Tuesday, May 02, 2006

What's in a name?

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asks in Romeo and Juliet. She could not understand how the mere fact that she was a Capulet and Romeo a Montague was a strong enough reason to keep them apart. But Shakespeare knew just how powerful names can be. In Othello the villain Iago says, “Good name in man or woman is the immediate jewel of their souls…. But he that filches from me my good name / Robs me of that which not enriches him / And makes me poor indeed...”

Names were even more important in the ancient world. Ancient Israel believed that to name a thing was to acquire mastery over it and to learn a person’s name was to acquire power over them. In the first chapter of Genesis God names each component of creation: “God called the dry land earth … and the waters that were gathered together he called seas…” But in the second chapter of Genesis, God brings all the creatures of the earth before Adam who then names them. Genesis 1 is telling us that the world is God’s artifact, God’s creature, but Genesis 2 tells us that God has entrusted us with the power to name and authority over creation.

Today’s readings touch on this idea of naming. Called before the Jewish authorities Peter asserts that the lame man was healed by faith in the name of Jesus. And in the gospel reading the Risen Christ tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name.”

For Peter to stand before the Jewish authorities and tell them that faith in the name of Jesus had healed the lame man was tantamount to telling them that Jesus was not just an intinerant prophet but that he was God. As Paul put it in the second chapter of Philippians, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow…” To Jews then and now there is only one name in which we are to have faith, only one name to which every should bow, and that is the name of God.

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is not only applicable to today’s readings because of Juliet’s meditation on the significance of names. Shakespeare’s Verona was divided between the Capulets and the Montagues. Take Verona and multiply it a thousand times, and you have the 21st century. Our world is fragmented a thousand different ways. Muslims and Christians, developed and developing countries, rich and poor, north and south, black and white. And religion seems to be responsible for some of the deepest, bitterest, and most dangerous divisions. As Jonathan Swift once said, “We have enough religion to make us hate one another but not enough to make us love.”

The world’s great religions generally agree that we should care for the poor, the hungry, and the homeless; that we should treat all people with respect; and so on. But as soon as we move away from ethics and start to talk about belief, all unity vanishes. From the very beginning Christians have maintained that to know Jesus is to know God and that the name of Jesus is also the name of God. Jews and Muslims cannot wrap their minds around this. Both Judaism and Islam believe that between the divine and the human is an enormous wall that cannot be penetrated. God is God and humans are humans.

If we continue to insist that the name of Jesus and the name of God are one and the same are we engaging in a dangerous spiritual and intellectual parochialism that will simply further divide the world? Is the only alternative a sort of mindless multi-culturalism that maintains that one truth is as good as another? I have no easy answers but I want to suggest a way forward.

First and foremost, I want to say that I am a Christian. I believe that. The Christian faith is the conviction that to encounter Christ is to encounter God. The followers of Jesus were convinced that the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Rachel and Leah, the God who brought Israel out of Egypt and gave the Torah to Moses on Sinai – the very same God had spoken to them in the life and work of Jesus of Nazareth. How did they know this? Workers of miracles and tellers of parables were common in first century Palestine. Many wandering teachers other than Jesus assembled and taught groups of disciples. None of these things is sufficient to explain why Peter, James, John, and the rest were so certain that the name of Jesus and the name of God were one and the same. What convinced them was the resurrection. They had seen Jesus die on the cross; they had placed his body in a tomb; but on the first day of the week he appeared among them again. He appeared not as a vision, dream, illusion, or phantom. They found him to be as real after his death as before it. He ate with them, walked with two disciples from Jerusalem to Emmaus, and the wounds in his hands, feet, and side convinced Thomas and others that he was indeed the Jesus they had known prior to his execution.

Christianity is the belief that to know Jesus is to know God. It is NOT the belief that Christians have a monopoly on the truth; it is NOT the belief that everyone else must be wrong. It is not the belief that Christians are morally and spiritually superior because of their faith.

One of my favorite definitions of the Christian faith comes from David Jenkins, now the retired bishop of Durham, England. Bp Jenkins was a famous or notorious liberal depending on your point of view, but he once remarked to my friend, Alan Webster, then Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, “The Christian faith is very simple: God IS as God is in Christ. Therefore, we have hope.” Note the present tense: not God WAS but God IS. We worship a Christ who is in the present tense, not the past.

And there’s the rub: If you believe as I do that God was (and is) in Christ reconciling the world, that Israel’s God was fully and uniquely present in Jesus of Nazareth, then is there any room at all for acknowledging the validity of other religions? Must we maintain that Christianity not only has a monopoly on the truth but even a monopoly on God?

Many would say yes. Apparently, this is the conviction of our president and many of his strongest supporters. And many would say that this is a dangerous position in a world as fragmented as ours is.

However, I think Jesus himself offers us a way out of this dilemma.
I always tell my students that the only way to understand the New Testament is to hold firmly to the fact that Jesus, Paul, and others were Jews. This helps us make sense of the things Jesus did and said. At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus exegetes three traditional mitzvot or commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery, and you shall not take the Lord’s name in vain. At the very beginning, he says, “I have not come to destroy the Torah but to fulfill (or complete) it.”

I think we may have put too much emphasis on the end of that statement and too little on the beginning. To be sure, we believe that to understand God’s word, God’s guidance for our lives, we need to look to Jesus. I believe that that is what he meant by saying that he came to fulfill the commandments of the Torah.

But what did he mean by saying that he did not come to destroy the Torah? For much of the last 2000 years, Christians have acted as though Jesus DID come to destroy the Torah. We have persecuted the Jewish people, driven them out of so-called Christian countries, and finally, Christian indifference allowed (some would say caused) the murder of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

But Jesus did not set aside the Torah. He never denied its wisdom. And most significantly, he never denied that it was a genuine revelation of God.

I wonder if we might extrapolate from Jesus’ refusal to set aside the Torah, his insistence that he did not come to destroy what had come before but to fulfill it. Would Jesus say that he did not come to destroy the Qu’ran? Might he say that he did not come to destroy but to fulfill the wisdom of Buddhism? Would Jesus of Nazareth refuse to set aside the scriptures of the Hindu tradition?

I do not have a final answer, but I do believe that the God I encounter in Christ is comprehensive and broad rather than narrow and partisan. I cannot say how God is encountered in other great religions but I find it hard to believe that a God as big as the God of Jesus could be revealed only to a small part of the human race and completely hidden to all the rest.

I don’t think this makes me any less Christian. I still believe that God is in Christ reconciling the world. I still believe that hope and health, joy and salvation come to those who call on the name of Jesus. I still believe that you and I have a responsibility to proclaim these things. But I also believe that the kingdom is broader than the limits of my mind and I dare not limit the gracious hospitality of God.

“What’s in a name?” Juliet asked. In Shakespeare’s great play the division between the Capulets and Montagues led to tragedy. Clinging to those things which divide rather than unite us in our world could lead to catastrophes that even Shakespeare could never have imagined. I believe that when I call upon the name of Jesus, I am calling upon God, but it is not for me to say that God might be known by other names.

Freshman year I was part of a fairly conservative Bible study group, and at the end of the year one of our members decided to attend Harvard Divinity School. We were a little worried about what might become of Betsy at this great bastion of liberal religion. After a semester at the div school I asked Betsy what she had learned. She smiled and said, “I have discovered that the kingdom is far broader than I thought.”

God has invited you and me to a heavenly feast. The invitation was written in Greek and went out 2000 years ago. . We call it the New Testament. But I believe that God has also sent invitations to the banquet in Arabic and Chinese and Sanskrit and Hebrew. God invites all his children to the eternal banquet, regardless of their language and regardless of the name by which they know him. Amen.