What’s in a name?

Preacher The Very Rev’d Frank Nelson

Psalm 80: 7 – 15

Exodus 22: 21 – 23: 9

Romans 16: 1 – 16

Who were all these people – the long list of difficult to pronounce names which form the bulk of tonight’s 2nd reading? And well done Henry on getting your tongue around some pretty unusual combinations of sounds. Just a few weeks ago the sixteen people on pilgrimage to South Africa had to do just that – get their heads and tongues around names in different languages. Not always easy, but well worth the effort to see the smile on people’s faces when we eventually get the pronunciation right. I had to practice really hard for yesterday’s wedding – remembering to say Aurelio and not Aurelia. It would not have done to call the bride groom by a woman’s name!


So who are all these people that St Paul is so insistent on greeting at the end of his final and most complicated epistle – written to a congregation in Rome that he had not yet visited? Clearly he knows a number of the people well, and some of them, Phoebe and Prisca and Aquila for instance, are mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. They had travelled with him on his journeys, or been leaders of churches he had founded in other places. But others surely, are people he has not yet met, people he has heard about, taken note of as people he is likely to meet soon. A friend of mine has just become a bishop in New Zealand, after spending a good number of years working in England. One of the things people have commented on is that, well before he arrived, each of the clergy in the Diocese received a hand written letter from their new bishop. I can imagine that that would have gone down very well – an impressive start to a pastoral ministry of a new bishop.


As I read this list of people I find myself thinking of the various parish rolls I have had over the years – each of them listing names and addresses of people who have something to do with the local church. How they come to be on the roll is also interesting. Some will have contact through a baptism or confirmation class; others because they have been married in the church. Many will have arrived as newcomers – perhaps transferring from interstate for a new job, university or because of the lifestyle on offer. Some will be well known and very involved – regular worshippers who are on the rosters for welcoming, serving at the altar, making morning tea, helping polish and clean and visit, set up art shows, sing in the choirs or involved in any number of ways in the ministry of a church such as this.


But others may be less well known, perhaps only to one or two people, choosing to slip quietly in and out of Evensong on a Sunday night, getting whatever it is that draws them week by week, or perhaps just occasionally, into the ambit of the church. But each of them has a name and, whether known or not to the priest and people of the congregation, they are known to God. Not only known, but valued and loved as someone for whom Christ died and rose again.


In western and Australian society we tend not to talk much about Christian names anymore, preferring the more neutral term ‘first’ name. But in those societies where Christianity is still something new and risky, the taking of a ‘Christian’ name – usually a biblical name – really marks one out as being Christian. This is the name by which a new child of God, no matter how old or young, is known in the church. It is the name given at baptism – one to be cherished, representing, as it does, the new life begun in Christ.


Tonight gives thanks for your name – whether you like it or not. Give thanks for those who chose it for you, with care and love and meaning. Give thanks that you are known to God, to your family and friends. And make a resolution tonight to reach out to someone whose name you may not know (and that puts huge pressure on me and Jenny as there are many who worship here regularly whose names we do not know). Make the effort and greet one person tonight – before you leave the building. Find out their name, offer your name – and recognize in each other something of Christ. As St Benedict would say, let the Christ in me greet the Christ in you.


A long list of meaningless names of unknown people? Or fellow disciples of Christ, each with their own special ministry, gifts to bring into the church, known to God?