“What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Honestly, not a huge Romeo and Juliet fan, but there is an idea here that is worth bearing out. A name, is a symbol for a greater reality. The name Montague is not as important as the reality; including family ties, wealth, aristocracy, prejudices and the like, that it ties the star-crossed lover to. The symbol points to a greater reality.
Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that symbols are just things out there that have no power, empty objects, but that’s not the case. Take for example, someone who is on a long road trip, like the one I’m going on to my conference in St. Louis. This traveler forgot to pack their lunch, been driving for a long time, and getting grumpy. Then past the next exit, you see a glimpse of the golden arches! Your mouth starts watering and your stomach is grumbling just because you saw that symbol ahead. Those golden arches are a symbol pointing the way to the greater reality of a Big Mac in my hands.
But of course, you have to know why the symbol is important for it to mean anything at all. If I came from a remote tribe far removed in the Congo and you showed me a picture of the golden arches you probably wouldn’t get much of a reaction from the me.
I think the same is true today, when we read the first lesson from Acts chapter 1:
So they nominated two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they all prayed, “O Lord, you know every heart. Show us which of these men you have chosen as an apostle to replace Judas in this ministry, for he has deserted us and gone where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and Matthias was selected to become an apostle with the other eleven.
Usually, when I read that passage, the very first question that comes to mind is, why? Why, do they go through all of the bother of praying and reading scripture, doing deep Bible Study (which we only see the results of from their quoting of the psalms not all of the history and thought behind it), why make such a fuss about making sure there are 12 Apostles. 11 seemed like a good enough number, considering there were about 120 disciples in the room in total in prayer. And if Justus and Matthias were both well qualified for the job, why not 13? The answer is the importance of a very specific symbol.
In the Old Testament, God made a promise with a man named Abraham, that through his family God would make all things new. Abraham was to be a blessing to the nations and to tell about the God of Heaven and Earth who made all things and was making all things new. Abraham and his wife Sarah didn’t have any children and it wasn’t until Sarah was well beyond her childbearing age into very old age, that she had her child Isaac. Isaac means laughter, because Sarah and Abraham laughed in joy and surprise that God had kept His promise to them. Now the promise that God was going to make all things new through this family, followed with Isaac and his children Jacob and Essau. Of the two, Jacob was a swindler, liar and cheat but God transformed him and made him new. This is the Jacob of Jacob’s ladder to heaven and who wrestled with God and in the process God made him into a new man with a new name- Israel. Israel would carry on God’s promise to make all things new. Jacob had 12 sons and one daughter. The younger son of these had a Broadway musical made after his life, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Whether Joseph’s coat of many colors was Technicolor or not, the Bible doesn’t say, but the evil that Joseph’s brothers tried to do to him like, trying to kill him, throwing him into a pit to die, selling him to cruel slave traders, God used for good. Joseph became a new man, a ruler in Egypt and advisor to the Pharaoh. The rest of the family eventually joined him in Egypt when a famine went across the land and God used Joseph to change his brother’s hearts and make them into new people. Those 12 brothers in Egypt became the patriarchs of the nation of Israel and the symbol that God keeps his promises, all that way back to Abraham, that God would use that family to make all things new. Those 12 families, the families of Israel were meant to carry on the promise that God was making all things new in this world, including them. But how was God going to do that? The God-inspired writings and teachings of those 12 families pointed to the one who would make all of God’s new creation work possible in his suffering and death, the one who was both God and man, Jesus Christ. The 12 families of Israel for all of those generations waited for and pointed to Jesus, who through his death and resurrection God would make all things new.
Just as those 12 families were a powerful symbol pointing to Jesus, so now the 12 Apostles pointed back to Jesus and pointed forward to show the whole world how God keeps His promises and how God is making the whole world new in Jesus.
But a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. The symbol of the 12 nations of Israel and the 12 Disciples, the new Israel, pointed people to a great reality. The 12 disciples were not as important as what they meant. They meant that God keeps his promises. They meant that God is active and alive, working in our world for our good and salvation. They mean Jesus is the center and hope of the whole thing, all of the history pointing towards him and then from him to the world that would never be the same. The 12 meant that they were part of this “making new” process that God was accomplishing in Jesus and they had a calling and a new life to live because of it. But in itself the symbol 12 is not sacred or holy, it only has meaning in that it points to what is important, that is God making all new things new through Jesus. We have to know the why of the symbol for it to mean anything to us. We have to know why.
In our women’s bible study this past week, we ran into this same problem with the candles next to and on the altar. One of our members asked the very honest question of why do we light some candles and not others and why do we sometimes light them this way going up and extinguish them going down. That led to the next question of why do we have candles in the first place? Are they sacred somehow? Do they have to be there? The “why” is what matters.
Why matters. I believe that God is making me and all things new through the death and resurrection of Jesus. I believe he does this through faith, in my baptism, in the hearing of his Word, singing of his praises, being with my church family and being a part of his “new making” work through love and service to my world. I believe that God has taken me, sin and all, failures and all, brokenness, pain, bad choices, and wrong headed thinking and is still making me new. His new creation and that this is a lifelong work that I will get to see the fulfillment of when I am with God eternally. That is a part of my why. Why I do what I do. Why I am what I am. Why I am standing here right now with you. This is part of God making me new and I get to be a part of that by preaching the Word that makes all of us new together in Jesus.
Why matters. Once you get past the symbols, whether it be 12 disciples, or candles on the altar, or even a cross around your neck, you have to know the why. If not, they don’t mean anything. Why do you come to church? Why do you try to forgive when you really don’t want too? Why do you try and love your neighbor? Why did you ask for forgiveness and receive it at the beginning of service? Why are you here? These are the everyday Christian questions we have to deal with and find an answer for. Just like those 11 disciples that weren’t quite sure what to do with themselves now that they weren’t 12. They prayed and sought God’s Words in Scripture and supported each other as God led them to the why that mattered. This is what we do too, need to do, to find our why, by searching God’s Words in Scripture, growing calluses on our knees and hands as they are folded in prayer and encouraging and holding each other up, so that we can be in the right places for God to lead us to our why.
It will sound a little different for each one of us. As I have been privileged to hear some of your why’s, you have broken my heart, brought tears to my eyes, and lifted my spirit. But even as our why’s will all sound a little bit different they will all be held together by the same greater reality, God in Jesus Christ is making all things new, including me, sin and all.
But knowing our why isn’t just for ourselves. When we know our Christian why it gives us the opportunity to have those kinds of conversations that really matter, that sound something like this:
See this cross around my neck, I’m glad you like, I do too. But it could be a fish, or a shepherd, or a number other Christian things. It’s just a symbol that points to something greater. Can I tell why I like it and what it means to me? Can I tell you about the one this symbol points to and what he has done for me? Amen.