What’s In a Name

March 24, 1996


What’s In A Name?

If you have ever taken the Bible very seriously you know that it’s a book of peaks and valleys, of noble sentiment in one chapter and tedious detail in the next. You may not know that if you’ve heard about the Bible only from a pulpit, because preachers understandably skip the dull parts, even when they claim to believe that God inspired every single word of it. They skip many chapters because it’s pretty hard to claim inspiration for places like this in the book of Numbers (Ch. 26): “The sons of Judah were Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez and Zerah….. Judahites, by their families: Shelah, the Shelanite family; Perez, the Perezite family; Zerah, the Zarhite family. Perezites: Hezron, the Hezronite family; Hamul, the Hamulite family…..Sered, Elon, Jahleel, Machir, Asriel, Shechem, Milcah, Manasseh…..” Page after page of this stuff, about as interesting as a phone book from Tel Aviv — except for the people who once knew those names 3,000 years ago. As long as ancient Jewish families were tracing their family tree back to Milcah and Manasseh, somebody might turn back to Numbers once in a blue moon just to remind the kids of where they came from. But after a while the world forgot them, and we, of course, have no link to them at all. So does this mean names never have much significance?
Shakespeare’s Juliet tries to convince herself of that in the famous balcony scene where she laments the fact that the boy she has fallen in love with bears the name of her family’s hated enemies. “Be some other name,” she pleads. After all, “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Well, she’s trying to persuade herself, but it’s not quite true. Maybe about roses, but not about people. Names carry histories. Names lift us up, or weigh us down. I have a grandson whose parents, because they conceived him in a section of London known as Lambeth, thought it would be narvelously romantic to make that his middle name. “Lambeth” — for a boy! You can’t even SAY that word without lisping! Imagine neighborhood game about to get underway and a boy asking, “Could I play?” “What’s your name, boy?” “My name’s Lambeth…..” It wasn’t going to work, so, catching on a few years after their mistake, his parents went to court and gave him a new middle name.
So, are names unimportant? Not if you can relate to them, as any newspaper publisher will tell you. I was once an editor of a daily newspaper for two or three years and nothing was more important to my publisher than names. It was his theory that a small-town daily newspaper’s main reason for existence is to print as many local names as possible, because people like see their names in print and they like to know what their neighbors are doing. He used to rate our success on any given day by counting the number of names we managed to get into the paper. By that standard, parts of the Old Testament must have been a howling success at one time – but not any more.
I begin this way because our series of sermons based on the book of Romans comes to an end this morning…..with a list of names! They come right after Paul reminds his friends in Rome to obey the government and pay their taxes. I wonder how that advice would have gone over with good churchgoing American colonists chafing under British rule and taxes. I wonder how many early Congregational preachers based sermons on what Paul said next: “To oppose authority is to oppose God, and such opposition is bound to be punished.” This is another perfect moment for understanding the importance of context when we read the Bible. Paul surely would not have equated God and government if he had lived in Nazi Germany in 1940. Like so many other comments in his letters, the assertion that “to oppose authority is to oppose God” is advice he feels makes sense right at that moment.
Paul was positive, for example, that the world was coming to an end very soon. When he said, “The night is nearly over, the day has almost dawned,” he’s not talking about the sun coming up. He’s talking about the present age and order, which in his opinion will pass away within his lifetime. No point in trying to overthrow even an oppressive government when it is on the verge of vanishing forever. But when you read how heavy-handed the occupying Roman forces were in Palestine, you can imagine how angry Paul’s advice to be patient made many of his parishioners. People are seldom neutral at any time about the role of government in their lives. I was amused by some things I read last week about how self-interest can lead us say one thing and practice another. Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren remarked once that “many people consider the things which government does for them to be social progress, but they consider the things government does for others to be socialism.” I thought about those words when I heard Russell County, Kansas held up some time back as a place where “wealth is created by free individuals with their smarts and their sweat,” and how bad government programs are. But only yesterday a survey reported that Russell County’s total personal income of $l56 million includes over $l6 million in Social Security, $8 million in Medicare, nearly $3 million in U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies, over $2 million in federal farm subsidies, and well over $200,000 in USDA disaster assistance — and apparently no one returned the bad government’s money! If Will Rogers were alive he would chuckle at the ironies self-interest can create, and say as he once did: “The business of government is to keep the government out of business…..that is, unless business needs government aid.“ But which one of us is not inconsistent when he comes to serving our own best interests?
The problem in Paul’s time was an oppressive rather than a free-spending government, so his plea that it be obeyed must have annoyed many of his Christian friends, but when he went on to say “Pay your taxes” he hit them in an even more tender spot. They hated paying taxes even more than some of us but Paul thought that misery would end soon, too, so he said, “Pay them, anyway!” It was not the time to upset the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Taxes are a little more bearable in a free country, but even so Arthur Godfrey probably spoke for most of us when he said once, “I’m proud to be paying taxes in the United States. “The only thing is, I could be just as proud for half the money.”
But enough of governments and taxes and on to that extraordinary postscript to the book of Romans. It makes for a strange sermon, but this final chapter of Romans is strange in itself….not quite what you expect to find in sacred scripture. Paul is telling us goodbye with a list of names, names that once meant something very special to him and to those who read his letter. That they are not special anymore is simply one more proof that Paul had no idea when he wrote his letters that they would one day be collected and turned into sacred scripture. The preachers of my childhood told me that this list of names was inspired in the same way the great First Corinthians “love chapter” is inspired, but that strikes me as absolute nonsense. How much direct guidance from God is required to name one’s friends in a letter — friends, by the way, whose names were going to lose all meaning within a few years? This postcript to Romans is as mundane as one I had last week from an old college friend, and the only reason I have for making you acquainted with it this morning is that it throws some light on the personality of the great apostle, and it gives us a fleeting glimpse into the life of the early Christian church. It begins with the kind of letter of recommendation I must have written a thousand times in a lifetime with churches and colleges:
“I want this letter to introduce to you Phoebe, our sister, a deaconness of the church at Cenchreae. Please give her a Christian welcome, and any assistance with her work that she may need. She has herself been of great assistance to many, including myself.” Most early Christians were poor, but Phoebe seems to have had the means to help others, including the most influential of all the apostles. I would like to read a whole chapter detailing how she and Paul met, how she was able to help him, what her work was, but my latter-day curiosity was utterly beyond Paul’s imagining, so we know nothing else about Phoebe — except that in the centuries after Paul put her name on a piece of parchment, thousands of Christian mothers named their daughters in honor of this woman whom Paul compliments for a passing moment.
We know just a tiny bit more about the next two people who are named. “Give my greetings to Prisca and Aquila. They have not only worked with me for Jesus Christ, but they have risked their necks to save my life. We are all indebted to them. Give my love to the little church that meets in their house.” Paul had met this couple on his first visit to Corinth, when he stayed with them because they were tentmakers and Jews like himself. They had come to Corinth from Rome because the Emperor Claudius had recently ordered all Jewish people out of the city. According to this postscript, they are now back in Rome again, using their home as a “house church” for followers of Christ who, in those days, had no separate buildings like this for their worship. As for how they risked their necks to save Paul, my guess is that if he had known we’d be talking about his ancient letter on this March Sunday morning he would have told us — which is one more hint that he expected no longer a life for his letters than I do for the ones I write.
Now the names come pouring out: “Give my greetings to my dear friend Epaenetus, the first convert to Christ in Asia, and say hello to Mary who has worked so hard for you. A handshake, too, for Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and fellow-prisoners; they are outstanding men among the apostles, and they were Christians before I was.” The little band of believers in Rome had probably heard all about the time when these two Jewish men with Roman names had been in prison with Paul, so he doesn’t bother to explain but just imagine how much more thrilling the story of early Christianity would be if we had brief profiles of all these people.
In the Phillips’ translation, which I am using, Paul says, “Another warm greeting for Ampliatus, dear Christian that he is, and also for Urbanus, who has worked with me, and dear old Stachys, too.” What do you suppose was so special about “dear old Stachys”? I doubt any of you will leave here in a fit of desperate unfulfilled curiosity about that, but I can tell you that I’d walk a lot of miles to hear the details of this friendship. It’s rather nice, next, to find this serious man having a little fun with a couple of names. They may have been twin sisters, Tryphena and Tryphosa, and when Paul praised them for their “hard” work, he was making a word-play on the fact that their names literally meant “Dainty” and “Delicate.” And then he says, “Shake the hand of Rufus for me — that splendid Christian — and greet his mother who has been a mother to me, too.” And on he goes, through nearly 30 names — just as I, if I were separated from you, might send greetings to Barbara and Betty, Max and Martin, Dave and Don, Joyce and Jo Lynn, and so many, many more whose friendship has enriched my life. They would have no meaning for anyone reading my letter a century from now, but at least they would serve as reminders that ancient dust was once upon a time flesh and blood, pulsing with life and love and hope. The great Apostle Paul seems a little more real when he cares enough to remember and honor his friends by name.
“Greet one another with a holy kiss,” he tells them, and another window opens on the customs of the early church. I did a sermon six years ago on how the the holy kisses evolved into handshakes, probably because it’s harder to keep a kiss holy. One of the old church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, complains ofthose who “make the churches resound” with their kissing, and goes on to say that “the shameless use of a kiss…..occasions foul suspicions and evil reports.” (Instructor, iii.12). So, by and by, in an important early document called The Apostolic Institutions, the church laid down guidelines about the holy kiss, saying: “…..let the men apart, and the women apart, salute one another with a kiss in the Lord” — which sounds suspiciously like the kind of advice that comes after someone has complained! Apparently too many participants were discovering an untheological delight in this pleasant ceremony, and so Tertullian and others denounced it as dangerous to church harmony. My apologies to our visitors, but all we offer here is a holy handshake.
So ends the series of nine sermons based on Paul’s letter to the church at Rome. Next week is Palm Sunday, when the children make glad the hearts of florists by waving plastic branches during a brief parade in the sanctuary, and when I plan to follow their act with a very unusual kind of sermon called Incident in Jerusalem: A Documentary Record. I stole the idea from a dear friend. I think you’ll like it.

Eternal God, we came — we worshipped — and we hope our
hearts were conquered by the openness and by the happiness
this church creates in the name of Christ our Lord. Amen.