinkling; Baptists, by immersion.
• Most of the larger churches had a pipe organ; smaller churches had pianos. Instruments of every kind were taboo in the Church of Christ.
• You could visit other churches, and we often did, but you couldn’t take communion in some.
• When the congregation recited The Lord’s Prayer most of the churches said, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Presbyterians said, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
Religious identity goes way back. Some of the early Christians identified with Peter; others, with Paul. When Paul left Corinth, he was followed by an eloquent preacher named Apollos. Some remained loyal to Paul; others said they belonged to Apollos. (1 Corinthians 3:1-8)
In the early church, there were Christians who still upheld the Torah. They believed Jesus was the Promised Messiah, yet they believed in the necessity of circumcision. It was the sign and seal of the covenant people of God.
In Corinth, Christians fought over just about everything: Circumcision, keeping the Sabbath, sexuality, you name it. One particular issue centered around whether or not you could eat meat that had been offered in the worship of idols. Some said it was tainted and forbidden; others said it was O.K. Paul said as far as he was concerned,
“… if food causes my brother to stumble,
I will eat no meat forevermore,
that I don’t cause my brother to stumble.”
(1 Corinthians 8:13)
Yet, he said adherence to the Law was a thing of the past. He told the Romans,
“… the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,
but righteousness, peace, and joy
in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)
And, in his Letter to the Galatians, he summed it up by saying,
“Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free,
and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage (to the Law).”
Religious identity is often a source of division. It has been in the past; it still is today.
Look around you. You can find traces of every major religion of the world right here in America: Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Baha’is … you name it.
In the Christian faith alone, there are literally hundreds of denominations, sects and “non-denominations.” What’s that all about?
Yes, we need deep roots and a strong foundation to stand on, and so we look for a church to belong to and doctrines we can trust. The danger is, left unchecked, you can easily identify more so with the church to which you belong than the Christ you’re called to serve.
Just so we’re clear: Jesus was not Presbyterian. Nor was he Baptist … or Methodist … or Catholic … or a member of any denomination. If he came back today he’d be astonished—and I dare say appalled—at the way the church bearing his name has become so splintered and divided.
In many ways, the church today is foreign to everything Jesus prayed for. In his longest and most fervent prayer, he prayed,
“that they may all be one;
even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you,
that they also may be one in us” (John 17:21).
You could say that our sectarian nature is only natural: Birds of a feather flock together. But it’s not the nature of Christ and his kingdom. Paul writes,
“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)
John Oxenham hit the nail on the head when he wrote:
“In Christ there is no east or west,
in him no south or north;
But one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.”
Go back and re-read the first chapter of Galatians, this time slowly and with your eyes wide open:
“I marvel that you are so quickly deserting him
who called you in the grace of Christ to a different ‘good news’;
and there isn’t another ‘good news.’
Only there are some who trouble you,
and want to pervert the Good News of Christ….
Let him be cursed….
For the Good News which was preached by me,
…is not according to man, …
but it came to me through revelation of Jesus Christ.”
There’s a bigger picture at stake here, one that eclipses all faiths and all denominations, and it’s made clear to us in the person of Jesus Christ.
Remember where this sermon began?
We’re known by many names. Only one is lasting. This applies across the board: Whether or not you come from a distinguished and noble family … whether or not you fly the American flag on holidays and can recite the Preamble to the Constitution … whether or not you’re a card-carrying Presbyterian, a born-again Baptist or tongues-speaking Pentecostal … strive to be known by the name of Jesus Christ, for ultimately, it’s the only name that matters.
Then, walking in his footsteps, share the Good News with others—that Christ died for the sins of the world that we might be forgiven and set free to know him and love him and serve him in all that we do.
And never stop praying for the day in which the name of Jesus will be the name by which every individual of every nation in every remote corner of the world is known:
” … that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth,and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:10-11)Let us pray: Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us for putting so much emphasis on other things: Friends and family, hometown loyalty, national allegiance, even the church that is so near and dear to our hearts. Give us grace to grow beyond all other claims on our lives, that we may be known, first and foremost, by your name. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, Philip McLarty. Used by permission