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Jesus Wants to Know


Old Testament Reading: Proverbs 22:1

New Testament Reading: Mark 8:27-33


"What's in a name?", asks Juliet.  Paul might answer, "Much in every way!" Juliet herself answered, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou 'Romeo'? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet!"

The book of Proverbs preserves a saying, which you have just heard, that speaks of making a name good or great. You start out with a name that bears no particular associations. It is value-neutral. It is up to you to impart some meaning to it by a virtuous life. And that is what the sage is suggesting you do. Get to work, so that people will see your good deeds, give glory to your Father in heaven, and remember your name as one of the just.

Conversely, you may have inherited a name that is already redolent of associations, good or bad. I recently saw an ad for a horror film convention. Present will be everyone from the old days of the genre they can get. But most of the great ones have passed on. We do not read that Bela Lugosi will be present, or the chortling Dwight Frye. But Bela Lugosi Junior and Dwight Frye, Junior will be present in all their derivative glory. Why? They have inherited a name.

The Epistle to the Hebrews says that Jesus Christ has inherited a name: "being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they" (1:4). And it is an excellent name. Yet at the same time, it was a burden. To inherit an excellent name is a great burden, since it is a great responsibility to carry on the reputation associated with it. My good friend Russell Allen Farrington the Third and his wife Catherine McCall just visited from Scotland and introduced us to their baby son Russell Allen Farrington the Fourth. Russ # 3 is about the most brilliant person I have ever met. I would say that his son will have a tough act to follow one day. And he must at least try. He has inherited the name, so his very signature invites scrutiny. People will be watching.             

A good name, may, however, go bad. It may come to bear disgrace, indeed to be synonymous with disgrace. Even if a person individually merits none of the curses his name produces by word association, the name he or she has inherited is a burden from which one must seek to emerge. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"

Jesus, I say, as Messiah-designate, had inherited a great name. But in the Markan text we heard just a few minutes ago, it seems that name is something of a burden as well. Notice the strange contrast. Jesus asks the disciples, who are closer to the public than he (indeed one feels that their primary function is to serve as a buffer between him and the crowd): "who do the crowd say that I am?"

This would seem to imply that he wants to make sure he has not been teaching in vain. That at least something of his teaching has penetrated the minds of his listeners,  something no teacher even takes for granted.

And the response? Some have one impression, some another. But they are all so only partially right as to be wrong. They are believers in mere half-truths. No one in the crowd has perceived that this Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah of Israel, the Branch Davidian.

As it happens, Peter has made the connection. And Jesus congratulates him for it. But the congratulation does not last long. Soon Peter is recoiling from the verbal blow of being called Satan--and all because he wanted to spare his Messianic friend a gruesome death.

Having learned, then, that at least one person understands, or almost understands, his messianic identity, you might think Jesus would try to determine how Peter "got" what everybody else missed. Then he could make the rest of the 12 sit through dull faculty conferences to learn this pedagogical secret.

But he doesn't. He tells the disciples, now that they know it, to keep his identity under their turbans. We must infer that Mark did not think Jesus had been trying to teach his messiahship. He had not been giving himself out as the Christ. And he didn't intend to start now. And all this even though he was in fact the Christ! Why?

Look again at Peter's reaction. He is affronted at the news that God's messiah must be crucified. Death at the hands of the Gentiles is simply not one of the things one may predicate of the Messiah. The name Jesus has inherited, since it was first mentioned in ancient prophecy, seems to have taken on certain triumphalistic, nationalistic overtones which make him reluctant to claim the name lest people read their own preconceptions into it. Better to function incognito, without the name. So he is the Messiah, but will not say so, because then, as once happens in John's gospel, the crowd will try to install him as king by force.     

And Peter is the proof of this. Peter: "You are the Messiah." Jesus: "Good. Now that you know that, you should know I'm going to die." Peter: "No way, Lord." Jesus: "Forget I said anything."

In fact, you can see what I'm getting at if you will remember what went through your mind a moment ago when I used another Old Testament Messianic title of Jesus: the Branch of David. You may have thought of the Antichrist David Koresh. Now that title is freighted with the weight of fanaticism.

What was true of Christ is true of Christians. As a Christian, you literally bear the name of Christ. I for one am not sure how I feel about it anymore. To bear the name of Christ himself I am not worthy. But to bear the name Christian is increasingly a matter of shame. In our society, the media shapes opinion. Indeed that is the whole point of the mass media. It is commercial propaganda.

Christianity has become a laughingstock in the media, and it is not the fault of the media. It can be laid at the door of those Christians who have lusted most for media exposure. They have painted themselves and the Christian religion as the incarnation of greed, venality, neurosis, and narrow-mindedness. It has become synonymous with ultra-rightist politics and obscurantism. I was telling my students the other night at New York  Seminary, "If that's Christianity, then I've got one thing to say: Allaho Akbar!"

Conservative Christians of a certain type have long since begun to try claiming exclusive copyright on the brand name "Christian." Jerry Falwell will tell you that in his opinion Bishop Spong is violating his copyright on the name. That anyone who is not Pro-Life, anti-Gay, Medieval in theology, is not a Christian.

It is a matter of special anguish to me that many of the most vocal of such zealots are Baptists. Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Charles Stanley, even the relatively benign Billy Graham.

These Baptists, as I view it, have inherited a great name, and now I am thinking more specifically of the name "Baptist," and have made it an object of opprobrium. Thanks to them, and the militant forces that have taken over the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant body in the United States, the name Baptist is coming to stand for the very things that Baptists once opposed.

The original Baptists had to flee England because they were radical Nonconformists, rejecting the union of church and state. But today's Southern Baptists are issuing encyclicals and lobbying to have abortion outlawed and prayer made mandatory in schools.

The original Baptists rejected any prescriptive creed. Today's Baptists have drafted various Confessions and Statements to play the role of shibboleth to smoke out the Heretics.

The first Baptists paid a heavy price for the right of every individual to interpret scripture for himself or herself. But now things are different. The Southern Baptist Sanhedrin has decreed that the "priesthood of all believers" does not rule out Pastoral privilege in telling people what to believe and do.

The Southern Baptists have decreed that any interpretation of the biblical text that posits a historical error in the text is off limits, just as the Pope once handed down official interpretations.

A woman might read the scriptures and feel herself called to the ministry. But the hierarchs of the Southern Baptist Convention says she must be wrong. They have decreed that women must not be ordained, though thank God, they cannot yet do anything about it.

They have not yet found a way to infringe on congregational autonomy--or have they? They very bid to purge seminaries of dissenters is a way of making sure that only the strictest fundamentalists will fill Southern Baptist pulpits in the next generation, dutiful flunkies who espouse the party line. And don't think it doesn't make a difference.

A friend of mine runs a theological bookstore near Wake Forest, where the Southern Baptist junta stacked the Trustees with their own creatures--and wrecked the school. The only students who attend now are the caliber that once would have attended independent Bible institutes, for whom scholarship is utterly irrelevant.

Well, there's four out of five of the historic Baptist distinctives down, with one to go: believer's baptism. I ask you, does the name "Baptist," which we have inherited, mean what it used to mean? Unquestionably, it does not.

It would be a heavy enough burden if it were simply a question of popular misunderstanding, if people just misunderstood what Baptists were about. Public relations might be able to do something about that.

But it is much worse: it's not just outsiders but insiders, it is the legal leadership of the largest Baptist, the largest Protestant, denomination, who are redefining the word "Baptist."

And its not just the Southern Baptists! Most Baptist groups are even more conservative than them! It may be that they do not need a creed to keep them rock-ribbed orthodox. Everyone just prefers to be a biblicist, a pietist. And that's their privilege.

But I do not perceive us as being that sort of a church. Some of us are more biblicistic and pietistic, and that viewpoint is welcomed. But we can't all be painted with the same swath. We have not been that sort of church since the pastorate of Harry Emerson Fosdick began. It wasn't a typical Baptist church in Charles Cohoe's day, certainly not in Don Morris' time. And it is no more now.

A couple of weeks ago, after one of the Holy Week services, I was talking with a friend, a local therapist, a former seminarian, and now  a devout atheist. He was the only one who had attended all of the Holy Week services. After one of them we were talking about the surprising disparity between the Unitarian Church across the street, and ours. They are growing faster than they can keep track of. We are struggling to keep the lights on.  We are both open-minded, progressive congregations.

I told my friend, "I haven't figured out yet what we're doing wrong." He said, "It's obvious! It's your name!" I can't tell you how often I have had people tell me they never would have guessed what kind of church we are from the shingle we hang out. Some have been reluctant to join or even to attend even once they knew because they just could not bear the stigma of having to tell their friends they were Baptists. They liked what was in the bottle, but not what was on the label.

You know what's coming. I'm suggesting we follow the shrewd tactic of Jesus Christ in the Gospel of Mark. We have inherited a name that was once, and still should be, a noble one. But it now is buried beneath such baggage that it conveys the wrong thing, the very opposite of the religious breadth, the spiritual freedom we are all about here.                    

I am suggesting that we lay that superfluous burden down. Let us bear the reproach of the Christian Gospel, but let us not shoulder the cross of an ill-repute we do not deserve. I am proposing, as many of you already know, that we change our congregation's name to Trinity Ecumenical Church, and our address to Trinity Place, to reflect the fact that this room is our church, no longer the whole building. The new name would reflect what we are and where we are. It is a noble name that implies broad acceptance of all the Christian traditions. Our communion service is from the Anglican prayerbook. My theology is Modernist, yet I preach from the Bible. You are Conservative and Liberal, Catholics and Baptists, an occasional sprinkling of Jews, even a Zoroastrian. More than one atheist and agnostic.

The name is redolent of the historic Christian tradition, yet without excluding anyone. It has no sectarian ring. It is a name that is perfectly descriptive and would make no one feel ashamed.

Please note I am not suggesting that we sever our links with the Baptist denomination. That is an altogether different issue. You do not have to have the word "Baptist" in the title to be a member church. Many do not.

Some may have a nostalgic fondness for the name First Baptist, but recall that even that was once a new name. Originally the congregation was called Montclair Baptist Church.

And besides, we are in every way a new church. You rightly cherish the name First Baptist Church as the name of the church you remember. It will remain the name of the church you remember. But that is where, in my judgment, it belongs--in the past.

Give your church a new lease on life. Let it proclaim itself what it really is: an ecumenical church. Paul warns that unless the clarion call is clear, no one will prepare for battle. In the same spirit, let us hold aloft the standard of Trinity Ecumenical Church and see who volunteers to enlist.




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