Sunday, April 26, 2015

In Whose Name?

Acts 4:1-12
April 26, 2015

            “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other word would smell as sweet;”
            “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
            Of these two quotes, I suspect that the first was more familiar to you than the second. Juliet of the Capulet family stood on the balcony outside of her room and asked this question about Romeo, a Montague. The premise of Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, is a familiar one. These two young people fall in love, but their love is forbidden because of a feud between their families. No Capulet would be allowed to love and marry a Montague and vice-versa. Although the feud was the supposed culprit in keeping Romeo and Juliet apart, their names were the real enemy. “What’s in a name?”
            The second quote may be less known, unless you’ve read Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, or saw the production of it by the Shawnee Little Theater. These words were spoken by John Proctor. Set during the time of the Salem Witch Trials, John’s wife, Elizabeth has been accused of witchcraft. Other innocent people in the town have been accused and are facing the gallows. John Proctor is now in jail, and he can avoid the hangman’s noose if he will confess that he did have dealings with the devil. He confesses in word, and he confesses in deed by signing the written confession. But when Deputy Governor Danforth intends for the paper to be hung on the church door as proof of Proctor’s confession, Proctor snatches the paper away and will not give it to him. His is a false confession; a confession that may save his body but will not save his conscience. Using his name will be a further betrayal of all the others who were also innocent, but would not falsely confess. In the end Proctor chooses the rope, rather than have his name forever bound to a lie.
            “I have given you my soul; leave me my name!”
            Juliet questions why a name should keep two people who love each other apart. John Proctor prefers an unjust death rather than losing his name. In the midst of the lies and hysteria of the trials, his name was all he had left.
            In both scenarios, names held power; for good or for bad. The power of their names made Romeo and Juliet’s love a forbidden one. John Proctor’s name held his dignity, his identity, his conscience. Our passage from Acts is also about a name. In that name could be found healing, power, and authority.
            In Jesus’ name Peter healed a lame man by the gate of the temple called Beautiful. After the healing, Peter preached a power-filled sermon to the people who witnessed the man’s healing, declaring to them that although they were the ones who sent Jesus to the cross, God was working through them. Jesus of Galilee who died on the cross is now Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the resurrected One. In this case, the dead did not stay dead.
            The dead not staying dead is the last thing that the priests and the Sadducees want to hear. The words Peter and John were preaching and teaching the people irk and annoy them. So they had the two arrested to try and shut them up. But Luke writes that arrest or no arrest, many of the people who heard the Word believed. Not just a few of them, 5,000 of them.
            After a night in jail, Peter and John are brought before the highest of the religious leaders. This religious court was the Sanhedrin, and going before them would have been like one of us coming before a Grand Jury or even the Supreme Court. When Peter and John stood before them, they asked, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” The authorities wanted to know the authority who gave Peter and John the authority to heal in this way, to preach and teach in this way?  In whose name do you do this? In whose name?
            Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, answers boldly. The reason this man, this former beggar, is standing before you, in good health, healed from all ill, is “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.”
            By the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It is in this name that Peter and John are able to heal. It is in this name that Peter – a man who only a few weeks before could not even admit to a servant girl that he was a disciple of Jesus – speaks boldly to the highest religious authorities of the time. It is in this name that Peter declares salvation will be found. In whose name? In Jesus’s name.
            As a faith we bear Jesus’ name. But what do we do with that name? The last verse of this passage is a troublesome one for some, and a proof text for others. Peter states clearly that salvation can be found in no one else. Only Jesus. Many people use this verse as proof positive that there is no such thing as universalism, or to use a phrase found in Hindu, “all paths lead to the divine.”
It would seem that this verse states the exact opposite: not all paths lead to the divine, only following the in the way of Jesus leads to that end.
            I don’t want to get caught up in this to be universalist or not to be universalist debate. But I do think we have to think critically and seriously about what we do with Jesus’ name. There is no doubt from events that we’ve seen in the past months that people bearing Jesus’ name are persecuted, literally, because of it. However I often hear people here, in this part of the world, speak of being persecuted because they bear the name of Jesus. With that I take issue, because we may bear a lot of things for carrying the name Christian, but I do not think we are persecuted. Christians are often the butt of the joke. We are not always taken seriously by the larger culture. Christians are caricatured, no doubt. But is this persecution or is it because of what we do or don’t do, what we say or don’t say in Jesus’ name? We may speak boldly of our faith in this place, but could we speak as boldly as Peter did before the Sanhedrin? When we disagree with someone’s belief – not just a person of another faith, but with each other – do we find a way to speak with love or do we use our beliefs to beat up the other person? What do we do and say in Jesus’ name?
            It is the height of understatement to say that my actions don’t always match my words said in Jesus’ name. I know that I fall short of that daily. No matter how much I might feel fired up by the Holy Spirit in the pulpit, I confess that I don’t carry that same fire into the rest of my week. Am I willing to speak boldly on Tuesday, just as I am willing to speak it today? The old campfire song says that “they’ll know we are Christians by our love,” but how well do I manage to actually show that love?
            It seems to me that the key to really living and doing and speaking in Jesus’ name is to remember that Jesus who died is Jesus who lives. Speaking and acting in Jesus’ name is speaking and acting in the name of the Living God. The dead did not stay dead. That. Changes. Everything. It changed everything for a ragtag group of frightened followers. Jesus did not stay dead and their witness to it changed their name from disciples to apostles. Jesus did not stay dead, and with his new life and ascension came the power of the Holy Spirit. The tongues of flame that rested on of the apostles are waiting to rest on us as well.
            The power to be bold to speak in Jesus’ name is here in our midst. The power to live and do in Jesus’ name is here in our midst. Bearing the name Christian is about living boldly in a world that is broken. Bearing the name Christian is about speaking boldly to powers and principalities that do everything they can to silence those words. Bearing the name Christian means much more than in name only, because what’s in a name? Life.  It is life. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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