What's in a name...?
Ordinary Sunday 24: 16 September, 2018
Fr Philip Gill
Assistant Priest, St Peter's, Eastern Hill and Lazarus Centre Chaplain
We begin this morning with a quiz. I'm going to mention some people's birth names. I want to know the names by which they were more famously known. There are no prizes for the correct answer.
Norma Jeane Mortenson (Baker)
Clue: Star of Some Like it Hot and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
— Marilyn Munroe
Clue: World Heavyweight Boxing Champion 1937-1949
— Joe Louis
Clue: "That's Amore"
— Dean Martin
Jorge Mario Bergoglio
Clue: On of his titles is the Primate of Italy
— Pope Francis
Names are important and can say something about who we are. "What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." This is Juliet's plaintive cry that Romeo cast off his name in order that those two lovers may be together. But while the logic is undeniable, the unfolding of their fate in Shakespeare's play only underlines the power of names.
The writer of Mark's Gospel confronts us with the proclamation that Jesus is the Messiah, or more correctly from the Greek, the Christ. I think a lot of people assume that Christ was Jesus' family name. John Smith I would like you to meet Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, John Smith. It is an easy assumption to make. Christ is not a family name however, but a title. And it is not a title Jesus claims for himself but one given to him by those who follow him. In the gospel story this morning Jesus asks his followers who others say that Jesus is.
But what does his given name say about him. The name "Jesus" was quite common in first century Palestine. The Jewish historian Josephus for example mentions nineteen people with that name. It is a version of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Joshua and it means "God saves". The name's popularity is thought to stem from rising Jewish nationalism in response to political unrest especially under the domination of the Romans. Others named Jesus in the New Testament include Jesus Barabbas, the murderer freed at the trial of Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Justus, a companion of St Paul mentioned in Colossians 4.11.
The Gospel reading today tells there was already much conjecture about what the life of Jesus meant. Some think he is John the Baptist come back for the dead or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. It is Peter who hits the mark: "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God". This title would stick to Jesus like a family name.
The term Christ means anointed one and is the Greek form of the term Messiah. As we saw in our quiz, names bring with them meaning and by the time of Jesus the title Messiah or Christ had plenty of meanings. Jesus reinterprets the meaning of this title. Really the only thing about the title Christ that fitted Jesus was that the people pinned their hopes on the anointed one. The hopes of the people were for liberation and restoration and for those dreams to be realised for the people it would take the intervention of a King David — a very big and strong king David.
Yet there was always going to be something different about the kingship of Christ, who never led an army or lived in a palace. The kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, but will come in its fullness in God's future. Jesus never fell for the temptation to hark back to the days of David when Israel was something of a political force in the region. He looked forward, even through his impending death, to the completion of the Kingdom of God.
Matthew has a more expanded, and perhaps more familiar version of this event. Jesus' response to Peter's recognition of him as Christ included giving him a nick name — Peter or rock. Matthew includes Jesus' declaration of Peter as the rock on which his Church will be built. It is a common understanding that if each of the gospel writers were asked the question "Who do you say Jesus is?" they would all answer "Christ" or "Messiah", but with different emphases and understandings. So too the question about who Jesus is a real one for us too — Who do we say Jesus is?
The distilled wisdom of the Church might be a good place to start. In the Catechism, following the recitation of the Apostles' Creed the candidate is asked: "What do you mainly learn from this creed?" The candidate dutifully responds:
First I learn to believe in God the Father, who created me and all the world; secondly, in God the Son who redeemed me and the whole human race; thirdly, in God the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies me and all the elect people of God. [APBA 1995:815].
For some such definitions is enough. For others they can only be starting points at best. Try the Articles of Religion, or if you want to be totally bamboozled, the Athanaisian Creed!
One person who has worked incredibly hard on this question is John Carroll, Professor Emeritus in Sociology at La Trobe University. He was a speaker at the Abundant Justice conference I attended in July. What interested me was his fascination with Jesus as portrayed in Mark's Gospel.
Carroll is not a practicing Christian and yet he admits to being transfixed by the figure of Jesus in Mark. He recalled that he was once a member of a reading group that met for 10 years. During that time one of the texts they read was Mark's Gospel. Nothing else the group read during all that time had anything like the impact on them that Mark had. His experience led him to write a book entitled The Existential Jesus. In an interview Carroll told the ABC's Stephen Crittenden, "After Mark everything else would disappoint".
Carroll likens the Gospel of Mark to a Greek tragedy with Jesus cast as the hero. At the centre of Jesus' proclamation is the call to being fully engaged with life. This Jesus is not about morals or religion or healing in the first instance but about "being". For Carroll, Jesus is the West's "great philosopher of being". Mark's Gospel, he says, spends a great deal of time explaining who Jesus is not. Carroll suggests almost everyone else misses the meaning of Jesus' mission. It is as though Jesus says, and these are my words, "I'll show you how to live life, follow me!" In reality however, almost everyone around him fearfully dissolves away.
Not everyone agrees with John Carroll's answer to the question of who Jesus is. For example, Roland Boer writes in a review of Carroll's The Existential Jesus:
Above all, however, Carroll has simply been caught in the old snare of any search for Jesus, whether literary or historical. Many years ago Albert Schweitzer pointed out that those who search for Jesus find a reflection of themselves. So also with Carroll: Jesus is an individual, a being of the moment, anti-tribal, anti-society, facing up to his existential doubt, with little apparent belief. As Margaret Thatcher once said, chillingly, ‘there is no society'. Carroll's alter-ego, the ‘existential' Jesus, seems to agree.
I am convinced that Jesus' question to the disciples is meant for everyone who is drawn into an encounter with him — whether in the flesh in first century Palestine in the Spirit in 21st century Melbourne. Some will hold fast faithfully to the credal statements of the Church while others will go on their own quest for Jesus.
The danger comes when we think we are answering Jesus' question for anyone other than ourselves. That's not to say that our answers may not be compelling or influential but as the sea of scholarship about Jesus attests, definitive answers will never suffice.
The man with the name that means "God saves" becomes known as the Christ, the Messiah. The New Testament writers aim to convince us that in Jesus of Nazareth, God is doing some thing new and vitally important.
"What's in a name..." indeed. May we share the curiosity of John Carroll and seek our own answers to Jesus' question, "But who do you say that I am?" May we share too in the impetuous courage of Peter to recognise and proclaim Jesus as the Christ.