Names Matter: Sermon for January 14, 2024

As a child, my family lived thousands of miles away from my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. They were mainly in Western Kentucky and scattered North to the Chicago area. My parents moved us West to Wyoming and Colorado during my formative years. We loved it, but we had no real family to speak of nearby. There were a few great aunts, uncles, and distant cousins that we saw every once in a while. But I wouldn’t even have recognized them had I run into them in the grocery store. They weren’t people that felt like “family” to me.

Rev. Dr. Jenny Shultz-Thomas

Baptism of Jesus

Sunday, Jan. 14, 2024

Every summer, to make up for lost time, we would travel Southeast and spend weeks at my dad’s family home: Cedar Ridge Farm, my grandparent’s dairy farm in the beautiful rolling hills of the Bluegrass State of Kentucky.

Those were the most magical weeks of my childhood. Not only because I could run free through the fields, swim in the lake, go fishing, chase the baby calves, ride four-wheelers through the apple orchards, and play on the hay bales and with the animals, but because I had a new identity when I was there.

Everywhere I went, from the grocery store to church, to the library or the post office, people knew who I was. “Shultz” meant something profoundly different from what I had experienced outside this community. It’s as if everyone else knew a secret about me that I didn’t. When I introduced myself, I was immediately embraced as part of the “inside story,” part of something bigger than me that I longed to discover. My name carried a deep sense of respect and honor and a history I longed to understand. It was so significant to me that I noticed it as a young child, and it made me want to live up to the expectations that others placed on me simply because of the name I carried.

I’m sure many of you also have powerful naming stories in your family. You may be named after someone of great importance due to their accomplishments in this life, their moral character and reputation, their artistic and creative spirit, or you carry a name that means something you are still discovering.

Names matter. They connect us to those who have come before us and often to those who will follow in our stead. They define a part of our heritage and can be so powerful to call us to live into the full ambitions of those we are named for. You might have become a lawyer after your great-grandfather, grandfather, and father after them. A stream of family educators may have seeded your teaching career before you were ever born.

Some names, unfortunately, are equally as destructive in the power of their memory, and many spend their lives running from those names, even erasing them from their documents as they so desperately want to erase them from their lives.

Names also carry with them opportunity and promise, and like mine— they can be the surprise that reminds you who and whose you are, that sends you on a journey of discovery.

The biblical story about the baptism of Jesus is this kind of naming story. It reminds us that, like Jesus, in baptism, we are also given a name that matters: “beloved.” We are given a new name, an identity that binds us with those with the same name.

In the Greek New Testament, agapaytos is a cognate of agapow, meaning to love or cherish.1

In Jesus’ baptism, this name given him, Beloved one—means a friend who is cherished and loved— and it signifies to the world that this dark-skinned, young Jewish man was set apart to do something great, to re-write the story, as an agent of LOVE in the world. But it also signifies something much more integral to the power of that love to transform. I believe Jesus came to the River that day not to change the world or even to announce his plan to do so—because I don’t think he had a clue what his life would become. Still, I think he came to the River that day to acknowledge, like all of us, that he couldn’t do it alone. Jesus was there to discover who he was. He sought revelation, a tangible hope, that would ground him as he set out to do something more extraordinary than anything he had yet experienced.

And so, as his cousin preached in the desert that day, beside the Jordan, calling those who would come to repentance and transformation, Jesus, too, approached the waters. I imagine he longed for a familiar story to belong to, desperate to rise with brothers and sisters on either side, out of the same muddy, murky waters and humble beginnings, and to give his life to something real and exhilarating that would change everything.

John was uncomfortable with this plan and protested Jesus’ request. He, too, likely misunderstood the message and the messenger, or maybe he was just so hungry to believe that Jesus would be the kind of King everyone thought they needed, the kind who would demand authority, who would turn the tables upside down, and in so doing, steal his right to the throne.

Or, perhaps John’s response here is simply the gospel writers’ discomfort with Jesus’ position as just another guy standing in line, lost, looking for answers, and he probably even had a bad haircut.

Most theologians agree that Matthew’s gospel is the most apologetic of the 4. Thus, he must communicate and defend Jesus’ honor, providing a clean and clear pathway to his Messiahship, like so many people— who are desperate to live in the boxes, to believe in the power structures and their abilities to maintain justice and order. Matthew may have smudged the lines or over-emphasized; he probably mansplained a little bit (surprise), and maybe he filled in the gaps with some would-be fairy tale language that would yield a cleaner, happier ending to this story.

This persuasion is evidenced in the dialogue between John and Jesus, which can be found only in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew makes it clear that John himself feels beneath Jesus. In a blatant act of self-deprivation, John signals his submission to Jesus by stating, “This is backward- I need to be baptized by you, not the other way around.” Because, of course, the Matthews of this world believed that Jesus was without SIN and did not need forgiveness or repentance— Matthew makes it clear that this baptism is simply procedural and is about fulfilling the law & righteousness.

Remember, this baptismal story is a naming story. If you go back to the beginning, it was these same two, “Jesus” and “John,” whose names were given to them by God; one to prepare the way, the other to enact the way, but not one without the other. Each was given a name; each was beloved and cherished by God. Each participated in the saving, life-giving power these waters would represent for those who would come after.

Firstly, they were indiscriminately birthed into being through the cleansing waters of their mother’s wombs, and now, on this day, they face each other again, on the water’s edge, standing on the precipice of the womb of the world desperately in need of a new name, a new beginning.

I often wonder if Jesus wasn’t looking to John for his new identity. John, not Jesus, believed in what Jesus would become and had more confidence and conviction about the how and why. Because life is like that, it’s the Harry Potter phenomenon! The wizarding world has no question about Harry’s significance in this life, but he can’t seem to keep his glasses on straight or even use a wand.

So often, it’s someone else who knows us—maybe for our whole lives, or from a distance, or just in a name before we were ever even born, who seems to know and believe in our potential, our intended purpose, a legacy that is bigger and more significant than we are alone.

I believe Jesus came seeking a new name that day, for himself, for the world he understood—maybe not very different, in fact, from the way I longed to live into the mystery of my name as I lost myself

in the magic of the Kentucky Hills as a child. As my name reminded me of who and whose I was. The same way Beloved One defined Jesus and defines us all.

In Jesus’ baptism, his true identity —as beloved one of God is to be reflected in all of humanity as we choose, individually and as a community, to approach the waters.

Many have interpreted this text as reinforcing the exclusivity of Jesus’ call, as THE son of God, The Messiah, The Beloved One, THE Way and the Only Way… I believe, however, that this baptismal “naming” story reinforces precisely the opposite.

As Jesus stood in the waters, submitting himself unto one whom he was expected to be greater than, he re-writes the story, re-interpreting for the world what it is to be birthed together, to resist together, to be named together as “Beloved,” as Loved and Cherished ones who together —and only together—must rise-up and transform the world, as agents of LOVE. Just as John believed this to be backward, I think it is usually the wrong side up and sideways that we can most clearly see “each other” and the WAY forward.

This week, many of us gathered at the Tri-Faith Center in retreat, listening to one another’s stories and sharing our hopes and dreams for the next chapter in the life of this Tri-Faith Commons. Together, we named what is most powerful and unique to our community- sure, we are people of the book, but that alone is not transformative. What lives off the page is that which personifies the story and brings to life the characters and the richness of the text: our relationships are more powerful than we understand. Gathered at the table, We listened to the voices of our founders- one being Rabbi Azriel, who described one of his earliest memories of Tri-Faith’s beginnings- he was invited to Shakil Ahmed’s home with Bob Freeman and a few others. He told his wife he could not go to this man’s home empty-handed, so she made a honey cake, and off they went, building relationships that would become the bridge we are walking today.

As our founders did 15 years ago, today, we long to build bridges between our communities, fostering connection rather than erecting walls reinforcing fear and difference. We long to create bonds with one another rather than create silos; we long for authentic and life-changing relationships rather than merely exchanging neighborly niceties. We long for our children and grandchildren to experience a different world than the one we have left them to fix.

Together, we sat at a table and shared a meal. We named the pain and suffering our faith partners are experiencing—and the tension that exists on the campus from the war, but we also named something more powerful–that because we have a shared inheritance as “Beloved” children of God, we belong to each other, and we need each other— and the world needs us to love each other.

Jesus stood in the waters with John, and together, against the resistance of the Kingdom dictation and royal decrees, they re-wrote the story, the great reversal that promises the last shall be first and the first shall be last, that reminds us of who and whose we are— beloved. When we realize that we cannot do it alone, we must go to the water’s edge and submit ourselves to one another, some to prepare the way (perhaps by baking a honey cake), some to enact the way (by building a bridge), and all of us to rise-up together, and claim our new name, Beloved children of God. May it be so.

1 G27 – agapētos – strong’s Greek lexicon (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. (n.d.). lexicon/g27/kjv/tr/0-1/