Isaiah 49:1-7, John 1: 29-42
Today’s readings make me think about identity - who we are and who God intends us to be. The Gospel reading is from John, the last of the four gospels, which was written most consciously to identify Jesus as the Son of God. In the reading, John the Baptizer identifies Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’- the one he has talked about. In the Jewish faith, lambs were sacrificed at Passover in memory of the exodus from Egypt. Before the Hebrews were freed from Egypt, the final plague was the death of the firstborn in each household. The Hebrews were told to sacrifice a lamb and smear its blood on the lintels of their houses, and when he saw this sign the angel of death passed-over their homes and the lives of their children were spared.
The Passover lamb was therefore an amazingly evocative image of mercy and freedom and life, and here John is likening Jesus to the lamb - not a lamb sacrificed by humans, but the Lamb of God. In Christian tradition, Jesus became the ultimate Passover lamb, God’s sacrifice, who was sacrificed so that the angel of death would pass over all of us. We use a lot of that imagery in the language of the Eucharistic prayer.
So John was making a dramatic and multi-layered statement about who Jesus was – its not surprising that two of his own disciples decided to follow Jesus. One of these, Andrew fetched his brother. When Jesus saw him he said “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Peter.”
Those must have been astonishingly profound words for Peter. Jesus, the Anointed Messiah, not only knew his name, but already knew him well enough to give him another. He must have felt deeply seen and known. Our names are important to us. They become a symbol of who we are. When I say ‘Mary Elizabeth’ that brings up in our minds not just a sound or a picture but an awareness of the person we know as Mary Elizabeth and that awareness is more like a taste or a flavor than a list of attributes. We often have nicknames or family names for those who are close to us – names which say something special about them or our relationship. People who use those names for us have a special relationship of intimacy.
Simon doesn’t need to be introduced to Jesus – Jesus already knows who he is. Jesus already knows who each one of us is. In the first reading, the suffering servant says ‘The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.’ I think that is true of every one of us. ‘The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.’ Now whether, when I was in the womb, the Lord named me Caroline or Caro or Caroline Jane or some totally different name, I don’t know.
It may be that God has special private names for each one of us, names which are known only to our souls. There are a couple of verses in Isaiah where the prophet talks about God giving us a new name. In Revelation as well there are several references to new names given to those who persevere. But Peter hasn’t persevered. He only just showed up, and Jesus tells him – you are Simon, you will be called Peter. The name Peter is related to rock and we can imagine how mortified Peter must have been later, when he, the one called the rock, goes into a total meltdown at the time of Jesus’ arrest and flip-flops all over the place in a very unrocklike manner.
Because we don’t always live up to our names. Someone called Grace may not always be graceful, and naming your child Joy does not guarantee a sunny disposition.
As a faith community we have the name St Benedict’s – I wonder whether we are living up to our name? Today is our parish meeting and a time for us to reflect again on what we are doing and why we are doing it. We are named for a 6th century religious around whom disciples gathered and who created an instruction manual or a rule which became widely known and used for the ordering of the monastic life.
The spirit of Benedict’s rule is summed up in the Latin phrase ora et labora which means ‘pray and work’. He aimed "to establish a school for the Lord's service" where "we progress in the way of life [that, in his love, the Lord shows us] and in faith", and so "run along the way of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love", with the hope that "never swerving from his instructions, but faithfully observing his teaching, we shall through patience share in the passion of Christ that we may deserve also to share in his Kingdom". St Benedict's rule organised the monastic day into regular periods of communal and private prayer, sleep, spiritual reading, and manual labour "that in all [things] God may be glorified". In later centuries, intellectual work and teaching took the place of farming, crafts, or other forms of manual labour for many – if not most – Benedictines. The Benedictines became known for their hospitality and their support of the arts and the life of the mind.
So we are named for more than a well-known saint; we are named for a way of life. A way of life which includes both communal and private prayer, spiritual reading, hard work, and (I’m glad to say) rest. Our name places us within a specific tradition of spirituality, that of contemplation and service. It marks us as a people who go deeper spirtually at the same time as we work for the well-being of all beings, as people whose spiritual life sustains hard work but hard work balanced with adequate rest.
‘The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me.’ That’s how intimately God knows and loves each one of us individually. It’s also how intimately God knows us as a people.
People around us are hungry for that intimate relationship with the divine. They want to know that God loves them so much that they were called and named before they even took their first breath. We too are hungry for that relationship; we are hungry for a sustaining, life-giving relationship of loving intimacy with God. As Benedictines we have inherited a roadmap – a guide – to living in such a way that we can "run along the way of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love".
At yesterday’s visioning meeting with the Bishop she asked what it would look like if we did what we already do with more focus and action. I would change that a little and ask how we can do what we already do with more purpose and vision. When we see even the smallest or most menial thing we do as building the vision of a community living intimately with God "running along the way of God's commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love". When we know that sweeping the floor, putting out the trash, washing plates is an expression of our life together that leads us closer to God and draws others to God. When we fully grasp that we are called to live every moment and do everything because we love and are loved and our hearts are overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.
Then we wll begin to live up to the names by which we are called. Our public names, our family names, God’s special soul name, and the name of our faith community – St Benedict’s.