Last week, I had the total joy today of participating in a name change ceremony today! Here are some of the remarks that I made about name changing and the Bible. (Have taken out the personal comments for this post). Longer reflections are forthcoming.
My name is Rev. Katy Valentine, and I am both a pastor and a New Testament scholar. It’s my pleasure to be here today offering a blessing to --- on their name change and celebrating living into their full identity as given by God. I am here as a Christian witness with a big heart for ecumenical and interfaith gatherings.
Name changes are as old as the Bible itself. The power to give a name belongs first to people; God charges the first earthling with the privilege of naming all the animals. Genesis 2:19 says that “and whatever the earthling called each living creature, that was its name.” It is only later when the two humans have left the Garden of Eden that God gives them names. When humans beings realize that they are called to live into their own names and identities, we are co-creating with God as our divine creator. Just as God created and gave humans the power to name all the creatures on the earth, so God gives us the opportunity to call ourselves by our names.
Throughout the Bible there are about 39 name changes, double name or nicknames. After the first two humans go from being nameless to having names, there is Abram and Sarai. Abram means “exalted father” and Abraham means “father of many.” Name meanings don’t have to change; Sarai and Sarah have the same root and mean approximately the same thing – noblewoman or princess. The grandson of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, wrestles with God and God changes his name to Israel. Jacob means “holder of the heel” but after he wrestles with God, ending in a stalemate, his name becomes Israel, meaning “to prevail over God.”
The list goes continues. Naomi says, “Call me Mara” when she and Ruth return to Israel because she feels bitter about her fortune. In the New Testament, Jesus calls his disciples. Jesus says to Simon in the Gospel of John: “He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas’ (which is translated Peter)” (John 1:42) -- 3 names in 1 individual. Saul famously becomes Paul on the road to Damascus, and it has been common practice for Christians to take on a new name when they take religious vows.
The shorthand version is this: when something big happens to a person, they are entitled to a new name that goes along with their new identity. Maybe the most important person in the New Testament to undergo a name change is actually the main character. The man who we know as “Jesus” was most likely not called Jesus very often in his lifetime. Jesus is the Greek version of the Aramaic/Jewish name “Yeshua” or in English “Joshua” – when Jesus becomes known outside of Palestinian Jews through the writings of Paul and Gospel writers, he is transformed into Jesus to be known by Greek speakers across the world.
(Personal Comments about new name were here. Redacted for the public!).
The Christian story is that God is never, ever done. God calls us to live fully into who we are and who we are called to be. God is always creating; we are always creating. I offer you the blessing of one who is creating your own future and claiming your present. May God richly bless you at this moment and always.