This week my family and I are on vacation in Bridgton, Maine. It’s a small rustic town deep in the woods about 45 miles from Portland.
Our trip started off in Salem which as you might know is famous for it’s controversial witch trials some 400 years ago. It was there we visited the oldest graveyard in the city, where there’s a memorial garden dedicated to the souls who were killed in spite of their innocence. In this garden there are 20 stone slabs, each with a name etched in it so we would never forget their who they were and their tragic story.
In the last week there has been 4 mass shootings, that have left 34 people dead and some 50 more wounded. That’s 34 tombstones that didn’t need to be made. As of this writing, we don’t know all their names yet. And given our history with gun violence in this country, I fear their story will fade faster than a tombstone weathered by time. Their names, like ours, are important. Especially to God.
So what’s in a name anyway?
Names are what people call us. They identify who we are in an over crowded world. When I hear “IAN” being shouted in a large group, I turn to look to see who is calling me. When I hear my entire name “IAN WOODMAN MACDONALD” I turn and run knowing I am in trouble.
Whether you’re a person, place or thing having a name is important. For example, when you read the name Coca-Cola what’s the first thing you about? Is it Capri Sun? Or Aquana, the Belgium sports drink? No. It’s the beloved carbonated soda – that iconic image that defines America. It is one of the most recognizable names in the world. Even though there are over 500 brands names under the Coca-Cola Company umbrella, they are not what you think about when you hear Coke.
For over two decades, I worked on products like Honda, Toyota, American Express, Mattel, and Samsung. It was my job to ensure my client’s name was the first thing you thought about when you wanted a car, a toy, or a credit card. Billions of dollars are spent every year on name recognition alone. The lucky ones, like Google, don’t need to spend that money because their name is synonymous with the category they represent. When we want information, we don’t Ask Jeeves, we “google” it.
Names say something about us. We all have one if not for no other reason than you can’t place an order at Starbucks without giving them one. In most countries, it’s customary to introduce yourself by your first name. In others, your last name is first. When I met Kathleen she was quick to tell me that her name was not Katherine, Kate, or Kathy, but Kathleen. I had to sing a song in my head so I wouldn’t forget it. Now, some twenty years later she and I still share a name.
Think about how good you feel when someone you meet in passing remembers your name the next time they see you. I still get excited when someone pronounces my name correctly. Growing up in the south, the name Ian apparently was a mouthful. And I am often surprised when it’s not spelled with the initials E.N.
Many parents struggle to come up with the right name for their newborn. Before we could bring Sean home the hospital made us name him. Fiona argued for Cosmo, and Colleen was dead set on Squirrel, but we settled on Sean Oliver Macdonald. From his first breath to his last, that will always be his name. And so are each one of ours. This is how people know us.
It’s been said that a good name speaks for itself. If you’ve been a victim of identity theft or a smear campaign, you know how important it is to protect your name from being misused or abused.
The Bible is filled with genealogies, names that beget other names. Which tells me names are important to God, who calls each of us by name. In today’s reading, Jesus meets a man who is brutally possessed. And the first thing he asks the guy isn’t do you want to be healed, but “What’s your name.”
Read Luke 8:26-33, 38-39.
In this reading Luke gives us three names to look at. The First, is the Name of the town: Gerasene. Luke said it is “opposite” of a better known town named…Galilee. By opposite, Luke is referring to more than just geography. This was Gentile country, the opposite side of the tracks, and the polar opposite of what the disciples knew.
In the middle of his mission Jesus makes an intentional trip to be with less desirable people. And takes his Twelve with him. One thing we know about Jesus is that he willingly crosses boundaries to make connections with people – because we have been named, and we mean something to him.
Luke tells us the man who greets Jesus has been suffering great distress. Whatever had a hold of this guy had beaten him down so badly that he was literally stripped bare. He wore no clothes, and he lived among the dead...whose names were etched on tombstones. When Jesus comes towards him, the man’s demons threw him to the ground. And what happened next? They shout out the second name in the story, Jesus.
Do you find it strange that the demons know who Jesus is: the Son of the Most High God? The disciples still can’t figured him out. Even though on the boat ride over there they freaked out when Jesus command the stormy surf to cease. I can only imagine what they thought when demons bowed down to him in obedience.
If you know who Jesus really is, then you know the one who sent him (Jn. 14:9). He is more than just another name on a family tree. Because of who Jesus is, it shouldn’t surprise us that he wants to get to know this man; who is the last name mentioned in our story. “What is your name?” Jesus asked.
Luke doesn’t tell us what it is. It could’ve been Flavius, or Augustus, or some other Gentile name, like Steve, or Glen. Either the man is too broken to remember his name or the cacophony of voices in his head won’t let him speak it. All he could say was, “Legion,” meaning there’s a lot of stuff going on inside him we don’t know about. Whatever they are, they’re overwhelming and torturing this poor guy. And this begs the question to all of us who know Jesus’ name and call him Lord:
How many voices are in your head drawing your attention away from who you really are. What are the things that possess you, or overwhelm you? Who or what is in control of your life? Are they problems at work? Financial worries? A bad relationship you can’t seem to break free of?
There are so many demons out there that possess and shackle us. In recovery programs they call them addictions. What demon’s are you addicted to: drugs, food, sex, entertainment, shopping, diet, self-doubt, narcissism, religion…? Jesus asks the man his name, but it’s the demons that are identified. This tells me that we need to name our demons as well if we are going to be healed and freed from their power over us.
In Luke’s story we see how the very name of Jesus possesses the power to heal, restore, and return us to who we were created to be – a special people with a special name. We are the beloved children of God, the very One who unites us and defines who we are and what we are called to do.
Jesus is defined by who he is. The Christ. The Son of the Most High God. Unfortunately, the way we often speak his name would lead you to believe that Christ is Jesus’ last name, but it’s not. Christ is who Jesus is, and what he does, and all that he represents. Healing, restoration, salvation.
There in that graveyard, Jesus asked the man his name, not because he didn’t know it but because he wanted the man to remember who he is, and what God has done for him. He was healed, restored, and returned him to his rightful place. There’s a reason why we call Jesus Lord. Savior. Redeemer king.
To know who Jesus really is, is to know the One who sent him and the reason why he was sent in the first place. His name is powerful enough to overcome the storms we face and demons hidden deep within us. But more importantly, his name alone builds the bridge between God and us. Jesus will tell his disciples to ask God for anything in his name, and it will be done (Jn. 14:13). As Paul proclaimed, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Jesus is the Christ.
In liberating the man from the thing that was causing him from living his life the way God intended, Jesus teaches us that salvation is more than some transaction between God and us. It’s a holistic and all-encompassing transformation; bringing new life to body, mind and spirit. Jesus crosses to the opposite side of what we know, and takes us with him. Be it a place like Gerasene or on a cross at Calvary, Jesus comes to us. It doesn’t matter who you are, or where you’re from, no one is beyond the reach of Christ’s redeeming and healing love.
Because of the selfless act of love Jesus made on the cross for our behalf, God highly exalted him and gave him “the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee shall bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, for the glory of God the Almighty” (Phil. 2:9-11).
So yeah, names are important. Especially the name Jesus, the Christ, through whom we have been adopted into a new family and given new names. The beloved sons and daughters of the Most High God.
Through Christ, our names are etched and memorialized upon God’s heart. And because of Christ God’s lips speak our names into eternity. Because God has named us, let it be God who defines us.
We are not a disease, or an addiction or a problem that possess us and keeps us from being anything but our true self.
We are the beloved, heirs to the Kingdom of God.
Redeemed and restored by the power of Jesus who gave his life so that we might live to receive our birthright and the eternal inheritance that comes with that blessed and holy name.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”