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The Power of a Name.

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John 17:1-11

 

+ may I speak in the name of the one whose name cannot be contained by words…

Theodoret of Cyrus (Cyrrhus in Syria), The Ecclesiastical History 
Book V, Chapter XXVI: Of Honorius the Emperor and Telemachus the monk. 

“Honorius, who inherited the empire of Europe, put a stop to the gladitorial combats which had long been held at Rome.  The occasion of his doing so arose from the following circumstance.  A certain man of the name of Telemachus had embraced the ascetic life.  He had set out from the East and for this reason had repaired to Rome.  There, when the abominable spectacle was being exhibited, he went himself into the stadium, and stepping down into the arena, endeavoured to stop the men who were wielding their weapons against one another.
“In the Name of Christ Stop!”
The spectators of the slaughter were indignant, and inspired by the triad fury of the demon who delights in those bloody deeds, stoned the peacemaker to death.

When the admirable emperor was informed of this he numbered Telemachus in the number of victorious martyrs, and put an end to that impious spectacle.”

The story of Telemachus reveals how invoking a name, the name, brings about unexpected outcomes… answers to prayer – but not as we imagined… in the name.

And this week we have witnessed a most terrible tragedy in Manchester.

Killing in the name…

Yet also Loving in the name….

And loving too, but not in any name other than basic decent common humanity….

 

What does it mean to act in a name?

Todays reading is a rich and complex passage, which many scholars suggest is written after the event, trying to make sense of the growing and differing theologies of what Jesus was actually all about!

In the account Jesus seems most vulnerable. Just prior to his betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane, the text carries the weight of impending tragedy. Jesus prayer is a beguiling combination of what seems like uncertainty and yet faith at the same time, (and we will return to this…). A tender, fractured prayer is offered, a prayer of love and compassion and hope. Even when everything will soon be taken away; a strange aroma drifts through the text, an aroma—strangely—of hope.

Not a hope in something even, not a hope that something will happen.. but hope of the kind that simply says ‘I must go on’. The kind of hope embodied by patients in hospital, or those going through marriage break-down, or those facing tragic events; the simple, un-heroic, unwelcome, ‘I go to bed, I wake up the next day’, hope.

The sort of thing that 21st century Anglicanism may be all about. Jesus prays for his disciples because he truly cares about them-they have been his life. Before glooming skies, his prayer is earnest; he knows who he is praying about, women, men, probably children too… The prayer emerges from his experience as a human being, it is contextual; small, weak, vulnerable. It is like whenever a parent prays for their child, we know that the prayer is deep and primal.

And how many of us have prayed for children these last few days?

This week we have seen the most vulnerable sections of our society, and sadly in other parts of the world too, deliberately and malicious targeted by the opposite of this love—hated, fear and vengeance. We might well want to ask how Jesus prayer fits with our very real, painfully real, world; what does ‘The Name’ reveal?

We are here today as struggling human beings, trying our best to discover and follow the teachings of Jesus. His words may entice us, infuriate us, inspire and provoke us; but there is something about his vision of a world which manages to yet inspire us; something so alternative to the world we live in. He promotes love and compassion in the face of fear and hatred, he puts people before profit, God before ourselves. Is this what he has given this to his disciples; a way to see the world differently, and the wisdom to make it so, (in the Name of….??)

Jesus, we at are told, speaks of the Name;

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; […] Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

“I have made your name known”…

This week we celebrated Ascension – when Jesus and God are united in glory and wonder; the local moment of Jesus walking in a small part of Palestine give way to the Christ who walks among the stars, dances on the edge of the seas of creation, who spans all time, all place. The God of all time and space and people – who cannot be contained by any imagination, religion or Name.

Yet we only recently celebrated Christmas… and the story of the (Kenotic) God who shed the God-clothes in order to embrace and affirm humanity, to participate in human endeavour and human pain.

So we are caught in a tension between the Glory of Ascension and the Dirt of the Incarnation… or is it a tension? Fr.Vincent suggested earlier this week that in the Ascension Jesus took that broken humanity into the Godhead.. that the Godhead was forever changed… now there’s a thought to chew on… the weakness of Christ, the weakness of God….

So what then, is this Name Jesus is referring too?

It won’t surprise you to hear my suspicion of ‘the name’; of words that we give when we try to name God, words which contain, control, build borders and barriers. The name of God is so easily used; sentimentally, glibly, aggressively, and we were reminded this week; dangerously. A bomb to maim and to kill… “ in the Name… ”

Yet, when Jesus spoke his teachings were simple really; love God and love one another…. And maybe by repeating this simple mantra he was trying to connect the two together.. where we might often think they are distinct; God and others… but what if he was saying they are the means by which we discover each of the other? Loving God reveals people, loving people reveals God. Is this the passion of Jesus’ prayer?
So what power, then, is contained in The Name – and is it power at all?

Maybe we should ask God, think back to the first time that God names Godself… in the guise of a burning bush, (of course!), before a startled, wide-eyed Moses….

אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה‎, ehyeh ašer ehyeh, “I am, who I am”

I am, I exist, I am being, I will be.

The Hebrew tradition is informative here. Their understanding is that God cannot—must not—be named… it is why the ‘I am’, according to most scholars then translates into YHVH, the unpronounceable name of God, which was later turned into both Yahweh and Jehovah. But for many Jews the word Adonai, (“the Lord”) or HaShem, (‘the name’) is still used… God cannot be named, wonder cannot be contained.

So can we say therefore that the name of God is no Name at all! It is a state of being instead… not a noun, but a verb..? Recently some writes have begun to suggest how much our faith might change if we think of our word ‘God’ as a verb, not a noun… allow yourself to dwell on that for a moment….

The ‘I am’, being…

The event, not the name,

The impossible, not the visible.

What is a name… what does a name mean, or refer to?… is the name the same as the thing it describe? Does ‘Gary’ encapsulate all that I am… does it tell my story? Does it reveal anything about me? (Apparently Gary’s are a dying breed!)

We all face the same question… who are we under our names? Maybe we feel that our names are wholly inappropriate and do not describe us in any way? Some of us may feel subconsciously constricted by a name; (think of the stereotypes conjured by names).

What then, if we look at God and ‘the name’ of God? What event is harboured by that name? What is hidden in the name ‘God’? Does the name God, fit the one we worship. Does God feel misrepresented by ‘his’ name?

We walk a fuzzy line, maybe. The philosopher John Caputo, speaks of the Name being the harbour to the Event of the possibility of God… this might be worth repeating!

The Name contains the event of God (possibly-but not always), yet sometimes the event of God exists beyond the name.. in people who want nothing to do with religion, yet still see the world in the light of hope and love and compassion.

It is not the name we desire, but the event of love that goes beyond The Name.

What are we to do.. how do we fit this together?… how do we love God and one another in times of terror and fear…. well I hope we can see a few signposts from Telemachus, through today and beyond; the path to love in the name of God is to let go of the name of God and to simply love. To let go of any expectation we may have in that name, and to discover God beyond the name. This is where the connection between uncertainty and faith come together, they hold each other’s hand in a delicate dance.

Jesus asks a lot from us, but that’s exactly why he prays.

Jesus prays… he still prays.. he invites us still to revel in the mystery, the wonderful beautiful magnetic mystery. Jesus is the ultimate deconstructor… the one that still turn ours expectations on their heads, our religions, our ideas, our ambitions. Love God, love one another, he says; still says, find God in the other, find the Other in God…

we learn, we grow, we fail, we lose… we must.

in the end we do not hold the name at all.. we cannot, we dare not,

the name hold us; dazzled, enthralled, amazed;

the name hold us.