John 1. 29-42 You shall be called Peter.

Fr Alec
Sunday, January 19, 2014 - 9:30am

One of the most interesting, but ultimately least satisfying, jobs that I ever held was when I worked in a shop in St Andrews that sold scrolls giving the history of people’s surnames. My task, being of an artistic bent, was to adorn each parchment with an heraldic device at the top corresponding to the surname in question. In one way, this was rather fun, as I came to learn the difference between a lion rampant, and a lion passant, and what it meant to have a ‘chevron argent, three choughs proper on a field of gules.’ But it was badly paid work, and as time wore on I came to realise that, far from practising real research, my employer was content to charge people absurd amounts for a rather bogus and misleading account of their name’s history, at which point my employment wound to a close.


Nevertheless, it was here that names and their origins came to fascinate me. Far back in the mists of history, for instance, John’s son had been required to register himself, and henceforth his family was known as Johnson. Someone had needed to differentiate between Samuel the Miller and Samuel the Cooper, and a name was born.


It is interesting also what names we choose for our children. I was once asked by a comic book enthusiast to Christen his poor child ‘Wolverine’. Most names have a meaning and a background and, I think at least to some extent, this sets the tone for how its bearer is received in the world.


Not long ago there was some statistical research in which employers were sent more or less identical CVs with different names, to see which were more likely to be called for interview. One disappointing finding was that names suggestive of a poorer social group like Jayden or Chardonnay were less likely to be called back than, for example, Hugo or Genevieve. Still more disturbingly, names suggestive of a non-white race, like Winston or Roshanda had a similar effect.


The names we have carry with them all kinds of moods and associations. We may feel different when people call us ‘Boss’, from when they call us ‘Mate’. It might move us to think or speak or behave in a different kind of way. The names we give and the names we are given are a significant parts of the structure of our relationships.


I mention all this because our gospel today focusses particularly on the names and titles people are given. And these clearly matter to John because three times he takes care to translate them for his non-Jewish readers.


Jesus is first approached as ‘Rabbi’, teacher. This was a term of respect, and was possibly the way in which John’s disciples had referred to him. It’s worth noting as well that the ancient relationship between rabbi and disciple, master and pupil was much fuller than might be implied just by the word teacher. The rabbi’s purpose was not simply the communication of information, but to be a role model, a person on whom one might mould oneself. This is a name that speaks of their assumptions and aspirations. A teacher is what they have known, and what they see in front of them- someone to carry them forward in their spiritual journey.


Having found Jesus’ whereabouts, Andrew excitedly runs off to fetch Simon. ‘We have found the Messiah!’ he says. Jesus is named as the anointed one. Having been revealed to John at his baptism, John’s followers now place him in a familiar scriptural context. He is the anointed, the successor of David, the redeemer of Israel. Here is a name that springs from their hopes. They long for liberation and renewal, and here is the one they have been waiting for. Little do they know that there is much still to learn about what this might mean in practise.


Finally it is Jesus’ turn to name Simon. ‘You are to be called Cephas,’ Peter, the Rock. What did Peter feel about this, I wonder? What did Jesus see in him? Is it a good name, suggestive of toughness and steadfastness, or is it teasingly perjorative, implying stubbornness or resistance to change? It need not be either, or it could be both. At this stage it is a name full of potential, and it is for Peter to live out just what it might mean.


This, I think, is particularly important in this season of Epiphany, as we celebrate the manifestation of Jesus to the World. This is not a revelation in the sense that the World is presented with the answer to a problem that they recognise or understand. Rather, this is the beginning of a mystery, the unveiling of a conundrum. How are we to name this Jesus? What sense are we to make of him? How does he fit into the divine plan?

And this questioning never stops. From when Jesus asks ‘Who do you say that I am?’ to when Pilate asks ‘Are you the king for the Jews?’ others are trying to find a name for the incarnate Word among them.


Not only this, but in the naming of Peter, Jesus shows how the epiphany of Christ is not only the revelation of God at work alongside us, but God at work within us. How the dawn from on high is not only a sign in its own right, but sheds its light on all who emerge from the shadows to receive it.


Here we are at the beginning of something. Nobody knows yet quite what will become of it, but it is compelling and exciting. Like watching through a microscope the very first moment in human life when the fertilised cell at first divides and then divides again, quickening and growing into something with endless potential.


In turning to Christ, Andrew and Peter become a sign to us of the possibilities of life that are unlocked in each of us by entering into relationship with Jesus. We are called by name, and we are offered a new destiny.