…the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:20-21
And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, who you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you. Acts 3:16
Both of these passages evoke scandal, controversy, and surprise. They make people uncomfortable, they shock and discomfit, and they bring scholars, theologians, pastors and disciples to reflect earnestly and long.
Mary, an unmarried young woman, is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” The baby that would be born to Mary was to be named Jesus, “God saves”, because he would save his people from their sins. Joseph, upon hearing this “good” news, is expected to overlook this pregnancy of dubious origin and act as if nothing untoward has happened.
And upon witnessing what happens when Peter commands a man lame from birth to stand up and walk in the name of Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 3:1-10), people are filled with “wonder and amazement”. The verse quoted above has confounded scholars for centuries, for the Greek construction of this sentence has been named “confused”, “awkward”, “garbled”, and even “intolerably clumsy”. The fact is that the word translated “name” (όνομα) appears twice in this one verse – and where the NRSV (see above) inserts “Jesus”, scholars suggest that as the word “Jesus” does not appear in the text, the word “it” would be a more appropriate translation. That is, the Greek suggests that it is faith in “the name” that gives health.
So, as Shakespeare’s Juliet asks, what’s in a name? And for us who minister in this name, what’s up with this name in particular?
This question is important for me at this moment because I have recently re-entered parish ministry. My last two positions – as a seminary prof at a US seminary, and as a mission co-worker in Madagascar – were easier in one crucial way than my current call. As a mission co-worker living in a religiously pluralistic context, I served among believers who understood that the proclamation of the Gospel was a matter of significant urgency – literally, an issue of life and death. As seminary faculty, no one among my students batted an eye if a prof suggested ideas that were outside the mainstream and seemed radical, overstated, or embarrassing in their conviction about the power of the Word. Indeed, some of the students, new to the practice and study of theology and Bible, were generally understood as overly earnest themselves in their faith expressions. Both in mission service, and in the seminary world, one can spout understandings of the power of Jesus’ name and not attract much notice – and certainly, not negative attention.
But in the everyday practice of parish ministry, one may find oneself interfacing with a variety of people who are not convinced of this power – and, in fact, who find mention of it offensive, confusing, exclusive, or just plain wrong. Thus, I have travelled from a context where Jesus’ name was understood as the only force in the universe with the power to heal, to an institution where claiming this and proclaiming this power was viewed as something that could be acceptably part and parcel of daily life, to a different place. In this different place, where I am now called to minister, interfaith relations are rightly held up as important in our all-too-violent world and society. And in this place, many people approach the worship and education offered by Christian congregations with experiences and training that suggest that the Gospel is, at most, just one view of truth and goodness – a view which must be viewed and judged with all other understandings of truth and goodness in the pantheon of worldviews. (At worst, of course, the Christian worldview is understood as foundational for self-righteousness, judgmental behavior, violence, and exclusivity of all sorts.) We must be clear, thus, about where we stand, what we believe, and what we are ready to proclaim.
Ministering in Jesus’ name – much less, understanding that the name itself is a thing of power – may also mean we risk being misunderstood and judged,. Francis Spufford notes this reality in his new book, Unapologetic (Faber and Faber, 2012). As the father of a six-year-old, Spufford expects that there will surely come a time when their “unapologetic” belief and faith practice in Jesus, and faith in the power of Jesus, will come to embarrass his child, in part because of the way faith in Jesus is commonly understood in his society (the United Kingdom), to wit:
It means that we don’t believe in dinosaurs. It means that we’re dogmatic. That we’re self-righteous. That we fetishise pain and suffering. That we advocate wishy-washy niceness. That we promise the oppressed pie in the sky when they die. That we’re bleeding hearts who don’t understand the wealth-creating powers of the market…That we’re savagely judgemental. That we’d free murderers to kill again. That we think everyone who disagrees with us is going to roast for all eternity…That we’re infantile and can’t do without an illusory daddy in the sky. That we destroy the spontaneity and hopefulness of children by implanting a sick mythology in young minds. That we oppose freedom, human rights, gay rights, individual moral autonomy, a woman’s right to choose, stem cell research, the use of condoms in fighting AIDS, the teaching of evolutionary biology…
Clearly, this “ministering in Jesus’ name” stuff, in the context of a society of doubt where the proclamation of Jesus has often been accompanied by an unhealthy portion of hate, is not to be taken lightly.
The realization that we live in this different place makes me doubly grateful, then, for the time we lived overseas. I am particularly grateful for the opportunity I had to witness the faith practice of people who understood the name of Jesus to be a thing of power and awe, in much the way Peter and John are reported to have done in Acts. I learned to pray overseas. Not that I didn’t pray before, but prayer is different because of the experience I had. I also came to realize the scandal of the name – the mystery and astonishment that accompany a growing awareness that Jesus’ very name holds authority – that what is done in Jesus’ name can change life, transform reality, and alter understanding and experience. My life and my approach to ministry were changed by this encounter.
Ministering now in a context that is easier in many ways (that is, where there is readily-available clean water, trash pickup, sanitation services, health care, good schools for our kids, and something approaching the rule of law), there is one thing that is yet relatively more difficult. The Christians in many poor countries know that they are in an uphill struggle, and they know and count on the one force that has the ability to change life and people. Thus, for many, sacrifice and commitment in order to share news of this power with as many people as possible seems not only appropriate but required. While I hasten to say that these understandings are present for some here in the US – and even for some Presbyterians! – for many Christians in North America, life is lived in such a way and understood in such a way that seeking the power of Jesus’ name is not seen as necessary, or even as an acceptable approach to one’s religion, which is for many a private exercise and not something that someone would proclaim openly, anyway.
Understanding religion, and faith, as private is possible if you don’t assign much importance to it – if it is, in fact, not a matter of life and death. If we don’t understand ourselves as inimitably and everlastingly changed by the encounter, then we can keep this strange, odd, thing to ourselves. If, conversely, we have been changed – if we have come to understand the sustaining power and saving glory of belief – keeping it quiet becomes more difficult. In a society where many have never heard the name, and many who have associate it with hate, violence, and judgment, we who rely on this power for life are called. We are given a task. We are called to find ways to speak with fluency in the language and vernacular of the culture in which we find ourselves, to share both in ways that make sense to those around us and which in some small way begins to reveal the truth we who have been given faith know.
As I continue to work out my understanding of God’s purpose in calling me to minister here at this time in this place, I look for ways to use and share the gift I received from brothers and sisters in Christ across the globe. The knowledge that ministry in Jesus’ name is empowered ministry – that it has the capacity, not through my own reason or strength but through the gift of God’s grace to transform lives and to call life and health into being – stops me in my tracks. It calls me to pause and reflect about that which I do, say, and proclaim. We who have been changed by ministry in the name of Jesus have to offer that truth, that power, that life and that change to those in the world around us. May we do so, empowered and equipped by Jesus’ name.
Cynthia Holder Rich is the Director of ecclesio.com. Information about Cynthia can be found at the “About” tab above.