Word of the Week

Give Us a New Name!

John 20:19-31

What’s in a name? Does it really matter what we are called? Anyone been called the wrong name lately-- even if the person didn't mean any harm by it? Such a situation can bring out all the frustrations in our bodies, can't it? The names we give ourselves and we are given by others are important and often change the trajectories of our lives.

Start a conversation with an expectant parent who just found out the gender of their child and you'll find one obsession on their minds: the name. No wonder expecting parents often time spend hours flipping through those “1001 Names” books, looking for just that right “feel” of a name for their new son or daughter. They want to give their child the best and most meaningful name they can. Names matter!

As for me, even though my name is one that is popularly shortened or modified, I've never liked being called anything other than Elizabeth. Even though I hear names of others sometimes that sound pretty or more interesting than my own and even went through a phase in college where I wanted to be addressed as Liz (but it never stuck)—Elizabeth is just who I am, like it or not. I imagine many of you might feel the same about your name as well. We are who we are called.

But, beyond the names we are all given at birth, we are also given descriptive names  that often say a lot about who we are too. We might have been known as the “the smart one” or the “pretty one” or the “athletic one.” We cling to these positive descriptions of our selves-- claiming their complete worth, shaping our becoming through all our growing up years.

Then, there are those names which speak to our less than stellar moments which stick to us like post-its that we can never seem to find a way to get off our backs, no matter how hard we try. Names like “the cry baby”, “the dumb blond” or even “the black sheep of the family” follow us too. Even though these names come to us sometimes because of one person’s moment of stupidity or insensitivity, such names haunt us in pain and frustration any time we recall them. We always remember the time when we were called ___ as much as we'd like to forget.

In our gospel lesson for this morning, we are met by a disciple of Christ who also has a name lurking around him, although he is never called this by Jesus or anyone else in the text. You all know his name. If I say Thomas, you think________. (Doubter) It's hard to complete a sentence with Biblical Thomas in it without the name, doubter descriptor isn't it?

We remember Thomas by this famous scene in John’s gospel of Thomas refusing to believe that Jesus was risen until he saw and put his finger the marks of the nails in his hands and in his side.

Even though scripture gives him another name Didymus which means literally “The Twin,” we don’t think of Thomas by the name his momma provided; rather, we call Thomas: Thomas the Doubter or the Doubting One. And while Thomas’ nickname: the Doubter was much better than the other disciple we have nicknamed: Judas as the Traitor, I imagine that if I did a pre-sermon quiz this morning, few of us would rank Thomas in among our top five on a “Best of Jesus’ Disciples” list.

We remember Thomas for his name of "doubter." Because of his moment of doubt as recorded in John, Thomas would be remembered for his failure, not his later moment of belief.

But, I offer you this morning that in calling Thomas the doubter and dismissing his significance from the gospel means we are really missing an opportunity to get to know this faith hero and a confession of faith that we as resurrection people can model our church after. Maybe, we need to give Thomas a new name in history.

Let’s first consider the scene. On Easter evening, the disciples (minus Judas who has died and Thomas who is for some unknown reason away from them) are locked in a room scared out of their pants, hoping that the religious leaders won’t come to arrest and crucify them like they did to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene knocks on their door sometime that afternoon and to tell them what seems like a ridiculous story. She claims she had “seen the Lord” alive at the tomb.

Yet the disciples are seemingly unmoved by her testimony and continue to stay locked in their upper room. And then when evening falls, the risen Christ comes and stands in the midst of the disciples saying “Peace to you.” Jesus SHOWS them his hands and his side and breathes on them the gift of the Holy Spirit and departs yet again.  It was quite a moment of resurrection before their eyes.

The obvious problem is that Thomas is not there. Thomas does not see Jesus. And when he returns and hears the great story of what has transpired, he makes a particular request in verse 25:

"Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe."

I stop here to point out that while Thomas asked for proof, to see Jesus’ wounds for himself: he only wanted a viewing of what the other disciples had already seen. It was not more “doubtful” than any of the other of the 10.

In fact, it is important to note that the disciples had received similar testimony from Mary Magdalene before seeing Jesus for themselves but didn’t believe just like Thomas.

So, if we were playing the blame game, we would need to call out all of the disciples as doubters. Thomas was not alone in wanting to see for himself.

As the story continues we realize that a week later all of the disciples (including Thomas) were again the room with the doors shut. Jesus comes to speak explicitly to Thomas. What is most interesting about this part of our text is the interchange between Jesus and Thomas after proof is offered—notice with me again verse 27. Jesus tells Thomas to “Reach out your hand and put in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” A better translation of the last part of this verse would read: “Do not be unbelieving but believing.” To which Thomas replies in complete belief saying: “My Lord and My God.”

And, I dare say  in this confession that a transformative work took place Thomas: he was a new man, empowered by the fact that his faith came from not merely seeing Jesus, but professing his fully name.

And in these five words, Thomas makes the greatest confession of Christ found in all the entire Gospel of John, saying not only that Jesus was Lord, but that he was God incarnate! In fact, this is the only time any disciple of Christ “gets” him enough to link his identity with God. Thomas, thus, provides the Gospel of John with its bookend.  Just as the gospel began with the statement: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” Thomas rightly names Jesus as the Word, God who was and is the great I AM. And in naming Jesus as God, Thomas gave the church a  statement of faith, saying what it meant to have life in the resurrection power of Jesus’ name. Who are we asked to call the Resurrected one? My Lord and My God! Just as Thomas did!

Consider the rest of the story taken from one chapter over in John 21. We find Thomas again at a crucial moment of faith. He’s out fishing with the boys when Jesus comes to meet them. Through being there, Thomas became one of the key witnesses at this crucial appearance final appearance of Jesus in the book. Thomas gets a second chance. Moreover, according to historical tradition, Thomas goes on to proclaim this name of Jesus throughout his life. He becomes a Christian missionary in India in fact, risking his life to bring the gospel to those who had never heard.

Thus, in the case of Thomas— how he NAMED Christ in our text for today became not only a catalyst for the message of the John’s Gospel to go forth but his personal sense of mission too. Thomas received power from the name of Jesus that empowered his own name, his own life and his own purpose for living.

As people of the resurrection, how is our confession of Jesus as Savior and as Lord-- just as Mary modeled before us this morning-- going to change our names too? How might our association, our dependence on the name of Jesus shape everything we say and do as a community?

In a small North Carolina town where I once served as a pastoral intern in seminary, I once overheard a conversation that struck a nerve in me and I've never forgotten. At a local diner, two men sharing a relaxed conversation over a cup of coffee. I was "trying" to study my Greek verb flash cards two booths away for an upcoming exam, but got distracted.

I knew the first gentleman in the booth. He was a regular attendee at my church, though he didn't remember meeting me. I began to listen in when the second gentleman loudly offered to the first that he hadn't been to church in years. Going on to say with a big bite of a donut in his mouth: "There's no difference between membership at a church and country club."

"How so?" my church member asked.

The non-church attendee said both groups had dining halls were people gathered to eat.

Both had Sunday worship services of sorts- the churches in sanctuaries and the country clubs on the golf courses (singing praises to the best golfers of the day).

And who serves in leadership positions, he said, at each often have a lot to do with race and family position-- "For you just don't go to any church or any country club and become President," he noted. "There's a selective process." And he concluded by offering, "So why do you want me to come to your church again? I think the country club route would be more fun and without the guilt."

And in response, my church member said nothing. And said nothing. My jaw dropped a little as I observed the silence.

(Silently, I cheered the church member on in my head, trying to give him messages of delightful things to say about how much he loved our gatherings (and my sermons of course), what a difference a relationship with Jesus had made in his life, and how I knew being part of a church community had brought him closer to his wife and his grandkids who recently joined the choir)

But, none of my seminal messages worked it seemed. Finally, the gentleman who was my church member spoke and added that the golf course did sound more fun so he might try it out the next Sunday. What???

As part of the internship, I shared weekly mentoring sessions with the senior pastor. I couldn't wait to tell him about what I heard at the diner. I expected the pastor to respond in outrage to what I'd heard, promising me that he'd put on his holy high shoes and give the congregation a talking to about their evangelism practices the next Sunday. But, he didn't seem as outraged as I had hoped. And he didn't start condemning the congregation from the pulpit the next week either. But he did tell me that he'd have a special message to offer.

But, he got into the pulpit the next week claimed one simple point: Jesus is Lord.

He said that naming Jesus as Lord was what we as a church needed to keep claiming and claiming and claiming again for why it was we did everything. He challenged us all to take this name-- even if it was brand new for some of us-- and place it as a banner over all aspects of our lives.

When nursery workers changed diapers, washed little hands and played with play dough  in children's Sunday School, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

When volunteers show up to clean the gutters or wash the pews on church work days, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

When we sing hymns, and pray prayers and give our tithes and our offerings, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

When we decided what to make, prepared and set out our covered dishes for church lunches, do so in the name of Jesus being Lord.

And say it with me, whatever we do and wherever go in the future as a community, we do so with the name of Jesus as Lord going first.

And what wisdom this was! To join for worship each Sunday in the name of Christ, we are given an entirely way of existing in this community which speaks to EVERYTHING that we do.

And while sure, there will always be those who "don't get it" who don't understand why centering ourselves in God and in community is worth it, we keep going. We keep teaching the children. We keep washing the windows. We keep making the Sunday meals. We keep saying the name. We keep professing Jesus as Lord, in the footsteps of our dear brother Thomas, believing, trusting that this confession of faith connects us now and forevermore with the resurrection power we need in this world to make a difference.

Today, the cry of our hearts must be Lord: “Give Us a New Name.” For there is no other way than in the name of Christ that we or our church can go forward in God’s mission to the world. Our own name just won’t do. So, come Lord Jesus, give us your name, a name new to some of us for the first time, and to others of us a name we’ve forgotten. Come and teach us how to live in unity with one another as claim together this hour that you are Lord.