The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      22nd April 2018
"by the name of Jesus Christ"
Jan Rushton

1st Lesson : Acts 4.5-12

2nd Lesson : 1 John 3.16-24

Gospel       : John 10.11-18


Text: ….by the name of Jesus Christ … (Acts 4.10)

Peter has been asked by the Sanhedrin to tell them by what name he has healed the man born lame.  In his reply he asserts that it is by the name of Jesus Christ that this man is standing before them in good health, and he concludes his defence with the ringing declaration that ‘there is no other name under heaven … by which we must be saved’. 

The naming of things is an exercise of power.  If we can give something a name, we have established our authority over it, and it is less threatening.  This is recognised in the Bible’s creation story, where the Lord God brought every creature to Adam, ‘and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name’ (Gen 2.19).

We give particularly careful thought to the naming of our children.  We may think about the euphony of name and surname, or about the word formed by a set of three or four initials.  Mr and Mrs Green, for example, might hesitate before deciding to call their daughter Patricia Isobel.  There may be family names we would like a child to carry, perhaps with the unspoken hope that they will grow up to reflect the good memories we cherish of Aunty Jenny or Uncle Brian.  In some cultures the given name may be freighted with even more direct meaning.  Jesus’ own name, for example, means ‘God has saved’.

Then there are nicknames and new names given in later life, which may reflect the bearer’s grown-up personality.  One thinks of Simon, for example, to whom Jesus gave the name Peter for the solid rock-like qualities he saw in him, or Paul’s companion Joseph, whose new name Barnabas, meaning ‘son of encouragement’ was given to him by the apostles (Acts 4.36).  Names are meaningful and important, but if the giving of a name is an exercise of power, the use of a name is generally a token of love.  Through the prophet Isaiah, God says to the people of Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, you are mine. (Isaiah 43.1)

One of the most intriguing names of all is the name or names given to God himself in the Hebrew scriptures.  After all, if the giving of a name is a sign of the name-giver’s power, the one person a mortal cannot name is God.  Of the three words most commonly used in the Old Testament to refer to God, two – ‘el’ and its plural ‘Elohim’ – are essentially generic terms for the god or gods that might be of wood or stone.  Elohim was used in a somewhat abstract sense to refer to the one supreme deity, the god above all gods, but it was not a name.  Jehovah, or Yahweh, the third name for God that occurs in the old Testament, is a construct based on the four Hebrew characters – transliterated as YHWH – which were used to refer to God.  This unpronounceable sequence of letters was in any case considered too sacred for mere mortals to pronounce, so it became the custom, when reading from the Hebrew scriptures, to substitute the expression Adonai (my Lord).  It was not until the 12th century AD that this morphed into Yahweh, or Jehovah, combining the vowels of Adonai with the sacred letters YHWH.  So we have three words to refer to God, but none of them is strictly speaking a name.

It is not surprising then that Moses, at the burning bush, has to ask what he is to say when the people of Israel ask for God’s name.  The response he receives - I AM THAT I AM, tell them I AM has sent me to you (Exodus 3.14) – is again not so much a name as a somewhat enigmatic statement of God’s existential being.  The true nature of God is simply to be what He is.  I AM, the very fact that God is, was to serve as an assurance to Moses that he would have the full backing of God’s presence and his power. 

The enigma surrounding the name of God is a reminder of the momentous step which God took in sending his own Son to dwell among us on earth.  Here at last was God in human form, God with a real name, and in John’s gospel Jesus explains what this will mean for our access to the power and the love of God.

Three times in the teaching which Jesus gives to his disciples at the last supper, he assures them that whatever they ask in his name, he or his Father will do it for them.  He can assure them that his Father will respond to their prayers because he and his Father and the disciples are bound together by the most powerful bonds of faith and love.  He has believed in His Father, absolutely, and they have come to believe in Him.  He and His Father love one another absolutely, and because the disciples have loved him, they too are included within the embrace of his Father’s love, and He will respond to their prayers for Jesus’ sake.  Moreover, just as his own life and death have glorified the Father, so too what they ask of the Father in his name will further redound to the Father’s glory.  Jesus says: Very truly, I tell you, if you ask anything of the Father in my name, he will give it to you (John 16.23).  This promise may have been addressed in the first instance to Jesus’ disciples, but John wants us to understand that now we are invited and empowered, as they were, to become engaged in the virtuous circle of faith and love, which finds expression in loving acts of great power, acts consistent with his loving purposes, but channelled – amazingly - through us.

Peter’s healing of the man born lame is if you like the first expression of that virtuous circle of faith and love in action.  Peter and John believed that they had been filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God which had dwelt in Jesus.  Encountering the man born lame asking for help, they are moved with compassion for him, as Jesus himself would have been moved, and they want to respond as Jesus would have responded.  Their faith is in place.  Their love is stirred. They remember what Jesus has taught them about asking the Father in his name.  Conscious as they are of his power and their own weakness, it feels absolutely natural to pray in the power of his name, so that is what they do, and the first miracle of the young church is the result.

Who knows what the leaders of the church in our own time may need to do in Jesus name?  Who knows what any of us may be called to do?   But if we believe that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, if we are animated in our hearts by the same spirit of loving compassion that animated him, then there is no limit to what the Father will do for us, when we make our prayers to him in the name of Jesus Christ.

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