Sermon - Sunday, 27 August 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 27 August.

Scripture: Exodus 2: 1-10 / Matthew 16: 13-20

Text: And Jesus asked his disciples, who do people say the Son of Man is? And they said, some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets. Jesus said to them, but who do you say that I am?   (Matthew 16: 13,14)


Are you good at remembering names?

My illustrious predecessor, Leonard Small, was said to have had a prodigious memory for names, something which was the envy of all his colleagues, not least the minister conducting a baptism.

By what name is this child to be known, he asked the parents.

Pointing to the christening gown, the Mum whispered, the name is pinned on her.

Pinned on her, he declaimed, that is no name for this child; she shall be called Mary.

Of course, it can work the other way too.

A few weeks after stepping down as Moderator of the General Assembly, I was stopped in Princes Street.

Do I know you, the person asked?

We stood looking at one another for a moment, no immediate connection coming to mind.

However, it was his second question which really took my breath away when, grasping me by the hand, he asked,

Did you used to be someone famous?

So what’s in a name?

Everyone bears a name and some of us have several names.

Although I am usually known as Russell, Russell is in fact my middle name, my first name being George.

George was my father’s name, Russell came from my maternal grandmother, with Barr being the family name.

George Russell Barr: my name not only identifies me as an individual, it also locates me as part of a family, and with that comes a certain responsibility because, whether or not you are good at remembering names, I’m sure you recognise the importance of having a good name.

Just think of the reputational damage done to Scotland’s banks since 2008, a proud history lost, their names tarnished.

So who do people say that I am, Jesus asked his disciples, and what about you, who do you think I am?

Many of the stories in the Bible are straightforward reporting of incidents such as we might find in a newspaper today.

Following the rules of good journalism, the Bible stories typically report when something happened, where it happened, and who was involved.

And if our task is to try and discern the meaning of the story, what it tells us about God’s presence and purpose in the world, it is often worth paying attention to the names, the names of the people involved and the names of the places involved.

The story of the Hebrew born baby hidden in a basket in the bulrushes of the River Nile, found by an Egyptian princess, and brought up in the Egyptian royal court, is a wonderful tale.

With the people of Israel being held captive in Egypt, the background to the story is challenging and the narrative takes a sinister twist when, fearful the Israelites will become too numerous, Pharaoh orders his slave masters to oppress the Israelites with forced labour and instructs the midwives to kill any male born child.

So it is that, fearing for her child’s life, an unnamed Levite mother places her new born son in a basket and hides it in the reeds along the bank of the River Nile.

Going down to the river to bathe, the basket is noticed by Pharaoh’s daughter, who opens it and takes pity on the crying baby.

Standing at a distance and watching as events unfold, the baby’s sister offers to find a Hebrew woman to nurse the child.

So it is that the child is returned to his natural mother until he has grown older when he is taken back to Pharaoh’s daughter who adopts him as her son.

And it is the princess who names the child Moses, meaning, drawn out of the water.

Rescued as a child, spared death and set free from all the hardships imposed upon the people of Israel, this is the boy who as a man will rescue God’s people from slavery and lead them safely through the waters of the Red Sea on their way to the Promised Land.

In other words, the one who was rescued becomes the rescuer, his actions and life story revealing something of the compassion and faithfulness of God’s liberating promise and purpose.

Moses, one of the great heroes of our faith, someone whose name is associated with courage, leadership and freedom: and as we read about him this morning, the question becomes what kind of life does the name of Moses commit us to living and what kind of church does it commit us to being?

These questions are brought into sharper focus by the conversation between Jesus and his disciples on the subject of his true identity.

Matthew tells us Jesus and his disciples have travelled to the region of Caesarea Philippi, some twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee.

Originally a Greek centre of worship, now named after one of the Roman emperors, Caesarea Philippi was a city of strategic economic and military importance controlling the large surrounding geographical area.

With the majority of the population pagan, it was also far beyond the Galilean countryside where Jesus was typically found.

And yet it was to Caesarea Philippi, an outlying foreign area, a centre of Roman power and place of pagan worship, where Jesus brought his disciples where his true identity as the Christ, the Son of God, was first acknowledged.

Does his naming the place support Matthew’s intention to demonstrate the universal nature of Jesus’ ministry, his conviction that Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising to new life on the first Easter morning held significance for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike?

And what are we to make of our Lord’s identity being revealed not in Jerusalem’s temple, a holy place of religious ritual and symbolism, but in a city renowned for its political, economic and military importance?

What does this tell us about our living out the gospel?

Rather than fussing over questions which are of little interest to anyone outside the church, questions of sexuality and marriage being one example, doesn’t it suggest that our ministry and mission should be concerned with the real world of home and family, work and community life, our focus on the issues of poverty, injustice, homelessness, hunger and disease that blight the lives of so many people?

Names matter – and having named Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Simon son of Jonah, is given a new name, Peter, Cephas, the rock on which Christ will build his church.

Ironically we know Peter proved to be anything but rock-like at times, falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane while Jesus prayed and later denying knowing Jesus in the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas’ house.

However, we cannot escape the conclusion it is to sometimes flawed human beings like Peter - and us - Jesus entrusts his name and his reputation.

Initially described as the people of the way, it wasn’t until several years later, in the town of Antioch, the followers of Jesus were given the name Christian. (Acts 11: 26)

So what opportunities, duties and responsibilities, come with the name Christian?

As part of their Religious and Moral Education course, a class of children visited their local church and were shown around by the minister.

Pointing to one of the stained glass windows, a little girl asked, who are these people?

The minister explained these were the saints which led to a discussion on how those people became saints.

Back at school next day the teacher asked some questions to see what the children had learned from their visit.

When she asked about the saints, the same child put up her hand and said, saints are the people the light shines through.

In our worship this morning we have heard two Bible stories about names.

Two children have been baptised, given their Christian names, and brought into the family of the Christian church.

Shortly a number of young people will confess their faith as Christians and be admitted into the communicant membership of the Church of Scotland, part of the catholic or universal Christian church.

Names matter, they are a source of identity and carry with them a history, a responsibility and reputation.

And for those of us who would call ourselves Christian, what better way to honour the name than to let the light of Christ’s grace and love shine through.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen