When Shakespeare has Juliet ask “What’s in a name?” he does not mean to convince us that names are unimportant, for it was their names that came most between the two lovers. He meant to say that their true names were not Montague and Capulet, but loving and beloved. There is something about Romeo and Juliet that transcends these family names and expresses their true name.
It is an idea that has been around for a long time, this idea that name and character are caught up together, and people sometimes change their names because they want to say something about themselves. There was a man whose name was Ulianov, born in Russia in the later part of the 19th century, but when he became a revolutionary he took a new name. He called himself Lenin, man of iron. And still another, a colleague of this Lenin whose name was Dzugashvili, when he joined the revolution he called himself Stalin, man of steel. What’s in a name, apparently there is a great deal in a name.
The Bible recognizes the same. In the Bible when a man or woman is encountered by the grace of God, he or she receives a new name, a God given name a true name. So Jacob was called Jacob, the cheater, because he was a cheater, he cheated his father, he cheated his brother Esau. But one night Jacob came to the river Jabok and he sent his family on ahead across the ford of the river, but Jacob remained behind. While he waited there in the darkness God came and wrestled with Jacob and in the morning he had a new name, he was called Israel, the one who has wrestled with God. It was a new name and a new covenant.
And when Jesus called a man named Simon to be one of his disciples he said to him, you shall be called no more Simon, but Peter, the rock. And when a man named Saul met Jesus on the road to Damascus he became Paul, the apostle. And when the prophet Isaiah saw this dispirited, bedraggled, ragged group of refugees returning to Jerusalem he said, God will give them a new garment, like a bride adored for her husband, and God will give them a new name. It was a new name and a new covenant.
I want to talk with you about a new name for a new year, but I want to talk with you first about the covenant. The other day I came across an article in one of the news magazines about a new book written by Elizabeth Loftus and entitled “Eyewitness Testimony.” It is a book on memory, and the point of it is that most of us believe that we can remember things with a great deal of accurate detail, but we are wrong. Just to prove it, she offers a drawing of a penny, a common Lincoln head penny; except that she offers fifteen different possibilities of the way the penny looks. Does Lincoln face right or to the left? Where are the words “In God We Trust”? What about the word Liberty, and the date? She says, of course, that the point is that memory is not determined much by facts. It is influenced by something else. We fit facts into the whole of our experience and we rearrange the facts to fit our experience as often as we rearrange our experience to fit the facts. We do not live by facts; we live by the wholeness we give to those facts. We live by meaning.
In the Bible is the word that describes that relationship called meaning. God has made a covenant with his people, I will be your God and you will be my people. He makes it again and again. It is that covenant that explains all the facts there are. And you and I know that. A church is a covenant, a family is a covenant, a marriage is a covenant. And churches and families and marriages survive not because of any collection of facts, but because of the covenant. And whenever the covenant is renewed it means a new name.
And so in the New Covenant, God himself takes a new name. He is called Emmanuel, God with us, or he is called Jesus, because he saves his people from their sins or as in our Gospel lesson this morning he is called The Word. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” You know, perhaps, that the Greek here says that in the beginning was the Logos. It was a word from Greek philosophy that meant something like the organizing principle of all things. And John meant to say that this organizing principle became flesh in Jesus. He meant to say that Jesus is the one who makes sense out of all of life. He meant to say that the meaning of life is never discovered, no matter how many facts you assemble. It is always received. The meaning of life is given in the covenant with God and whenever that covenant is renewed it means a new name.
So what’s in a name? I have often wondered if the name of a church ought to somehow express its character. I have known churches just starting out that selected their name carefully for that very reason. I have wondered, then, if St. Paul is a letter writing church, if St. Andrew is a church of dedicated and quiet servants of the Lord, if Trinity church shows forth the true nature of God and so on. And I wonder what it means that a church is called First? Does it mean only that a church is first in point of time? Could it mean that it might be first in an Old Testament sense, as in “first fruits” or “firstlings of the flock”?
You can see what I am coming to. I want to suggest to you this morning that if we live up to our covenant name we will offer God the best we have, the best music, the best prayers, the best service. I have come to believe that a good word that helps me understand John Wesley’s doctrine of Christ perfection is the word “excellence”, for excellence, like Christian perfection, is not a state of being it is something that happens, and it seems most often like a gift when we least expect it, when you are doing your job, when you don’t even deserve it, excellence happens. Excellence is a covenant, you offering the best you have and God making it happen.
So, what’s in a name? I really am not suggesting that we change the name of this church, take a new name in a new year, but I am suggesting a new name for a new covenant in a new year, a name that means first, as in first fruits, a name that means excellence. In a few minutes we will receive the elements of this Holy Communion. It is a renewal of the covenant. Then at the close of this service we will use this covenant prayer, printed in the order of service. Read that prayer, examine it carefully, take it home with you. Make your own covenant with God, but let the name of this people be excellence.
This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch at First United Methodist Church in Denton on January 5, 1981.