What’s in a name?

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Good old Bill Shakespeare asked a pretty good question a while ago: “What’s in a name?” I didn’t think about names much until I was faced with the daunting task of naming a child. As we considered what to name our first child, I finally realized that I myself was named after not just one, but both of my parents. I am slow on the uptake at times, but even I could tell that my dad (Bob) and I (Bobby) had the same first name. (By the way, you’re only allowed to call me Bobby if you knew me before high school. Or if you bribe me with chocolate). But I never did realize that my middle name (John) is the boy version of my mom’s name (Jane). I was nearly 30 when I finally realized that I bear the names of both of my parents, and somehow that was a big part in setting me free to be who I really am.

All of us bear multiple names. Not only our given names and family names, but also place names and work names.  For some reason our society doesn’t put much stock in names, but I’m starting to realize there is wisdom and power in paying attention to my names.  I’m realizing “Bob” doesn’t quite tell my whole story (not to mention the fact that it can mean a haircut, or fishing tackle, or a sponge with square pants). Like many of us, I’m an American, a Vermonter, and a Benningtonian. I’m proud to bear the names of the places I love. I’m also, to varying degrees, a New Jerseyite, Floridian, and Tennessean, and a wee bit of Mainer (I spent some time in Massachusetts too, but couldn’t quite take that name on myself. Sorry Mass friends. Go Pats!) I’m also a Husband, Father, Son, Brother, and Friend, and I’m glad my identity is wrapped up in my relationships. And I’ve been Barista, Editor, Computer Programmer, and now Pastor. These vocational names shape who I am and what I do, but they don’t quite put a name on my core identity. Throw in Musician, Animal-lover, and Photographer, and we’re getting closer to naming who I really am.

As a committed follower of Jesus, I bear the name of Christian. This is, in fact, my primary identity, and I am very glad for it. But here’s the thing that’s been bugging me lately: have you noticed that the name of “Christian” can mean many different things? Perhaps you’re familiar with some of these possible meanings of the name Christian: someone whose parents were Christian; someone who was once baptized, or confirmed, or married; someone who tries to live by the 10 Commandments and/or Golden Rule; someone who is an American; someone who is an adherent to a certain flavor of politics or philosophy. For whatever reason, the name Christian has become muddled and confused. So let’s borrow a quote from a favorite movie: “You keep using that word…I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It may be too late, but I’d like to go back the beginning of the name “Christian,” and reclaim what it really means. It originally meant “belonging to Christ” or, if you don’t mind, someone on Team Jesus. So I’m not a Christian because my parents are. I’m not a Christian because I was baptized when I was a baby. I’m not a Christian because I went to a Christian school. I’m not a Christian because I try to be a good person. I’m not a Christian because I’m an American. I’m not a Christian because I go to church. Every last one of these things happens to be true, but none of them is what makes me a Christian.

What makes me, and perhaps you, a Christian is far less complicated than all that. I’m a Christian simply because I belong to Jesus Christ. Not because I don’t kick the dog or cuss (much), but rather because he has graciously forgiven me and given me a new start. Not because I try to do good, but rather because Jesus is making me good by his love and grace. Not because I’ve done or said certain religious things, but rather because Jesus has given me a relationship with himself. Not because the country I live in, but rather because God has welcomed me into his heavenly kingdom. Not because the family I come from, but rather because Jesus has adopted me into his eternal family. Not because I’m doing my best to live a good life, but because God has raised me from spiritual death into new life.

Christians are named Christians because we belong to Jesus, and so we follow him. Not perfectly of course, and too often not even very well. But we continue onward and upward, because he gives us the faith to respond to him when he says, “Repent, believe in the gospel, and follow me.” (see Mark 1:14-18) We are named after the one who loves us best and names us his Beloved.

So, again, what’s in a name? Everything. What’s in your name?

Bob Wiegers was named Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Bennington VT a couple years ago, and continues to strive to live into that name.