Last Sunday we explored the relevance of names in scripture – in general, and with regards to the life of Jacob in particular.
A name tends to signify and refer to the personhood of its bearer and as such it is much more than just a way to address someone. A name has to do with the individuality and identity of a person. Beyond that however there are often aspects that further add to someone’s identity: be it family traditions or the reputation of the family name, the region, country and culture one has grown up in, the language(s) one speaks, the values one holds dear, and the God(s) ones severs.
In chapter one in the book of Jonah for instance, the desperate sailors look to find the one among the passengers on the ship who might be responsible for the tempest they find themselves in. As the lot falls on Jonah they go and ask him questions about his identity: “What kind of work do you do? Where do you come from? What is your country? From what people are you?”
In our times today, and despite being part of a society here in Switzerland that culturally is predominantly shaped by the idea of individualism, we increasingly witness a shift in the public discourse that some call a fall back into old forms tribalism. In the course of that, someone’s ethnicity, cultural and socio-economic background, gender and other aspects of a group identity become features that are supposed to trump someone’s individual traits and views on the world.
And so whatever good or bad things are assigned to the respective group – or multiple intersections of groups – someone is associated with, that’s what the individual is supposed to be, follow and agree with. That’s of course not only absurd, but also contrary to what we find Jesus doing in Scripture as we follow Him engaging with people.
During His ministry He was very much about breaking through people-group related stereotypes and social barriers. Whether we look at the culturally impossible encounter of Him (as a Jewish Rabbi) and the women at the well, or the diverse types of men He called together to be His disciples, or the many other ‘sinners and tax collectors’ He spent time with.
And Jesus would go even further, by affirming the value of our individuality as created human beings, even beyond our own existence in this life. Namely by the revelation that we not only will be resurrected bodily, but that we very much maintain our personhood – rather than dissolving into nirvana, as Buddhism would declare to be the final goal of existence.
And how much Jesus cares about our individuality is for instance illustrated in a conversation He has with Peter. To me this is very powerful because it doesn’t just affirm Peter. It’s also powerful because Jesus shows Peter how much it matters to be focused on oneself in the relationship with Him – rather than looking to see what others are doing.
We find this in John chapter 21, where Peter had just been reinstated as a disciple, been told what his task is going to be (‘feed my sheep’), and the kind of death he’s going to die. There, in the next moment, Peter sees the disciple John and asks Jesus about what would be in the books for him. – The answer of Jesus is striking, as he’s essentially saying to Peter: This is of no concern to you. Mind your own business (or ministry!) – the one I have given you!
And so, whatever name we may bear, whatever cultural background we may have, whatever we may have experienced in life – the moment we engage in a relationship with Jesus we are a new creation, a new person – without forfeiting our individuality. In Him we have our identity and our name as Christians. Just like Jonah had his in ‘the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.’
And Jesus has specific and often seemingly impossible tasks for us to fulfill – during which we get to know Him, and He us. So that at the end of our lives He will NOT say ‘I never knew you’, but that he will recognize and acknowledge us and say ‘well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master’.
Grace and peace,