Monday, January 21, 2008

Called by a New Name

I notice that our Lord changed a name in his encounter with his first two disciples. We’re not told whether Andrew underwent such a change, but his brother Simon did: “’You are to be called Kephas,’ (which is translated Peter).”

The fact is, of course, that Kephas is the Greek form of the Aramaic word that Jesus had in mind, the word for rock. What a merry little linguistic chase that is to make the point that our Lord saw in a flash, knew in his gut, read it clearly that Simon aka Kephas aka Peter was going to play a key role in his mission plan.

“The Rock”: says it all. Last Sunday, I urged you to hear the divine voice Jesus heard at his baptism addressing you: You are my son, my daughter, beloved; with you I am well pleased. Today, imagine yourself in the shoes of this fisherman. You’re being welcomed to the very core of a team that Jesus is forming simply by his Word, and he’s calling you Rock.

You will spend the rest of your life scratching your head, wondering why. You will spend the rest of your life trying to live into the truth of that name.

That he did live into this truth is shown in that every year the Church keeps January 18th as the Feast of the Confession of Peter, recalling how he was also the first of the disciples to recognize who Jesus truly is, and to call him by the name Messiah.

Names are important, aren’t they? Today, we heard Jesus change one in the calling of a disciple. We might all agree that he has authority to do that.

You may have noticed that in the opening verses and responses of the baptismal rite today, a name was changed in that we called God not just Father, but Mother as well. I did that. In the moment when I used that red pen, I had no doubt whatsoever that it was time to do so. In the moments that followed, doubt grew. And then it was printed, making it time to, well, deal with it.

Perhaps I need to be wary of those moments when I feel no doubt whatsoever—for I did not have authority to make that change.

It’s hardly a novel idea, calling God Mother. Not in the Judaic portion of our religious tradition, where at places in the Wisdom literature of the Bible Wisdom is named Sophia, and she speaks with God’s voice.

In the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we hear, “Wisdom tells of her glory… In the assembly of the Most high she opens her mouth… ‘I came forth from the mouth of the Most high, and covered the earth like a mist… I sought a resting place… Then the Creator of all things gave me a command… “Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.”’”

And in the Book of The Wisdom of Solomon, “Wisdom protected the first-formed father of the world, when he alone had been created;… She delivered him from his transgression, and gave him strength to rule all things…” Later, “She brought (Israel) over the Red Sea, and led them through deep waters…”

Nor is it novel, calling God Mother, in the Christian tradition that brings us the likes of Catherine of Siena, Julian of Norwich, and Hildegard of Bingen. Saints of God have been calling her Mother for, literally, centuries.

And it is in prayer that they found her. Doubtless, they were trained to pray to God their Father, and doubtless they did. Or was it doubtful, after they’d lived long enough to consider their own experience and recognize there the gentle patience of God, the tender cradling of God, the sensual intimacy of the Spirit, prayer’s relentless loving silence of the womb—was it doubtful, in time, that only the fatherhood of God “worked” to communicate the fullness of love within the Godhead?

Here’s Julian’s answer. In one of her “showings” or revelations she writes,
“And thus in our creation God Almighty is our natural father, and God all-wisdom is our natural mother, with the love and goodness of the Holy Spirit. These are all one God, one Lord. In the knitting and joining he is our real, true spouse and we are his loved wife and his fair maiden. ….”

So I hear Isaiah say that God names us in the womb, I look at the name Sophia Catherine, and I hear these female witnesses rejoicing that their number is about to grow by one, and I hear them testifying to how much more God is than our liturgical language permits us to celebrate, and I wonder how will we help train Sophia Catherine and all our children if we don’t allow our language of worship to reach to express the fullness of our tradition? How will we show our children the fullness of who God is, and help them embrace the wholeness of who they are, if we are afraid to expand our language in worship, keeping it true to what we know in prayer?

It exceeds my authority, to alter the language of the baptismal rite. By that same principle, I shouldn’t have drawn today’s post-communion prayer from the Presbyterian Church—and without that our communion rite today would say nothing about Martin Luther King, Jr. on a day when we need to have communion with him.

Perhaps my own aging is causing me to question the Anglican premise that we will not change words in our liturgy until the entire Church decides how to make those changes and makes them all together. Somehow, I’m sensing that the Episcopal Church will be preoccupied for the foreseeable future, and won’t be revising the Book of Common Prayer in the active years I have remaining.

Does that mean that our Lord won’t change a few names as he moves his mission team forward in the world? He will, for he has that authority. And when he changes the names we use, it is so that we will wonder and pray our way to growing into what new names mean.

Sophia Catherine’s name will not change today, but what she is called will grow. In just a few moments, we will take action with water in the name of God and from then on she will be called child of God, member of Christ’s Body the Church, and inheritor of the Kingdom of God. These are her new names, according to the teaching of the Book of Common Prayer. Isn’t it interesting that “Episcopalian” is missing from that list?

That is because this branch of Christ’s Church understands Holy Baptism as a sacrament that belongs to the whole Church. Because it is the defining sacrament that brings a person into union with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection, it is an ecumenical action, not a denominational one. To borrow an image from our patron, St. John, baptism welcomes a person into the one household of God, without assigning her to one of those many dwelling-places (“mansions” in the King James Version) where we in time settle.

Seen that way, today’s baptism fits beautifully the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in which we find ourselves. On Wednesday at noon, people from several Williamstown churches will meet in our upper room to celebrate the unity we recognize in Jesus Christ, and to repent of our disunity. Episcopalians need to sharpen that spiritual skill, repenting of disunity. I hope you will come to welcome our Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, and Roman Catholic neighbors. Noon, Wednesday.

Those denominational places we settle in, those religions mansions we inhabit, give us specific places into which we sink roots and find nourishment. What we are specifically called as Christians, our own variety, is a name given to us to live into.

What fills me with wonder and delight is the variety of religious experience and expression we have even in this one congregation. We’re still getting acquainted with ten new households worshiping with us since the fall, and while some come to us as Episcopalians, two people come as Adventist Christians, two are Unitarian Universalists, one is a Congregationalist, another describes himself equally at home with Buddhism as with Christianity. We are blessed to have among us people who did, and people who still do, identify themselves as Lutherans, as Roman Catholics, as Presbyterians. I believe we’re also blessed to have among us a share of agnostics who ask wonderful edgy questions.

This is small-town American Christianity. Many of us have taken new names during our spiritual journeys.

This happens in the story John tells today about Andrew and Peter. They were, at verse 35, disciples of John the Baptizer. By verse 42, they have become disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. All because their former teacher, John, gives Jesus a new name, Son of God.

Many of us like a settled life. Today’s Gospel—in fact, the whole Gospel of Jesus Christ—gives us little reason to expect a settled life in company with Jesus. He changes names. He adds to what we are called.