Sermon for April 22: By What Name?

By What Name?

Easter IV; April 22, 2018

Acts 4:5-12

The High Priest's question strikes me as bizarre: "By what power or by what name did you do this?" If the priests had been paying attention at all, they had surely heard about what Peter said when he healed the man: "I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk" (Acts 3:6). Maybe he was hoping that Peter would contradict himself. Or maybe, knowing that Peter is obviously some sort of hick, the High Priest was hoping Peter would be so flustered that he would not be able to answer.

But the High Priest and his colleagues did not count on the power of the Holy Spirit. This was not the same Peter who used to fish the Sea of Galilee. Yes, this was Peter, the one who scolded Jesus when Jesus started saying that he would be rejected, tried, and handed over to be executed. "God forbid, Lord; this will not happen to you!" Peter said, and Jesus looked at him and said, "Get behind me, Satan."

And when they were having the Passover dinner and Jesus told them that one of them would betray him and all the others would abandon him, Peter said, "No, I will die for you." Jesus, wearily, said, "Peter, before the rooster crows you will deny me three times." And so it happened; at the High Priest's house Peter was warming himself by a fire when a servant said, "Aren't you one of that man's followers?" and he said, "I don't know him." Twice more it happened: "You were with that man they arrested;" "I don't know what you're talking about!" Yes, that Peter, in the courtyard of the same house where the High Priest now said to him, "By what power or by what name did you do this?"

Now this same Peter, the Peter of "Get behind me, Satan" and "I don't know him!" boldly tells one of the most powerful men in Judea, "It was the name of Jesus, who is the Messiah, whom you crucified, and whom God raised from the dead." The Holy Spirit has been working on him and he isn't quite the man he used to be. Or better said, he's more than he used to be.

In answering the question – By what name? – he manages to preach the whole gospel. Jesus, that fellow from Nazareth, is the Messiah. You crucified the Messiah. God raised him from the dead. What are you going to do about that? Because, after all, this name that you are asking us about is the name of salvation; there is no other name by which we must be saved.

Okay, I can see a couple of contentious things in front of me by working with that story and especially with that line: there is no other name by which we must be saved. And I'm going to take us right into them, heedless of the torpedoes.

One contentious thing – which is a nice way of saying "elephant in the room" – is a question some of you ask whenever you hear any sort of "Jesus alone" statement. It came up when Stephen Hawking died and someone asserted that he was in hell because he wasn't an evangelical Christian. Living in a cosmopolitan city, we have neighbors who are Muslims and Hindus and atheists and Sikhs and Buddhists and all sorts of folks. What about them, preacher? Huh?

The simple answer is that anyone who claims to know someone's eternal destiny is lying. There are religious people who like to make statements that they claim to be known facts but which are, in truth, shaky conclusions from their own biased ideas. Peter said, "There is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved;" he didn't say, "And therefore you have to accept him as your personal Lord and Savior and join an evangelical church or you will go to hell." He didn't say that. So I'll stick with John Calvin's more humble teaching that we should work out our salvation and have a good hope for everyone else. I have a more complicated answer in mind, as well, but I decided to let it go for now. If you're interested, ask me.

The second elephant in the room is our congregation's current conversation about what our name should be. Dare I talk about names without bringing up that question? No, I dare not. Or, "I dursn't," as they would say where I grew up. Your Session decided this week that we should continue the conversation about what the Church's name should be. We have two names in our history, "Presbyterian Church of the Master" and "Benson Presbyterian Church." Even though we have remained in the building of one, the one that was larger, and we are continuing to use that name for now, there are good reasons to continue the conversation.

I plead with you, as your Pastor, to keep an attitude of openness about this. Please do not speak with hostility or anger about those who have been appointed to lead this conversation. Please do not attribute negative motives to your brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if you have made up your mind and you refuse to consider alternatives, at least do this: accept that not everyone agrees with you and there is no requirement under heaven that those who are saved in Jesus Christ must agree with one another on this question.

I had a dear friend, who died not long ago and whose absence still pains me, who went through a strong transformation in her life. She struggled for years with the help of her physician, her counselor, and her pastor to overcome significant childhood trauma and become a healthy, happy adult. At one milestone in her journey she decided to change her name. As Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah; Jacob became Israel; and Saul became Paul, so she acquired a new name. We are new and we are becoming new; considering a new name is the Biblically responsible thing to do. However it turns out, remember that the people who are guiding this process are followers of Jesus Christ, keeping open minds, and listening carefully to all of you and to the Holy Spirit.

In Biblical tradition, and this is the thought to finish with, a name tells you something about identity. Moses' foster mother – the Princess of Egypt – did not get his name out of a baby book or out of the Ikea catalog. Yes, seriously; people are getting baby names out of the Ikea catalog. The word "moses" comes from the verb meaning "to draw out" because she drew him out of the Nile River. Jacob was given the name "Israel," which means "the one who wrestles with God," after his all-night wrestling match with the Spirit of God at the ford of the Jabbok. The Apostle Simon was renamed Peter, "Rock," because Jesus said that the Rock of Simon's faith would be the foundation for Jesus' Church.

The name "Jesus" means "Savior." "Jesus" is the Greek translation of "Yeshua" or, in English, "Joshua." The most famous Joshua was Moses' assistant: he went up the mountain with Moses to meet God, he was nearby when Moses died, and he led the people into the Promised Land. Joshua led them in battle against their enemies. As the song says, "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a'tumblin' down." Joshua was the savior of his people and his name was apt.

Our Lord is named "Yeshua" as well, but we call him "Jesus" rather than "Joshua" in order not to get the two confused. His name means "Savior." He is the one who saves us from our sins, for God has shown the power of forgiveness in Jesus' death on the Cross. He is the one who saves us from death, for God has given new life in Jesus' Resurrection from the dead. He is the one who saves us from the chains of law, for he is the one who shows us that true morality is in loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as oneself.

But there is more. He saves us from slavery to desire, for he welcomes us as we surrender ourselves to him. He saves us from the need to hide from God and from one another, for he shines his love over our truth. He saves us from loneliness, for he offers himself as a willing companion and gives us one another as a community of believers.

I cannot think of any other name that has the power to save us from so much. There are names by which we may be saved from some of these things and names that point to teachings to help with others. But what name has the power to do so much, to save so completely?

Yeshua. Joshua. Jesus.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska 

Sermon for April 29: Can Anything Prevent Him?
Sermon from April 8: Great Power, Great Grace


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