What’s in a name?

Thursday 30 March 2023 5th week of Lent

Genesis 17:3-9
Abram bowed to the ground and God said this to him, ‘Here now is my covenant with you: you shall become the father of a multitude of nations. You shall no longer be called Abram; your name shall be Abraham, for I make you father of a multitude of nations. I will make you most fruitful. I will make you into nations, and your issue shall be kings. I will establish my Covenant between myself and you, and your descendants after you, generation after generation, a Covenant in perpetuity, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. I will give to you and to your descendants after you the land you are living in, the whole land of Canaan, to own in perpetuity, and I will be your God.’

Psalm 104 The Lord remembers his covenant for ever.

John 8:51-59
Jesus said to the Jews: ‘I tell you most solemnly, whoever keeps my word will never see death.’
The Jews said, ‘Now we know for certain that you are possessed. Abraham is dead, and the prophets are dead, and yet you say, “Whoever keeps my word will never know the taste of death.” Are you greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? The prophets are dead too. Who are you claiming to be?’ Jesus answered: ‘If I were to seek my own glory that would be no glory at all; my glory is conferred by the Father, by the one of whom you say, “He is our God” although you do not know him. But I know him,
and if I were to say: I do not know him, I should be a liar, as you are liars yourselves. But I do know him, and I faithfully keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to think that he would see my Day; he saw it and was glad.’ The Jews then said, ‘You are not fifty yet, and you have seen Abraham!’ Jesus replied:
‘I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham ever was, I Am.’
At this they picked up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself and left the Temple.


In an indigenous community I had regular contact with I was given a name. ‘Auntie’ asked one day “who are you”, I said, “Auntie you know who I am”, and I told her my name, and she retorted, “no! who do you belong to?” So, she went off into the bush for some days and came back proudly saying, “This is your name”, writing it in her language on the front of her cigarette packet, “It means wild nut!” [actually, a species of vine that grows in those parts]. The name was meant to connect me to her clan, to their land, ancestors, and spirit world. I had my place in the landscape, I knew where I belonged. I knew who I was because I knew who I was with.

In Hebrew, the name Abram means “The Father [or God] Is Exalted”, and the name he receives, Abraham means “The Father of Many Nations”. This new name given by God describes Abraham in terms of the Covenant relationship that God has with him. It reveals to us how God understands Abram’s identity. God will make Abraham into nations, and establish his Covenant between himself and Abraham, to be his God and the God of his descendants after him.

Jesus, according to John’s Gospel, also reveals his identity ‘I tell you most solemnly, before Abraham ever was, I Am.’

In Exodus 3, “Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”

The identity the Jesus claims is provocative and shocking. Jesus speaks of himself as preexistent before Abraham. He calls himself “I AM“. For first-century Jews, the name of God was not spoken or even written, so identifying with him was incredible blasphemy!  I imagine if someone today made the same statement in the Catholic Church they would also be crucified, if not physically at least verbally. In fact, the crime for which Jesus is eventually crucified is blasphemy. What does this mean for us as followers of Jesus?

Lent is a time for putting aside false identities and disordered affections that create attachments to the neediness of our small, false self.

I look to Easter as the great feast of proclaiming who we truly are in Christ. He gives us a name that reflects God’s true relationship with us. The Easter proclamation includes,
“This is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices
and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.”

We join the holy One’s of God. We know who we belong to.