Sermon on the Feast of the Holy Name: The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2)
Today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians is sometimes called the Philippians Hymn. It is one of the earliest examples we have of how Jesus was worshiped in the fledging church. We don’t know if it had an accompanying tune or, in fact, where it was sung or by whom. What we do know is that St. Paul includes this hymn as a type of confession of belief. Before there were written creeds and defined Christian doctrines, there was a worshiping body of people. And this hymn shows us something of what was at stake for these early believers.
A particularly striking theme to the Philippians Hymn is the confidence the believer can have in the name of Jesus. There is a quality to Jesus’ name, the hymn suggests, that goes beyond what is ordinarily considered the scope of personal identity. We hear: “at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth,” and we are left wondering: what kind of magic is this, that at the sound of it all creation responds?
Is such confidence really appropriate? Why all the fuss about a name? Could not Tom, Dick, or Harriett be equally suitable? There is a great deal that could be said about the role of naming or how our names form something of our identity. For the most part, names reflect the connection we have to our time, place, or culture. Consider your own name. Are you John or Linda because of a famous actor, or a treasured ancestor, or are you Peter due to the saint of that title? Perhaps you are Marguerite because Thelma is not the name you would have chosen for yourself, even though the great aunt of that title was a family favorite. Our names can at times seem as though they were knit into our own flesh. We even recall those we love and those we hate by the names they bare. We have a complicated relationship to these proper nouns that we use to sign letters and emails. It is not true that we are only our names. Equally, it is not true that we aren’t.
I am convinced that all the talk about the name of Jesus being the source of worship and confession—every knee bow, every tongue confess—has to do with the particular way we approach the mystery of God. The mystery of Jesus can be thought of as the mystery of what ‘God’ means. For instance, one thing the church asserts is that God is unchanging. Christians, like other religious believers, believe that God isn’t constantly anxious about what we think of him, constantly reinventing himself like a movie actor or a politician, or a politician who isn’t sure if they are in fact a politician or a movie actor, or both. Of course, that hasn’t stopped us down the ages inventing millions of pictures and metaphors of God—human images and descriptions of our own devising to help us try to grasp the divine.
But in reality Christians, like other religious people, believe that God doesn’t change—God is eternally who God is and delighted in being who he is. Another way of putting this is by saying that God is stable in who and what God is. The church recognizes the significance of God’s unchanging nature, particularly as we consider the birth of Jesus at Christmas. In the wonder of Mary’s child God has assumed human flesh and become like one of us. In Jesus, God has given us a name to call him. In this act, God tells us, openly, lovingly, who God is, and invites our response.
But how can we respond? During the holiday season we hear much about ‘love,’ ‘peace,’ and ‘generosity.’ But these abstractions can distract us from the scandal of Christmas. In the babe born to Mary we greet not a concept but a person, Jesus of Nazareth. And the strange and wonderful thing is that if we respond to Jesus as we would to God—greeting him in trust and with confidence—we discover that our anxieties about who we are and what we are about begin to be dealt with. Consider: it was once the realm of teenagehood to ask, Who am I? What will I become? Yet, of course, these questions are also at the heart of the identity for adults of all ages. Like a corporate brand, we are taught to project something of significance in our name. And like a corporate brand, we are encouraged to change or re-invent ourselves when the brand no longer carries meaning. In this world of shifting identities, we long for a sure identity, a clear sense of an unchanging nature.
In the light of Jesus’ appearing, this world—here and now and evermore—is understood as the very place the person of Jesus becomes a source of identity and freedom. This is where the unchanging nature of God profits us. In creating us, and in assuming human flesh, God has claimed us for the site of God’s activity. We can therefore dare to affirm that there’s something in us that doesn’t change, something that’s always true and valuable and loveable. Think about it this way: God is stable, consistent, and what God reveals in his Son is a stable, consistent identity; he has the name that is above every name. And the bearer of this name is the one in whom our human way of existence has been taken up into God’s very life. Consequently, the stability that belongs to God is on offer to us. It is a gift—a gift of loving constancy that never fades.
Our confidence expressed through worship and confession goes beyond a curiosity in what Jesus was like historically, for we not only show interest in Jesus; we listen to him and follow him. In taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, as St. Paul sings, Jesus has established communication and friendship with us. This communication with Jesus is the basis for our confidence. What we receive is not just a matter of getting to know God; it is a matter of receiving a more intense life, the life of God in all its fullness. This life is a truly human life—a life like that of Jesus, who lived so humanly that he became a threat. Through our worship and confession we adopt the pattern of Christ’s humanity by gathering in community, breaking bread, and serving the poor and needy. It is a pattern that includes the wonder of Christmas, but also the obedience of Good Friday.
God is stable, consistent, and can be trusted. That’s at the heart of the hymn in St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The good news today is that we, too, can learn to sing the same song. We, too, can claim with St. Paul that God has made it possible for human life to share in the unchanging life of divine love, goodness, and peace. The one whom we confess as Son shows us what this stability and life looks like. And we are invited to respond. Will we bend the knee and confess with our tongues? As we enter this new year, may we be resolved to receive the gift of divine life through accepting our identity as children of God and members of Christ’s body. And let us do so with confidence.