More Than a Name

More Than a Name
Acts 2:14a, 22-32

Christian Community Presbyterian Church
Bowie, Maryland
April 16, 2023

Did you know that Presbyterian Christians have a tendency to keep their faith in our heads. Yes, most of us are more intellectual than emotional about our faith. When was the last time you saw a Presbyterian hot and bothered about Jesus Christ? Hot-and-botheredness usually has to do with someone moving the chancel furniture or changing the font on the bulletins. 

If intellectual faith—head faith—and emotional faith—heart faith—were riding the playground seesaw most of us Presbyterians would be sitting on the end of the seesaw on the ground. Faith communities that are heavy into an emotional faith would weight the seesaw in the other direction. Head faith and heart faith need to be in a balanced tension where each aspect of faith—each rider on the seesaw—has an equal chance. When we come to church, we don’t leave our brains or our hearts at the door. God calls us to be complete people, fully using all the gifts, talents, and capabilities of our whole being.

A second tendency that Presbyterian Christians often have is to keep our faith to ourselves. It is enough that people see us coming to church. At least I don’t think any of us sneak into church. Nevertheless, our faith is private, secluded, guarded. We are uncomfortable with a cocktail party approach to faith where someone comes up to us and starts talking about their faith. We don’t do that, and don’t really want someone else to do it to us. 

Christian spirituality comes in a wide variety of styles, from the faith that erupts like a volcano to the faith that glows gently within a person, with many kinds of faith experiences in between. 

Our Quaker sisters and brothers have other traditions besides sitting in silence to wait for a word prompted by the Spirit. They practice a shared accountability for each other’s faith. Several Friends will sit with another who is trying to discern a personal call or work through an issue of faith. They use questions to prompt reflection and prayer. One of those questions is, “When did God become more than a name to you?”

That isn’t as easy a question as it sounds. Many of us grew up hearing God’s name used in Sunday school and worship. For some it was only at Christmas and Easter or in mealtime or bedtime prayers. My family didn’t go to church, but my mother did teach my brother and me the Lord’s Prayer, and we alternated saying grace at dinner. Some people only hear God’s name when it is abused and taken in vain. My father used to tell a story about a boy walking home from the store with groceries. He fell in a puddle and swore. A priest standing nearby heard him and asked, “What did you say?” The quick-thinking boy said, “Cheese and crackers got all muddy.” 

Those uses of God’s name are still head oriented. The question begs, appropriately, “When did the name of God become personal?” When did it become more than a vocabulary word, more than “dog” spelled backwards?

The question is more pointed if we change it to, “When did Jesus become more than a name to you?” In the afterglow of Easter, the question won’t go away. We can say with our heads, “Jesus is the Word become flesh.” We can say that intellectually, but the import of the statement is personal, relational. It has to do with flesh and blood and shared communal space, not with symbolic characters printed on paper or pixilated on LCD screens. If the Word became flesh, then there are eyes looking into our eyes, fingers seeking to hold our hands, lips ready to speak peace to our tempest-tossed souls. 

When did Jesus become more than a name to you? When did the phrase, “Christ is risen,” become more than a song lyric?

Whether by gradual understanding or by lightning bolt experience somewhere along your spiritual journey your spirit arrived at the realization that “Jesus” was more than the name of someone who lived two thousand years ago. 

God and Jesus are more than names. Moses pressed God for a name, much as the TSA officer asks for your I.D. at the airport. God was hesitant to give out a name. God didn’t want to be condensed into a small word. God cannot be defined by a few random vowels and consonants. And if God could be so defined, the languages of humanity would confuse the issue further. Who is God? Elohim, Jehovah, Yahweh, Theos, Deus, Dieu, Gott, Great Spirit, Dios, God. 

God did not use a given name. People who followed pantheons of local gods knew their gods by names that often described their functions or idiosyncracies. God could not be contained in symbols and sounds. God is more than that. God in community, holy in one, becomes personal. God who creates becomes personal, the Spirit who empowers becomes personal, the risen Jesus who saves becomes personal.

The excerpt from Peter’s Pentecost sermon pushes the question. The promised Spirit arrived full-force in the midst of the Pentecost Festival. Diaspora Jews have traveled to Jerusalem. They may or may not have known of Jesus or of the events which led up to his execution and the empty garden tomb on the third day. To them, Jesus was just a name.

But to Peter, to the ten other original disciples, to Mathias and Nicodemus, to a Samaritan woman at Sychar and a newly-sighted man who had been born blind, to a raised-from-the-dead Lazarus, and to Mary Magdalene, Jesus was more than a name. They were witnesses.

“All of you listen up!” Peter says. “This Jesus, whom you crucified, is more than just a name. He is more than a prophet and a good man. He is the Messiah, the Holy One proclaimed by David and our other prophets. This is the Savior for whom we have been waiting for generations. Every single one of you is a witness to this truth. Whether you saw Jesus with your own eyes or are now hearing the good news for the very first time, you are a witness to what I am telling you today.”(1)

A few years later Paul and the early Gentile Church would proclaim, “God ... gave him a name above all names” (Philippians 2:9). But now, in the earliest days of the church, Peter urged his hearers: “Let Jesus be more than a name. Let Christ be your Savior. Hear with your heart as well as your ears. Then you can proclaim Jesus as Lord and know the joy of Christ’s amazing saving grace.”(2)

It is hard for us to imagine the passion and power of Peter’s Spirit-filled preaching. We have heard it read so often. But what was it like the first time you heard it? What was it like the first time you heard it with more than your ears, your brain, your intellect? 

I attended a prep school which had required attendance at chapel services. In my senior year a classmate gave his senior chapel talk in which he questioned that practice. What he said was like a punch in my gut. I claimed to believe in God, yet my classmate’s words made me wonder what it was that I believed. I’m still working on that question 55 years later. 

What is your experience of hearing, really hearing, the name of Jesus for the first time? We have no idea how large the crowd was to whom Peter was speaking. All we know is that God brought about 3,000 people into the Christ belief that day.

Imagine all of Bowie filling the stands at FedEx Field. Peter tells the Good News of Christ, the truth of his death and resurrection, and 3,000 people—enough to fill the seats of one end zone—are convicted with the belief that Jesus is more than a name. Peter’s message pierced their hearts and cut their souls to the quick. Regardless of the varied languages they spoke and the cultures they came from, those people got the message. Jesus was not another passing news item. From that moment forward Jesus was more to them than his name. He was Lord and Savior.

Easter is not a one shot deal. Easter is more than one day every year. Easter is a movement, a revolution that frees the soul from the oppression of sin and the oblivion which palls over human life. Easter broke forth in the lives of people who returned to their homelands where they shared it with family and friends, creating little incubators of faith just waiting for Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and other first generation apostles. There was no earthly way Jesus was going to be put back into the tomb. The resurrection became epidemic.

Is Jesus more than a name to you? Is your Easter faith filled with such an awe that you see the world differently? Is Jesus just a name, like so many names spoken by newscasters and written about by journalists? Or is Jesus the Savior who has changed your world, your life, your whole being? When we hear the name of Jesus Christ, let us say with the Emmaus Road travelers, “Were not our hearts burning within us?”

The question is no longer, “When did Jesus become more than a name to you?” This is your question: “How is Jesus more than a name to you right now?”

Alleluia! Amen.

(1) Kathleen Long Bostrom, “Acts 2:141, 22-32: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010) Year A, volume 2, p. 378)
(2) Ibid.

Unless noted otherwise, all scripture references are from The Holy Bible, New Revised Stand Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America.


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