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The Power of a Name
September 4, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

ACTS 3:1-6

The United Methodist reporter is a weekly newspaper, a national newspaper of The United Methodist Church. It has a column called “Dear Deborah” and people write in letters. This particular column is entitled “Ministers Names Upset Town”. 

“Dear Deborah, the wife of our minister uses her maiden name. She is a minister also and serves a neighboring church. (So you know, it's not from our church, so relax.) This was quite a shock in our small conservative town. But hear this! Now she is pregnant. We are all wondering what name this baby will have. Why does this couple cause all this talk and upset when it is so unnecessary? Of course, the young people think it is neat, and this will undoubtedly influence them. Signed, Shocked.” 

Dear Shocked. This is becoming a common practice, especially among the seminary students who are couple ministers. The reasons are fairly obvious if we look closely. The woman minister who is also wife of a minister wants and needs her own identity as a clergy person. And this helps if only in a small way. Otherwise, the wife is apt to be thought of as a minor clergy or dependent clergy or just playing second best to the husband as clergy person. The details of how a wife can keep her maiden name and be a mother are being worked out by many couples. Why not let them do the worrying about the baby's name? Why not help them in the struggle for a new relationship by beginning and maintaining a loving supportive church family. Perhaps in the future names won't have to be important.” 

The phenomenon is happening because many people today believe that names are important, that names are perhaps more important than we have assumed in recent times. It is a serious matter to retain one's name. But it is also a serious matter to surrender one's name. Many people in our society find it shocking that a married woman would retain her maiden name. But it is also shocking for people to glibly, easily, wantonly surrender their names, or change their names in marriage, and then glibly, easily, wantonly divorce. They discard, change names and mates like old clothes. That too is a shocking matter. 

Let's look today at names for names are more important to us than we have realized. There is power in names. The ancients believed that names were more important than we do, and I think they knew something that we have forgotten. There is power in names. 

I would like to suggest three aspects of this power this morning. First of all, to name a person is to identify that person. Names are used to identify, to differentiate, to distinguish one person from another. Every person is unique. Every person is different from every other person on the face of this earth from the beginning of time. One symbol of that is we each have our own names, our distinctive own names that identify us. Nature has names—plants, animals, mountains, rivers, lakes. In the second creation story in Genesis chapter two affirms that creation was not complete until Adam named everything in his garden.

Names are used to identify but the ancients also gave names that were more personal than we do. The ancients may have deliberated longer than we do and chose names that just didn't sound pretty. They put meaning into the names. Surnames, (which seems to upset many today when the surname has not changed in marriage) are really a recent phenomenon on the face of the earth. It’s only in recent history that we've used family names. Because of the increase in population, first names were getting mixed up and confused. And so gradually surnames came into being as in Sweden. In recent times when there were two people with the same first name and were being confused with each other, they were called John's daughter, or John’s son. In Britain, it's only been within the last few hundred years that surnames have been used. British surnames fall into four categories: First, the names are family names—someone’s son, someone's daughter. Second, occupational names—a baker, or smith or potter. Third, a descriptive name, like long or stout, or strong or brown. Fourth, local names named for villages or places like Norris. Norris is a derivative of North and the original Norrises must have come from the north, down into Britain hundreds of years ago and were called Norse people, and finally Norris. 

Surnames are new on the face of the earth, but first names have always been used since the beginning of time. First names carried much meaning, especially in the Bible. When Rebecca bore twins and the younger son was born hanging on to the heel of the older son as if he were trying to take the older’s position, he was named Jacob. Jacob means to “supplant or to take the place of” And Esau, the older brother, after he was gypped two times by his younger brother Jacob, said, “Boy, is he well named!” Names are often given with a promise, or named for someone famous, or for some aspiration, some hope for the person or for the country. Elijah means the “Lord is my God”. Michael means “who is like God”. Joshua or Jesus as it is pronounced in the New Testament means to “save his people”. 

Names also carried more meaning than just to differentiate. Names also expressed something about the person, something of the innermost being of the person, something of the essence of the personality of the person that was believed to be captured in the name. Therefore, to know the name of a person it was believed that you knew something more about the person. You had an insight into the nature into the personality, into the being of that person. Some of the person's essence was captured in the name. To know the name of the person was to know something of the essence of the person. And with that comes a power. You know something about that person, and there's an aspect of control. 

Therefore, the Lord was very careful in giving out his name. To know the name of another person is to know something of the character of that person. In the Bible, when their character was changed, or when the personality was changed, they got a new name. Jacob, after he wrestled with God all night long, asked God his name, and God wouldn't tell him. After he wrestled with God and got some insights into himself, his name was changed. His name was changed to “Israel”, which means “one who struggles with God”. As Israel he became the patriarch of the nation Israel. In later Bible days, persons were named for famous people, or loved ancestors—people they hoped the child would live up to. 

Something of the essence, something of the character of the person is found in his or her name. Therefore, let's learn the meanings of our names. Teach the children the meaning of their names—their first names, and their surname. The interest in roots is healthy and good for us as we struggle with our identity—who we are as individuals and who we are as people. Certainly one major aspect of learning who I am, and what I am about is to know my name and the meaning of my name. There is a power in the name that identifies me and you from everyone else. 

Secondly, to know the name and to name the name is to influence that person. There is power. Knowing the name is to know something about the essence of that person. A certain amount of power is both given and received in the name giving. Therefore, blessings and curses in the ancient world were believed. How they sought a blessing from another person! How they abhorred and were fearful of curses! Curses pronounced on a family would last for generations. Now, we kind of scoff at that, but I think there's a great element of truth because every word that is spoken is accompanied with energy, with power. And every name that is spoken is accompanied with some kind of energy and some kind of power. Some kind of interaction occurs. When you speak to a person with their name in positive, loving, wholesome terms, that person will blossom and flower. When you speak negatively, that person is affected by your words and by your speech. To name a name is to influence. To name a name is to carry with it a power and an energy that influences. 

Look how black people were kept in subjugation for generation upon generation in this country because we named them niggers, inferior and lazy. The speaker believed that and the recipients by and large believed that. It took generations to break the power of naming that name. The English called the Irish lazy, shiftless, the shanty Irish, and there was power in those names. We lived in a town once where if you had the name of Kelly, you could not make it. Everybody knew you'd never amount to anything. Everybody knew you were shiftless and lazy. Every teacher in the school knew it. Everybody said, “Oh, here comes another one of those Kellys”. There was power in that name. The speaker believed it and the recipient believed it. 

Charles Edmondson, one of our good faithful members, isn't here today. He told me he wasn't going to be here so I'm going to tell the story, a beautiful story. He was a school teacher who taught in a little town in northern California, up in the lumbering area. He taught ninth grade, One year, the principal wanted to expel one of the ninth graders because he didn't want anything to do with school and was nothing but a troublemaker. He was lazy. He was incompetent. He couldn't produce, so they wanted to get rid of him. The boy didn't have a mother. She had died. His father was a tree faller. The boy drove the lumber truck in the lumber camp, earning more money than any teacher in the school. He was in ninth grade. He could see little use of schooling and education, so the principal said, “Let’s get rid of him.” They had the rule that no student could be expelled unless it was a unanimous decision by all the teachers, but Mr. Edmondson said, “No.” The principal said, “Well, he's only a dumb tree faller’s kid who will never amount to anything. Why not just get rid of him.” All the teachers agreed—they named him a dumb tree faller’s kid—except for Charles who wouldn't believe it. So the principal said, “Well, if you're the only one who votes against this, we'll just send him to your classes.” So for the entire ninth grade year, the boy only had two classes—algebra and general science, taught by Charles. He went home after those classes. Charlie believed in him and worked with him. Gradually through general science and algebra, a whole new world opened to that kid. He began to settle down. In the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, he took all the other classes and graduated with highest honors in the school. He went on to Chico State, and graduated from Chico State with the highest grades ever in math and physics. They gave him a full time instructor’s job while he worked on his master's degree, and after he had his master's degree, he went to Cal at Berkeley. He taught full time while working on his PhD. And graduated with the highest honors in computer and physics ever attained in Berkeley. He went into the government, and now he owns a very successful electronics company. He keeps in close contact with Mr. Edmondson. Both the boy and his father say, “If it weren't for the belief of that one teacher, he never would have gone to school.” All because Charles would not name him the dumb tree faller’s kid. 

But, imagine the multitude of children, youth, and people who are imprisoned by the power of being called dumb or stupid. “You'll never amount to anything, you're a failure, you're a troublemaker, you'll never make it.” That's the power of names. Use names cautiously. Use names carefully. Use words carefully. For with words, comes energy. 

There's a third aspect of the power of a name. To name a name is to identify, to name a name is to influence. But also to name a name, power is reciprocated. As power influences the recipient, so there is a reciprocation. The power in naming a name is also a power of enlistment, Especially is this true with divinity. Ancient people believed they were surrounded by powers, energies, divinities. They believed their destiny was in part determined by the influence of these powers on their lives. Most of the time, they were very uncomfortable. They were afraid. But, they believed that when they could name one of these divinities, when they knew the name of one of these powers, then they could invoke the name of this divinity and a relationship would be established between the two. By invoking, by praying a prayer of invocation, the god would respond. And so, therefore, there was an element of control and manipulation. They believed that this divinity could be tamed and used for the benefit of humans. They believed this very strongly. It was almost to the point of a magic formula. They would name the name, and then they would receive blessings. 

Therefore, the Lord of the Old Testament was very cautious in giving out his name. When Jacob struggled and wrestled with him and wanted to know God's name, God wouldn't give it. When Moses was confronted by the Lord in the burning bush, and the Lord said, “Go down to Egypt and save my people,” Moses said, “When I go down there, and when the people ask who sent me, what name shall I give?” The Lord evaded the question. He said, “Tell them that I am who I am.” To differentiate the God whom the Hebrews worshiped from all the other gods, all the other powers, they called him the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. After the exodus, through the rest of the Bible, they would refer, differentiate, distinguish this God by saying, “the God who led you out of Egypt”. And then in the New Testament, it flourished. They named God to distinguish him from all the other gods as the “father of our Lord Jesus Christ”. 

When the Sanhedrin questioned Peter and John after they healed a lame man, they asked, “By what name did you do this?” They replied, “In the name of Jesus.” As Christians, we come to God in the name of Jesus. We pray our prayers in the name of Jesus. By praying in the name of Jesus, by coming to God in the name of Jesus, we mean, first of all, we are identifying that God. We’re differentiating God from all other powers or divinities . We are worshiping a God who is not just some nebulous blob somewhere. We have particularized him and localized this God as the one who was revealed in the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know this God, and we name this God as the one who was revealed in Jesus Christ. We can relax in the comfort, in the knowledge that we have a relationship with God who was revealed through Jesus Christ. 

To come to God in the name of Jesus means, first of all, that God has been identified. But to come to God in the name of Jesus means also that the power is enlisted. We come to God in the spirit, in the power of Jesus Christ who is present with us now—the Jesus who walked on the earth, the Jesus who died, the Jesus who loved, the Jesus who was raised from the dead. We appropriate. We ask ,for all that power. To come to God in the name of Jesus Christ means that the strength and the confidence to live our lives, that that miraculous power is available to us. We come to enlist, appropriate and receive through the name of Jesus Christ. “Everyone who calls upon his name will be saved,” said Paul, because there is power in a name, power to identify, power to influence and power to enlist

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris