Have you ever experienced a celebrity sighting? Until a week ago today, I hadn’t. Last week at lunch, my brother Ross & I braved the Nor’easter and went to Momofuku.
I am a fan of Ricky Gervais. I have loved the BBC version of the Office longer than I have been a practicing Christian. I followed Ricky on Facebook a number of years ago and his posts generally amuse me. Yet, occasionally, he posts some fairly vitriolic anti-Christian items. He is an avowed atheist who seems to consider religion with about the same level of charity as Hitchens and Dawkins. Sometimes this frustrates me to no end. Ricky also often posts about human rights and animal rights and part of me wants to shout to him that some of the most vocal and effective proponents of both are people of faith.
Yet, I can’t always shake my feeling that sometimes, somehow, he has it right. I don’t mean that he has it right that somehow religion is an awful and fruitless thing. Or maybe I do mean that, I suppose.
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“I’m not called to be successful, I’m called to be faithful.”
“22 ‘Blessed are you when people… cast out your name as evil because of the Son of Man… 26‘Woe to you when all men speak well of you.” (Luke 6:22, 26; NKJV)
Today, the celebration of All Saints’ Day, is a moment to consider our baptism. In some of the services today, babies will come to be baptized, and when they are, their families will be told, “Name this child!” My own middle name is for my great-grandmother, who died in May of this year; I think of her especially on this celebration of All Saints’ Day, as many of us remember people who have died in the last year who were holy beacons of Jesus’ love. I’ve noticed since moving to the South that down here, many more people name their children after family members. I even know a family who boasts something like seven generations straight of women with the same name. Names still mean something down here, and that makes the name that God gives us all the more sweet. The most important name that any of us could be called is “Christian.” “Christian” means “little Christ,” or perhaps more colloquially, “imitator of Jesus.”
God is fond of giving people new names. In the Old Testament, God changes people’s names at profoundly significant moments in their lives. Just a few weeks ago, we heard the moment when Jacob’s name was changed to Israel. Do you remember? The reading from Genesis told us, “‘Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.'” (Gen. 32:28; NKJV) God changed Jacob’s name to Israel the night before Jacob was to meet his brother again for the first time in decades. But to understand what’s significant about this name change, we should understand what the names mean: “Jacob” means “trickster,” and stories about tricksters are common throughout ancient literature. Think about the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, or the Hare in the parable about racing with the tortoise. These characters don’t make friends, they are scrappy, and they have to stick to themselves because their only way of getting ahead in the world is at another person’s expense. Jacob did that to his brother Esau, cheating his older sibling out of the blessing and riches which were meant for him; later, Jacob did it again to his uncle, stacking the deck so to speak, to make sure the sheep in his herd were the most hardy. But here in Genesis 32, Jacob’s name changes–God comes near to Jacob and transforms him. God changes Jacob so completely into a new person that his name can’t even be “trickster” anymore. It’s changed to Israel, which means, “God fights.” You might think of it as something like, “God fights for you”–I imagine that’s what Israel hears any time his name is said after it changes that fateful night. God loves Jacob just as he is, trickster and all, but God loves Jacob too much to leave him that way. God transforms Jacob, and gives him a new name with a new identity. He’s no longer a “trickster,” but a person for whom “God fights.”
This happened to Paul, too, in the New Testament–the writer of those letters starts out with the name “Saul,” but when he meets Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus tells Saul that he’s got a new job to do now and it’s such a change that he needs a new name to go with it. That’s how Saul becomes Paul. We could think about it this way: Saul starts out with a sensible life–he’s a Pharisee, well-respected, super smart, the jock, the popular kid, the A+ student–he’s the top of everything, the wonderkid. God comes along and stands in his path one day, and the great reputation that Saul has, his trophies he’s won and collected–this life Saul’s built–it comes undone and is remade by God into something that doesn’t make sense at all to Paul’s old friends. Being transformed by the God we meet in the person of Jesus Christ means that we do strange things, like giving someone who’s cold our new, fresh, warm coat, not the old, smelly, ratty one. We relentlessly forgive the person who continues to stand us up when we’ve made a date, or keeps hanging up on us when we call on the phone. No matter how many times someone asks for a coat or a blanket, and no matter how many times someone hangs up on us, we give and we forgive one more time, every time. These actions make no sense unless Jesus Christ is Lord; unless he is God incarnate.
No one is naturally generous or forgiving; developing holy habits takes lots of hard work, and it’s a hopeless pursuit unless the person is utterly devoted to the God revealed in the person of Jesus. Every saint we celebrate today recognized God in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and committed their lives to that truth. I heard someone say once, “People who are saints don’t know it until God himself tells them.” Saints’ lives are transformed by the truth of Jesus; their first name is “Christian.” God has re-named them.
Today we celebrate All Saints. There are hundreds of faithful Christians who have passed through these doors, many we remember as living hard, holy lives devoted to Jesus. There are thousands more, through the last 200 years at Trinity, and millions throughout the world, who has been called saints by God because of their holy lives, oriented completely toward Jesus. We do not remember, nor could we ever know, all their names. But God has recognized them, and that is the only lasting remembrance.
After these buildings crumble and the plaques are tarnished, after the communion kneelers disintegrate and the endowment runs out, though our names and the names these parents give their children as they are baptized today will disappear and be forgotten by future generations, may we so fight to live lives that only make sense in the sight of Jesus’ resurrection; that our reward may be God remembering our name when we see him face to face one day.
“It is better to have the entire world against us than to have Jesus be offended with us.”
-Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ