What’s in a Name?

42“He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).”

John 1:29 – 42

I ask people, especially young people, about their names. I fill up with joy when Maisha tells me her name is Swahili for “life,” or when Cinqué explains how his parents named him for the freedom fighter who liberated fellow Africans during a rebellion aboard the slave ship Amistad. These names reflect parents that apply thoughtfulness and destiny as a gift to their children. The Prophet Isaiah boasts of God’s investment of destiny and thoughtfulness to all the listening world.
Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention, you peoples from far away! The LORD called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me. Isaiah 49:1-7
Like Cinqué and Maisha’s parents, God is seen here giving serious forethought concerning Isaiah’s naming and its connection to his calling. This is wonderful news for those with thoughtful parents. Perhaps the Apostle Peter did not have the advantage of such a visionary father or mother. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, we witness this odd encounter:
One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter). John 1:40-42
Not much talking here, only a deep gaze into Simon’s eyes and the pronouncement of a new name. The text doesn’t even give Simon Peter a chance to respond. Across the centuries, there has been intense conversation about the meaning of this story. Jesus’ conversion of Simon’s name from “one who hears” to “rock” is truly mystical. And, like Peter, we are left to sit with the mystery. Rather than focusing on the “meaning” of the name change, I am much more intrigued by the mystery of God’s eternal stare and imagination on behalf of this young, confused soul.
It’s significant that this odd encounter takes place shortly after the baptism of Jesus. Some historians argue that Jesus received his divine nature during his immersion in the Jordan, as the heavenly dove descended upon him. Others, myself among them, believe he was born into divinity and that his baptism and the symbol of God’s anointing presence, the dove, was for us to see. It’s a reminder that as we join him in baptism we also join the fellowship of his gracious, divine anointing-his journey to the cross, his suffering, his resurrection, and his way of seeing.
When we join in Christ’s baptism, God’s spirit moves upon us. It creates an unavoidable compulsion to gaze deeply into suffering souls. God’s grace, the gift that uses us, grants us the privilege of seeing others through Christ’s eyes and sharing his bespoke vision for their lives: They are loved deeply; they are valued immensely; and they are called to a life of abundant grace. For those blinded by neglect, pain, and various forms of abuse, this is certainly good news! It works for the other kids in my community, the ones named after perfumes, Luxury Japanese cars, and alcoholic beverages. God is able to redeem their names, or sometimes even rename them, based on how he sees them and their calling. And for Peter, after being sifted, sorted, and subdued, a new name, thoughtfully conceived, and with destiny in mind, seems to have had quite the effect.
I pray you are blessed to hear God’s name, his calling, for you, and to share that blessing with all around. The world can always use a few more people who see through the eyes of Christ’s abundance. It can always use a few more “divinely inspired name-callers.”
Tim Merrill
Friend of Street Psalms
Founder and Director, Watu Moja