"What's in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet." So said Juliet to Romeo in Shakespeare’s famous play, but she was wrong. The fact that he was a Montague and she a Capulet, from rival families, may not have worried her, but it worried others, and the results were fatal for both of them.
Names matter. They aren’t just technical reference tags, like your National Insurance number, or the serial number on a machine. They carry all sorts of other meanings and associations. That’s why choosing a name for a baby is so difficult, and, usually, done with great care. What are they going to feel about those names when they are grown? Is your daughter going to thank you for calling her Fifi, when she becomes a High Court Judge? But you have to call them something, and it is the power, and the burden, of parenthood to make that choice.
Names feature in our readings today. In the Old Testament reading Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah. Commentators argue about whether there is anything really significant about the old and new names in themselves. Possibly Abram might mean “exalted ancestor” while Abraham means “ancestor of a multitude”, which is what he becomes, but no one is really sure, and Sarai and Sarah are two variants of a word that means “princess”. But small changes matter, and the crucial thing here is who is giving them these identities, not their tribal ancestors, the parents who (ninety-nine years ago in Abraham’s case) decided on their name, but God himself. In naming them, he declares that he’s the one whose family they truly belong to, above and beyond the old tribal identities that once shaped them. They are children of God, part of a family that will eventually encompass a multitude of nations. Back in Genesis chapter 12 God had told Abraham that through him, “all the families of the earth will be blessed”– God’s work through Abraham and Sarah won’t be about setting one tribe over another – Montagues against Capulet - it will be for the whole human race.
Today’s Gospel reading follows hard on the heels of another significant name change. It comes straight after the passage in Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus tells Simon, the fisherman from Bethsaida who has become one of his closest followers, that from now on he will be called Peter, as he is here – from the Greek petros, a rock. He’s just acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and Jesus responds that “on this rock I will build my kingdom”. But now Peter seems to be rocky in a way Jesus didn’t intend. He may have accepted that this carpenter from Nazareth could be God’s messiah, but he can’t accept that God’s plan for him could ever include a humiliating and painful death. It doesn’t make sense to him, and it provokes a gigantic, rocky wobble.
It probably doesn’t make it any easier for him that this story is happening in the territory of Caesarea Philippi. We’re told that in the passage before this.Caesarea Philippi was a town which had been founded, and named, in honour of the Roman Emperors, the Caesars, by one of King Herod’s sons – the Herod who killed all the babies in Bethlehem. This particular son, Philip, who ruled this area after his father’s death had snuck in his own name – that’s the Philippi bit – for good measure. If you are going to suck up to the big boss in Rome by building a town for him, it never does any harm to remind him who’s idea it was! It was a strategically important town, on the lower slopes of Mount Hermon, where the River Jordan rose, which provided much of the precious water that irrigated Israel. There was a famous shrine to the Greek god Pan there too. So it was a place which reeked of secular and religious authority. Everywhere you turned there were reminders of who was in power – even in the town’s name itself – reminders of who you needed to swear allegiance to if you wanted to get on, or even just stay alive, in this dog-eat-dog world.
It was extraordinary that Peter had affirmed Jesus as the Messiah at all against that backdrop. What was a carpenter from Nazareth compared to the might of Rome and the splendour of the Herodian dynasty? But as it turned out Peter had only got halfway to where he needed to be. It wasn’t just who had power that mattered, but what that power looked like. In the Kingdoms of Rome and of the Herods, power equalled military force, casual brutality, and swift and severe retribution for anyone who stepped out of line.
In that sort of society, either you fit in and do what you are told, no matter whether its right or wrong, or you stand up against it, and pay the price. It’s a stark choice. As Jesus says, in trying to save your life physically, you may find you lose it spiritually. You may get to live, but you have to live with yourself, knowing deep down that you are a collaborator, an enabler of oppression. Just this last week, a 95 year old man was deported from the US back to Germany, having admitted that he was a concentration camp guard at a camp near Hamburg during World War 2. He oversaw some of the deadly forced marches which took place as the war was drawing to an end. It might look as if he’d got away with it all these years, but what does it do to you to live with that on your conscience, and now he has been expelled from the land he called home for the last 60 or so years? What has it profited him to “gain the whole world” if he has spent his whole adult life knowing that he was part of that machinery of evil? You don’t have to believe in eternal punishment, or even life after death, to see what Jesus was getting at here. We all make choices, and then have to live with the choices we make.
Jesus, and his followers will be faced with the choice between a courageous stand against oppression or the temptation to go with the flow, knowing that it is wrong. When Peter tries to turn Jesus away from the course of action he knows he must follow, he shows how deeply his mind has been shaped by the shadow of Rome, Herod and their like, where success comes adorned with thrones and sycophantic admirers, and anything else is failure. He has his mind on earthly things, not divine things, as Jesus puts it. No wonder he can’t cope with the idea of Jesus being crucified. He can’t imagine God could be at work through pain, death and humiliation, and he won’t get his head around it fully until Jesus is raised from death. That’s when he will really grow into the new name Jesus has given him, when he’ll stop being rocky, and start being the Rock upon whose faith others can rely.
Today’s readings, then, invite us to look at our own identity, and where it comes from, the names we know ourselves by, and who gave them to us, the things that have shaped our outlook on the world, and whether they lead us to fear, or faith. They call us to see that, whatever tribes and families we come from, whatever society we grew up in, our true name and nature come from God, the God who is with us in failure just as much as success, in weakness just as much as strength, in death just as much as life.