At one point in their recent book, "The Language of Names," Justin Kaplan and Anne Bernays quote Yale religion professor Peter S. Hawkins' observation about war memorials: "If the names of young men killed in a war are not recorded, they are essentially lost forever except to the members of the families they were snatched from. Each man's name is his immortality." This insight is essential understanding Sunday's first reading (Acts 4:8-12).

The early Christian community believed its most important task was to proclaim Jesus' resurrection. But they ensured immortality for Jesus not by building monuments with His name cut into them, but by performing life-giving actions in His name. That's why Peter tells the Jewish elders, "If we must answer today for a good deed done to a cripple and explain how he was restored to health, then you and all the people of Israel must realize that it was done in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean whom you crucified and whom God raised from the dead."

What's in a name?

Yet Kaplan and Bernays are convinced that using someone's name does more than just guarantee that person immortality. People's names and titles can be rooted in our understanding of them and the influence they have in our lives. They believe a name can "mean something in itself and either stand for some quality within the person who bears it or have the power to shape that person by acting as a sort of destiny or matrix."

A simple title like "shepherd," for instance, takes on special meaning when we apply it to Jesus (John 10:11-18). Not only are we stating our conviction that He cared for His followers during His earthly ministry like a shepherd cares for sheep; we're also declaring that even now, during His resurrected ministry, we're experiencing that same care and guidance. The title "Jesus, the Good Shepherd" confers a desperately needed power on us: the power to unite distinct, contradictory individuals into one family.

As with Peter's cure of the cripple, all the force compressed in Jesus' name is released when we use it to serve others. In this case, those shaped by Jesus the shepherd are amazingly able to cut through the denominational, retarding, destructive names which have been conferred on God's people through the centuries þ names which impede us from becoming one flock under the guidance of Jesus the shepherd þ and help us become the community Jesus envisioned 10 centuries ago.

Local example

Bishop Matthew Clark, shepherd of God's people in the Diocese of Rochester, recently used the power of that name to unite his flock in an area which many who claim Jesus the shepherd as their leader fear even to approach, much less enter into. He joined in celebrating Eucharist with gay and lesbian members of his community.

Though he received much criticism from those formed and empowered by names other than the ones Jesus gave us, Bishop Clark commented that in his 35 years as a priest, he "can't remember a Eucharist that touched my heart so deeply." In other words, "It works!" Those who courageously let go and permit Jesus to work through them receive and share the life which Jesus received and shared.

Children of God

Against this background, Sunday's short passage from I John (3:1-2) takes on tremendous significance. "See what love the Father has bestowed on us," the author writes, "in letting us be called children of God! Yet that is what we are." We who accept the name "God's children" have a responsibility not only to imitate Jesus, our brother, here and now, but also to believe that, if we carry that imitation out to the best of our ability, we shall one day "be like Him." We'll eventually evolve into the person whose name we take on.

Those who read the Christian Scriptures carefully notice that Jesus and His earliest followers don't seem to be very worried about dogmas, rules or regulations. They're much more involved in names: names which shape and form those who give themselves over to Jesus; names which point out the destiny which Jesus envisions for His disciples.

Jesus is a poet, not an essayist. Those who accept His names, accept His vision. Until we, like Bishop Clark, dare do that, the work will belong to those who have no vision.

(04-17-97)