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What is in a name?


My youngest brother has a rather fitting name for the youngest son of Irish American parents – Stephen John McClear.  One day, when Steve was in first or second grade, my parents received a call from the principal of the school where we all attended.  It seems they were having just a little difficulty with Steve, who kept insisting that his name was Douglas and that he had been born in Dallas, TX.  (His actual birthplace of Jackson, MI is a LONG way from Dallas, TX is more ways than one.)  When my parents pursued this obsession with Steve, he was adamant that he did so because he WANTED to be named Douglas and he SHOULD have been born in Dallas, TX.   My parents explained to him that we could call him whatever he wanted and he could leagally change his name when he became an adult, but his birth certificate would ALWAYS have his name as Stephen John McClear born in Jackson, MI.  Like it or not, that WAS his name.

My given name is Kathleen Ann Teresa McClear.  For 18 years, my nickname was Kathy.  But during my first month of college, a girl on my floor declared that Kathy didn’t fit me and refused to call me that.  She nick-named me Kate and introduced me that way to everyone she knew.  From then on, Kate and Katie became the only names by which folks knew me.

Names are funny that way.   We all have a given name which is the only name on our birth certificate – marriage, nicknames, and even legal name changes do not change the name that we were given at birth.  Our ‘given’ name is our ONLY given name.   We may be called or referred to by a myriad of other names but in essence they are reflections of the relationships that we have.  Katie vs. Kathy, a married name that becomes a legal last name,  generic names – wife, sister, daughter, pastor, employee, boss are all legitimate ways of describing different relationships in my life.

The same is true for the name and the language that we use for God.   In Matt 28:19 Jesus commands the disciples to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”   For centuries the great scholars and theologians of the Christian tradition have interpreted that to mean that the Triune God whom we worship has a ‘given’ name, and that name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Over the centuries since those words of Jesus were recorded, there have been countless other names or references given to God.  Scripture itself, records other ways by which we refer to God – rock, redeemer, sanctuary, shepherd to name a few.  In parables, Jesus uses images and metaphors to help those listening.  In one parable in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to himself as a sower.   I generally think that any language that we can use to open up the enormity of God for others is not a bad idea.  However, I think it is equally important to understand the difference between an image, a descriptor, a metaphor, and a given name.

Several years ago, it became vogue to replace the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.  I find that troublesome on a number of levels.  First, orthodox Christian tradition has determined that the given name for the Triune God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Second, that usage tends towards modalism in assigning a new name to the Trinity.  Yes, God is the creator and the redeemer and the sanctifier.  However, all three persons of the Trinity are participants in all of those activities.  Thus, how do we replace the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier?

Recently, there has been a trend to more ‘relevant’ metaphors and images for God.  Many of my colleagues find themselves offended and aggravated by some of the more facile language used for God in our worship resources.  I confess that ‘lifeboat’ in no way makes God more accessible to me.  Nor does it seem fitting for the God of all creation who is worthy of our awe and worship.  But  – it is just an image, a descriptor that I can choose to not use.  It annoys me, but I can ignore it.  I find it neither unorthodox nor wrong – just shallow and facile.

On the other hand, according to the news release on its website, the United Church of Christ  has decided to banish God “the Father” from its organizational documents in order to leave open other expressions for the Trinity.   Now you’re messin’ with a … given name.  How does a denomination that professes to believe in the Triune God – referred to by Jesus himself as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit BANISH the name Father as the name for the first person of the Trinity in it’s very organizing documents?  Employing additional metaphors, names, expressions is one thing.  Completely doing away with a milenia of Father as a name for the first person of the Trinity is neither orthodox nor consistent with the Gospel.

Whether he liked it or not, my kid brother’s name is Stephen John McClear.  That is the one name that distinguishes him from all other people called Steve (or Douglas). No matter what anyone decides to call me, my given name is Katheen Ann Teresa McClear.  That is what dstinguishes me from all other Kathys, Katies, and even my cousin Kathleen Ann McCleer.  Decisions by the UCC notwithstanding, THE name of the Triune God – the name in which we baptize and make disciples – is the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the name that distinguishes the Triune God from all other gods.  THAT is what is in a name.  It really is that simple.

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