Name-calling is a powerful thing, in good ways and bad. It can have terrible destructive power when names are used to demonize and exclude and target. We see it in the workplace, we see it in the schoolroom, and we certainly see it in the news. Following the murders in Atlanta this week, we’ve heard much more about the violence that’s directed at people of Asian descent. It’s existed for a long time in our nation but has increased with the use of disparaging names about China by some people in powerful leadership positions—names they are still wielding today.
As I’ve listened to those reports, I remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years—about 35 years to be exact, since Peyton’s birthday is coming up. When she was born, she had jaundice, so her skin had a yellowish tone. Her beautiful eyes had something of an almond shape. A member of my family, who loves us all very much, came to see her and commented, “She looks like a little Chink.”
I know it was jokingly said and wasn’t meant as an insult to us. But, it was a joke based on an insult to others. It’s a slur against the Chinese that extends to Asians of any kind. It made me squirm then; the memory of it especially makes me squirm now, as I learn more about what Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants to our country have been enduring. As James said, the tongue can be a restless evil, full of deadly poison. Name-calling can have enormous negative effects, and using it to disparage and bully others is always wrong.
But name-calling can also be used as a sign of love. Names may be given to us or by us in love and affection. They can indicate a special bond—an intimate connection. We like to tell the stories about how we got our names, or how we chose our children’s names. My mother and dad named me “Carol Ann,” because Mom thought it was pretty. Mom especially insisted on calling me Carol Ann, and that’s what most of my extended family still calls me. But, it irritated Mom no end when I started school, and the “Ann” just kind of disappeared, because she had chosen that name with love.
I’m called by other names, too. The one I love best is “Mom.” When I entered the ministry, I became “Pastor Carol.” Another of my names is “Sis.” That’s the name my brothers have always called me. In fact, growing up, some of their friends didn’t even know I had another name. Even my dad called me that; I have a postcard he sent me that begins, “Dear Sis.” When my brothers began having children, I became Aunt Sis. I enjoy being called by all these names, because they reflect the loving relationships I’m fortunate to have.
I began thinking about our names when I read our passage for today, where Mark lists the twelve apostles appointed by Jesus by name. It’s easy to blow right by these verses as mere record-keeping. But they also give us an opportunity to think about the names on that list—the names Jesus must have called out as he selected those whom he would appoint as his apostles. What does this list of names tell us about their role in God’s salvation story, and what does it suggest about our own?
I think about Jesus up there on the mountain, surrounded by the larger group of disciples whom he had specifically invited to accompany him. This group probably suspected that something was up, if you’ll pardon the pun. The move from seashore to mountainside not only put some distance between Jesus and the crowds below, but mountains were often the setting for communion with God and divine revelation.
Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus went about announcing his selections—whether there was a “May I have the envelope, please” kind of moment. He just tells us that Jesus appointed twelve to be his apostles and described their mission: to be with him and to be sent out. That’s what the Greek word for “apostles” means—people who are sent out. They’re to follow his teachings as they proclaim his message, and they’re to do it with the same authority he has—the authority which can even cast out demons.
This is how we come to know these names as the twelve apostles. We don’t know how they reacted in the moment—whether they were exultant and felt special, or if they had a kind of “oh no” feeling about what might be required of them, or both. But I also wonder about the people whose names weren’t on that list. I can imagine them wondering why their names weren’t called. I imagine them asking themselves, “Why not me? What do they have that I don’t? Why isn’t my name on that list?” They’re questions we may ask ourselves when we’ve been passed over and our names not called for some special role. We may wonder whether Jesus would have called our names, if we had been among that group on the mountainside.
So, why might Jesus have called those particular twelve to be his apostles? What do we know about these men who have become so familiar to us because Jesus called their names? Some we know well, of course. Judas Iscariot we know too well, or at least we think we do. Simon Peter, and the brothers James and John. These three formed the real inner circle of Jesus’ followers. We know Peter’s brother Andrew, but he only shows up one more time in Mark’s Gospel, and then just as part of a larger group. We may think we know Matthew, but Mark’s Matthew may or may not be the tax collector from the Gospel of Matthew. The only tax collector Mark names is Levi, who isn’t included in the group of twelve, and Mark never mentions the Matthew of the twelve again in his Gospel.
We come to know Thomas and Philip in the Gospel of John and in Acts. But, Mark mentions them only in his apostolic roster; they play no other role in his Gospel. About Thaddeus, Bartholomew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Cananaean we know nothing at all, except for their names. We’ve all heard of people who are famous for being famous—people like Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton, whose names become household words for no apparent good reason. It seems like these four apostles, who have no identifiable ministry credentials, are famous just for making the list.
The twelve Jesus appointed worked in everyday jobs: fishermen, maybe a tax collector. Philip’s name means “lover of horses,” which may or may not have had anything to do with his work; it was a popular Greek name. They didn’t seem to be picked for their deep religious insight or stellar characters. As a group, they’ll display a real lack of understanding. They’ll reveal their ambitious sides, their fearful sides, their dark sides. The Simon described as “the Cananaean” might have been a religious zealot; his name meant not that he was from Canaan, but that he was a passionate sort. Other than that, the apostles don’t show (during Jesus’ earthly lifetime at least) that they have any particular qualifications for the job of apostle.
We don’t have any information from Scripture about what happened to many of the apostles. Judas, of course, committed suicide. We can read stories about some of the others, especially in Acts. But about the rest we know nothing for sure. There are plenty of stories about their travels to far-flung places where they are said to have proclaimed the gospel, about the churches they’re reported to have started, and the deaths they may have suffered. These stories may or may not be true; we just don’t know.
The twelve weren’t ancient superheroes. They were just regular people, called in the midst of their regular lives. Their lives changed as they came to know Jesus, but they didn’t turn into spiritual giants overnight. When we think about the twelve whose names Jesus called to be his apostles, we’re left with one conclusion: that those twelve men weren’t extraordinary before Jesus called their names. They became extraordinary because he called their names.
This is good news for us. This dozen of ordinary men become a lesson for us: that Jesus calls people just like us so that we can become more like him. And, just as Jesus knew the twelve by name, he knows us by name as well.
Just because Jesus chose as twelve people whose names we know doesn’t mean that he rejected the many other disciples whose names we don’t know. The twelve are mentioned a total of forty-five times in all four Gospels. Disciples are mentioned more than two hundred times, and their numbers extend well beyond the twelve. Others of Jesus’ disciples followed him, learned from him, rode in boats with him, served bread for him. Some financially supported him. Some stayed near the cross with him, went to the tomb for him, were sent out with the news of the resurrection by him. We know some of their names, but not because they were listed in the roster of apostles. We know them because of their commitment to Jesus; think Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene.
Jesus gave the twelve named apostles two assignments: to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim his message. But, all disciples are given that same commission. All disciples are to “be with” Jesus—to follow him and share in his mission. All disciples are sent out to carry the good news of salvation to the world. “Go,” Jesus says in Matthew, “Go and make disciples, baptize and teach.” Our commission—the commission of all disciples—isn’t any different or less important than the one entrusted to the named apostles.
Jesus calls us to be with him—to follow him, in the midst of lives as ordinary as the lives of the twelve, doing our ordinary work, with the ordinary responsibilities of home and family. He calls us, not because we are well-known theologians but because he wants us to grow in our knowledge and love of God. He calls us, not to super-hero demonstrations of power but to daily service in his name. This is the same role he appointed the apostles to: to be with him and proclaim his good news in all the ways we can.
When Jesus called the names of the twelve, he didn’t just use their given names. He gave new names to a few. We might even call them nicknames. Some nicknames can be painful, but ones that are given in love and affection indicate a special bond—an intimate connection. Jesus gave new names to three of his apostles. Simon, of course, he called Peter—the Rock. The symbolism I’m sure Peter preferred was that he was the apostle Jesus could always depend on (even though there were plenty of times when that wasn’t true). But a rock is also a kind of blunt instrument, and maybe Jesus’ new name for Peter had bit of teasing in it, too, for the apostle who often opened his mouth and inserted his foot.
The same goes for James and John, whom Jesus dubbed Boanerges, the Sons of Thunder. There’s no reason to think that these two had especially stormy tempers, but they did have a mother who cornered Jesus and demanded that her sons be seated at Jesus’ right and left hands in his kingdom. Maybe Jesus’ nickname for James and John was his humorous way of commiserating with them over the challenges of having a “helicopter parent.”
Giving someone a new name has special importance in Biblical thinking. Giving someone a new name shows the power of the name-giver. Think of God allowing Adam to name every living creature, the very creatures over which human beings would have dominion. A new name can signal a new stage in someone’s life or a new mission to be undertaken. Think of Abram becoming Abraham, Sarai becoming Sarah, Jacob becoming Israel, Saul becoming Paul.
Just as Jesus gave new names to some of the apostles, he gives us new names as well. I don’t know what nicknames he might have for us, although sometimes it’s fun to imagine what those names might be. But there are other names we are given when we offer ourselves to him. Names like Beloved. Co-heir, New Creation, Child of God. Friend, Brother, Sister, Saint, Disciple. Precious, Honored. Mine.
When Jesus gives us our new names, it is a sign of his power, but not power that he exercises over us. It’s a sign of the power he is able and willing to share with us as we accept our mission as his disciples. The names that Jesus calls us are the names that count, far beyond the names our parents gave us, far beyond any nicknames that come later, far beyond the names that make it onto any roster or list.
The truth is that it’s likely Jesus wouldn’t have called any of our names that day on the mountain. But we learn this from the names he did call: that ordinary people are called and empowered to do extraordinary things, whether their names are well-known or not. That making a name for yourself isn’t as important as claiming the name of Jesus. That the name you have is not as important as the name you proclaim. That we grow into the names that Jesus gives us and the mission he calls us into. Jesus calls each of us to be with him and to proclaim his message. Jesus calls each of us to a life like his, and he calls each of us to that life by name. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young