Genesis 17.1-7, 15-19
“What’s your name?” “What’s your name?” What’s your name!?!?!?” This is the most common English phrase on the streets of Cairo. It’s usually the first question people ask when meeting someone new—right before “what do you do?” It’s a question I ask over and over of the 240 schoolgirls I teach. Calling someone by name rather than by “hey, you!” can make the person feel valued, cared for, interesting. Getting a person’s name right can really mean a lot. Sometimes, maybe it means too much—like when your mother calls you by your first, middle, and last names and then you KNOW you’re in trouble for something! Maybe that’s one time when we would prefer not to hear our names spoken so clearly.
Choosing a name for a child is often a long process involving poring over lists and books of meanings, spending lots of time negotiating favorite and least favorite names with family and sometimes friends, and trying to discern whether the child will “be more like” a Sarah, a Betty, or a Rachel? A Tom, a Richard, or a Max? Names tell something about us, somehow—they fit a person, or maybe they don’t and a nickname is used instead because it seems more fitting.
I doubt many parents would be excited to find out that their children had gone and changed their name, or that someone else had changed the name of their child, after all the work that went into choosing the right name. But that is exactly what happens to Abram and Sarai. They have perfectly good names already, probably chosen by their father. But one day God comes and says, “I have new names for you—you will be called Abraham and Sarah now.” And with just one H, Abraham changes from “exalted ancestor” to “ancestor of a multitude” and Sarah changes from nothingness into a Princess, mother of kings and nations. Just one little H each, to symbolize the incredible covenant God had decided to make with them.
This is not the first time we’ve heard about God’s covenant-making ways, and it isn’t the last time we’ll hear about it either. Last week we heard the story of Noah and how God covenanted not to destroy the earth with water again. The symbol for that covenant was (and is) the rainbow. Next week we’ll hear the story of the Ten Commandments, with tablets of stone as the symbol. On Maundy Thursday, and every time we have communion, we hear about the new Covenant, with bread and wine as the symbols. On Good Friday and Easter, we see and hear about God’s covenant of sacrificial love, symbolized by the cross. Whenever a child or a new member comes into the church, we hear about God’s covenant to be our parent, symbolized by water. Symbols and covenant are nothing new to us—in fact, we probably consider ourselves something of an old hat at all this covenant business. We’ve got it down, backwards and forwards, like the back of our hands.
Well, this covenant with Abraham and Sarah, it has a different kind of symbol. It’s not something physical, tangible, that you can see and touch and taste. It’s more like a complete change of being. God changes their names, the way they are identified, the thing that has been constant and has gotten them through a hundred years of life. This is not just any old covenant, not just any old God, but a God who changes the very thing that defines who they are. I think of the old tradition of bestowing a baptismal name on a child, or of people taking a new name upon entering a monastery, or of a couple getting married and changing last names to reflect the covenant between them.
All those traditions of name changing require growing-into. It takes time to grow into a new name, whether it was acquired at baptism, at holy orders, or at marriage. Abraham and Sarah are no different—their new names declare that they are ancestors of multitudes, of kings and nations. But they aren’t, not yet. Even though God says “I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations”—God uses the past tense—it’s still true that Abraham has only one son, and not by Sarah. For all Abraham’s faithfulness that is reckoned to him as righteousness, he still didn’t believe he and Sarah would have a child—he laughed at the prospect! His name has been changed, he’s been told what will happen, but he still hasn’t grown into it. So he laughs, and then begs God for Ishmael to be good enough, for Abram and Sarai’s solution to the problem of barrenness to be adopted by God—but God is having none of that. And yet Paul tells us that Abraham believed God, even when there is evidence right here of disbelief! Abraham disbelieved, Abraham laughed so hard he fell down, and still the covenant and the nice new name are his.
I wonder if Peter thought about that as he was busy rebuking, and being rebuked by, Jesus. Here Jesus is, talking away about things the disciples can’t even fathom—and he’s doing it in public! So Peter, the one whose name has already been changed to reflect his status as “the rock”; Peter, the one who only minutes ago got everything exactly right by declaring that Jesus is the Messiah; Peter, who is apparently very concerned with how things look, takes Jesus aside and tells him not to be so stupid. Of course he’s not going to die, and if he is, well, don’t talk about it in front of the Pharisees! Peter offers Jesus the human solution to a problem…and God is having none of it. One minute Peter has everything right, and the next minute he’s disbelieving…and his reward is a new nickname:
I doubt this is what Peter was expecting to hear from his Lord, the Messiah. I mean, Abraham disbelieved but he still got to be called the “ancestor of multitudes” and he still got to have another son, this time by his lovely, disbelieving, liar of a wife with her new name “princess.” And Peter falters for one second and suddenly he’s the bad guy, the one no one wants to run into, the adversary who tries to thwart God at every turn. It doesn’t seem fair.
Not only that, but Jesus makes a whole speech about denying yourself, taking up the cross, and following him; about losing your life for him; about not being ashamed of him. Peter must have felt like the attack continued even after the name-calling had finished. Jesus says not to worry about what others think, Jesus says not to worry about your life, Jesus says not to think so much about yourself, Jesus says that if you are ashamed to listen to him in public then he will be ashamed of you…these are harsh words. And Peter knew they were directed at him, probably more than at anyone else. Yes, it is a lesson for all the disciples, for the crowds, but especially for Peter. And, of course, for us.
Often this passage is read and preachers stand up front and say “give every part of yourself” and “don’t be selfish” and “if you want to be a Christian, you must serve until you drop.” I don’t think that is what this is saying. We have seen Jesus spend time alone, we have seen him take the day off, we have seen him go on vacation, we have seen him spend time eating and drinking and resting and praying. I don’t think this passage is about eliminating Sabbath, it’s not about caring so much for others that you neglect to care for yourself. Instead I think this business about denying yourself, taking up the cross, and following Jesus, this talk of losing your life in order to save it, has something to do with Abraham and Sarah and the new names God gave them…and with the name God gives each of us.
Abram and Sarai were told to leave behind their old names, the names they had lived with for a hundred years, the names that defined who they were, that were the identifiers of a life well and long lived. When they became Abraham and Sarah, those two little h’s started them on a journey—a journey of leaving the old self behind and becoming the new creation God had in mind for his covenant partners, walking before the Lord. Abram and Sarai were no more—that life had ended and a new life was begun, with new names to symbolize the covenant and the journey. Abraham and Sarah had a long way to go to grow into the names God had given them—in the beginning they both laughed outright at the thought that they could indeed be the people God said they would be…that they could be ancestors of multitudes of nations, of kings and princes. In the same manner, Simon became Peter, the rock. And in the midst of his growing into his name, he briefly became Satan—a name which could have stuck, but luckily didn’t. Peter outgrew the nickname. It was only a brief stop of disbelief on his journey of following Jesus. Six days after Jesus called him Satan, Peter was invited up the mountain to witness the transfiguration. And a few months later, Peter was preaching the first sermon of the Christian church. And a few years after that, Peter became the first Bishop of Rome, ancestor of the Pope. But it was a long journey, growing into a new name, growing into the sign of the covenant. And through the whole journey with all its ups and downs, complete with disbelief, public ridicule, and doubt, God is still faithful to the covenant.
In the same way we are all on a journey, a journey particularly highlighted during the season of Lent. This is the season when we spend time reflecting on the ministry of Jesus, his journey to the cross, to hell, and back again to life. This is the season when we examine ourselves, when we employ spiritual practices such as fasting and prayer, and when we repent: we turn again to the path God has set us on. This is the season when we look at the symbols of the covenant—rainbow, tablets, water, bread, wine, and especially the cross. It is a season when we reflect on the name God has given to us. Scripture says that anyone who is in Christ—anyone who takes on this name of Christian—is a new creation: the old has gone and the new has come. Just as Abram and Sarai are no more, so our old selves are no more. They are lost for the sake of the gospel, washed away in the waters of baptism so our new selves can be fed at the table. And then we can walk before the Lord, we can follow Jesus wherever he leads—though the journey is long and may seem impossible, we don’t need to be content with only the human solutions. Instead we can set our minds on divine things and bring them into our earthly life.
The covenant between God and Abraham, the covenant extended to all humanity and realized in Jesus the Christ, isn’t only about the outward, tangible symbols. And it isn’t only about doing the right thing or saying the right words. This is a covenant that changes your life. This covenant defines who you are. You are a child of God. God knew your name before you were born, God calls you by name even now, and God was willing to even give you God’s own name to grow into. And so we journey together, learning what it means to leave our old selves behind and to grow into the new creation God has named us to be.
Thanks be to God.