The lectionary - which is a three year rotation of scripture passages that many churches across the United States and Canada use - have some rich texts appointed for this day, and where normally one is chosen to explore in depth, I couldn’t resist picking three for us to hear this morning. The first continues the story that we heard from last week from the book of Acts. Hear these words from chapter 4:
Acts 4:1-12 (NRSV)
While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2 much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3 So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. 4 But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand.
5 The next day their rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6 with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7 When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9 if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11 This Jesus is
‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
it has become the cornerstone.’
12 There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
The second scripture this morning is one much beloved and often one we turn to in times of grief or struggle, but it’s one that also offers insight into the human condition. It’s one that many of us have memorized. With this Sunday being Earth Day - this passage spoke to me as we think about the way God and the earth care for our needs. Instead of reading this passage, we’ll be singing it together: number 138, The King of Love My Shepherd Is.
*Hymn - The King of Love My Shepherd Is, UMH 138
Lastly, this passage from the Gospel of John reinterprets the 23rd Psalm in light of who Jesus is and one way Jesus offered an understanding of his ministry - that of the Good Shepherd. Incidentally, “good” falls far short of what the original word is in the greek - it’s much closer to the word “model” “ideal” “beautiful” -- paragon. Hear these words from chapter 10.
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
Now how on earth do all these things tie together? Hopefully, we’ll get there. :-)
We’ve all heard the famous line “What’s in a name?” - penned by William Shakespeare in the famous play Romeo and Juliet - a scene where Juliet is wrestling with the fact that Romeo - her true love - has a problematic name as he belongs to the Montague family, a rival of her family the Capulets. We have this wonderfully poetic monologue that Romeo overhears as she is lamenting at her balcony:
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father, and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
Jul. ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
Names, however, are powerful and have meaning - as we see in the Acts story, which centers on the name of Jesus and what happens by the power of the Holy Spirit through his name -- as well as the salvation found by those who claim his name.
Last week we learned about the beggar who sat by the Beautiful Gate, healed not through Peter or John’s power or piety - but made whole in the name of Jesus Christ. This event amassed a crowd, and Peter couldn’t resist launching into a sermon, sharing about not only what happened to the beggar, but about Jesus’s death and God raising him up from the dead and offering the people the opportunity to be a part of the new thing God was about in the world - that the healing and salvation in Jesus’ name that had come to the beggar was also available for them. Such a demonstration and such a speech, even though five thousand people believed their message, caused trouble for Peter and John - the high priests and Sadducees didn’t like what they were teaching in the Temple and had them arrested.
The priests got right to the heart of the issue by asking them a specific question: “By what power or by what name did you do this?” There’s power in a name.
We know this, right? Names are significant - they are how we understand our world, they designate important people and places and things -- and lack of a name can signify unimportance - at least on the part of who is speaking. For instance, in the Bible, there are many people who remain nameless, or many women who are not known by their name, but by that of their father or husband, like Lot’s wife, Pharaoh's daughter, or The Samaritan Woman. The beggar here in our story doesn’t have a name, known only by his association with the Beautiful Gate - a sign of his unimportant status - while the priests here in Acts are clearly named.
Others in the Bible are named - the twelve disciples each have a name, there are even prominent women leaders in the early church who are thought to have been additional disciples of Jesus also have names. The dear friends of Jesus - Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, are also named -- and Jesus’s lineage is full of prominent figures in Jewish history.
Names have power - and we see this in the world when wealthy or influential individuals or families mark buildings or have foundations named after them, as a sign of gratitude or philanthropy - as is the case with the Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital - or via some other honor. Bridges and highways are named for famous people or prominent individuals from the community. Companies are named for their founders.
Names also have the power to denegrate - to take away. I remember the old rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me.” Well, that’s not true. Disparaging nicknames can hurt because they take away our humanity and are meant to embarrass, to hurt, to erase our identity.
Sometimes, people change their names in order to mark a new start - in the Bible we have Abram becoming Abraham as a result of his covenant with God - or Saul changing his name to Paul. I had a friend in school who went back and forth from Katie to Kathryn and Katie again, and even though those names were related, changing that name can mean trying to live as the person they want to be, or a means of commemorating a transition.
And then we also say names to ensure people aren’t forgotten or overlooked. In this way, we remember and honor their personhood - particularly when we do this with people who are unimportant, oppressed, or the victims of injustice. This is part of what is behind the #saytheirname movement, the initiative to say the names of black men and women who have lost their lives because of racial injustice.
In all three lessons this morning, but particularly that of Acts and John, there is a great deal of importance placed upon the name of Jesus -- the importance and power that that name has in Acts, and the name Jesus gives himself of the Good Shepherd in John. Both instances aren’t just about the name as it relates to Jesus’s personhood, but about his relationship to God as the promised one...and about his relationship to us as Shepherd...and the salvation that comes through that relationship.
Peter claims in this passage that there is no other name under heaven, given by mortals, by which we must be saved. Salvation is a broad word used in many ways throughout the New Testament, and can mean anything from physical healing - as it is used here in this passage - to rescue from bondage, to spiritual wholeness. All of this comes through the name of Jesus - Peter and those early church followers believed the name Jesus contained power beyond any other earthly name anyone could say.
So often this passage is used to divide - that there is salvation in no one other than Jesus - you are either for Jesus and or you aren’t, you are either in or you are out. However, when taken with these other passages, we have a more complete picture of what Jesus came to do. Certainly the author of Acts believes God acted decisively in the person of Jesus Christ -- and there is no way that any other human can make a claim on what God has done, no person can control the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, God acted on behalf of the whole of humankind - John’s gospel has Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd sent to reclaim all of the sheep -- even the ones not belonging to the fold - for the sake of being one flock...one shepherd guarding and protecting us all.
When we talk about salvation, then, and salvation in the name of Jesus, this image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd can help us picture what that looks like. Shepherding in Jesus’ day wasn’t an easy life -- it wasn’t a serene, pastoral image with nice, clean, fluffy sheep. Shepherding was a matter of survival - for the sheep, the shepherd, and those who depended upon the flock for their livelihood. Shepherds had to roam far from home to make sure their sheep had enough food and water. They were exposed to the elements - heat during the day and cold at night, during which they stayed awake to guard the flock from thieves and predators. Their families were also more vulnerable to predators - and this was a major reason that shepherds were generally thought of as dishonorable characters because they left their families exposed. And too many sheep lost to illness, injury, or starvation meant that the whole family would suffer. The welfare of the flock was really tied to the welfare of the shepherd. So to have a Good Shepherd who would abandon the whole flock to seek after one lost animal was unheard of (people would have considered that a bad shepherd, because you were risking the safety of the whole flock). Salvation, then, comes in the form of a shepherd who knew full well the risks of keeping the flock from ruin, who goes to seek the lost - even at the expense of the whole flock - and even went to the grave to protect the ones he came to save...and even death could not keep him away from us.
Salvation is something then of God’s initiative - God’s action in raising Jesus from the dead - the act of the Good Shepherd loving the sheep of his fold and providing for their every need - as we hear in Psalm 23. And as members of the flock, it is for us to trust in God’s continuing saving work in our lives and in the world. It is to - like Peter and John in the passage in acts - trust that the power Jesus displayed on earth now comes through the work of the Holy Spirit - the spirit that is poured out on all of us as followers of Jesus….and that the same power that resided in him is now embodied in the church - body of Christ in the world….and that there is no other earthly power that can make that same claim of power...and that there can be salvation in no other power or entity, despite how much the world tries to offer salvation through other names.
So for us as followers of Jesus, it isn’t enough for us to simply rest in the green pastures and still waters offered to us by our Good Shepherd - it isn’t enough for us to be grateful for the healing and wholeness that we’ve found in the name of Jesus as his disciples. As followers of the risen Christ, it is not enough for us to say his name, it is also for us to claim that power for ourselves and use it -- not for our sake -- but to offer healing and hope in his name -- in the name of the Good Shepherd who cares for all the sheep -- in the name of the one who is the cornerstone of our lives. We use that power to transform the world and make it a better place for all God’s people. We use that power to point to God’s saving power in our lives and in our world.
And so the invitation and challenge here is this: do we really believe that the same power - the power given by the Holy Spirit that enabled Peter to heal the beggar, the power that granted him the strength to stand up to the religious and political authority of his day to speak the truth given to him, the power that expanded the flock by five thousand more people that day -- do we really believe that power now resides in us? That it’s not just about saying the name of Jesus and our identity as Christians, but also about claiming the same power to live as people transformed - to live as he lived and taught?
The good news is that the power of Jesus Christ is with us. His spirit resides within us as the body of Christ. His spirit goes before us. His spirit gives us the power to bring hope, healing, and wholeness to those around us...and also the power to be transformed by the power of that love as we proclaim the care and provision we found in the shelter of the Good Shepherd. May we have the boldness of the spirit this week as we go forth this week in the name of Jesus, offering that salvation - the wholeness of life lived in God’s love - to those we encounter this week. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and three year old son, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.