The Calling of Names
A sermon on Mark 1:21-28 & 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 29 January 2006

When we know ourselves as known by God, the demonic power of violent naming is broken and new life dawns.


Have you ever been the victim of slanders that go something like, "his name is mud around here," or "she's got a bad name for that sort of thing," or perhaps "sleaze is his middle name," or "her name means trouble"? Or maybe you've been on the receiving end of more positive lines like "she's really made a name for herself," or "put his name up in lights," or "her name commands respect". Probably you all remember the kids rhyme "sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me". And as most kids know not long after learning that rhyme, it is complete crap. Names are very powerful, and the hurts they can inflict can last way longer than the average broken bone. Ask any woman who's ever been called a whore in public. Ask any bloke who's ever been run down as a worthless nigger or a filthy faggot. Or for that matter, ask any modestly gifted kid whose parents have insisted on calling him, all his life, the next Mozart or the next Einstein or the next Roger Federer, and who knows that he can only ever fail to live up to the name that is being forced on him. The calling of names has a frightening power over our lives.

It has pretty powerful effects in social and political affairs too. I commented a couple of weeks back on the powerful propaganda effects of successfully linking the words "Iraqi" and "terrorist" in order to create a name that secured support for a war. Think of how public support has been swung against asylum seekers by calling them "queue jumpers" or "the kind of people who would throw their children overboard". Think of how much effort politicians expend in trying to come up with derogatory names that will stick to their opponents. Who can forget how Andrew Peacock’s political career was fatally wounded when Paul Keating called him a soufflé and it stuck? Watch the abortion debates and see how much of the debate is over the right names. Call it fertility control and you can swing the argument one way. Call it the killing of unborn babies and you can swing it the other. Much ink is spilled justifying or criticising the choice of names. The calling of names is one of the major tools in controlling public opinion and protecting status quos and vested interests.

The whole social order of our society is defined and maintained largely by the way people and things are named and by the way those names serve to give us our place and lock us into it and prevent us from threatening anybody else's place. And for many many people that is a life sentence. If you are named as undesirable or unemployable or incurable, or as a loser or a threat or a reject or a bad influence, then you will know only too well what it means to be a victim of a system that is maintained by the violent calling of names. Some of those who apparently benefit from the system can find themselves tragically trapped by it too. If you are named as one of those who is living the dream, it is very hard to walk away when the dream is not working for you. Burned out executives, and fading super models, and even picture perfect mortgaged-to-the-eyeballs suburbanites can find that to be named as the model of success can lock you into a desperately loathsome place and leave you with no imaginable way out.

The society into which Jesus came was similarly controlled by the calling of names, and many of the significant actions of his ministry were over the making or breaking of names. He gave a new name to one of his disciples, but the issue of naming went far deeper than that. The whole culture operated with a number of socio-religious categories which gave people their names and places. Every person, every place, and even every food had its place in the categories that ranged from holy to unclean. The system was written into the geography and architecture of their world. The holy of holies was the holiest place of all, and the high priest, who was the only person who could go in there was the holiest person of all. Then there was the inner court of the temple and the priests who could go in there, and then the outer courts and the people who could go in there. Then there was the city of Jerusalem. Then the rest of Judea. And then there was the lands of the gentiles, the unclean places from which nothing good could come. Everything and everyone had its name and its place. If you were one of the holy ones you stood to benefit from the system. If you were named as one of the unclean, your movements and your opportunities were forcefully limited.

If you want to know why Jesus was so violently opposed and eventually lynched by the religious and political status quo, just look at the way he undermined the system of naming and controlling the order of things. And if he is able to continue his campaign of dismantling that system, and if we are able to join with him in that campaign, then maybe there is hope for us who suffer under the cripplingly disparaging or manipulatively positive names that control and imprison us.

The story we heard tonight from the gospel according to Mark is the first recorded scene of Jesus's public ministry. It takes place in a synagogue. It is no accident that Mark starts the story with a scene in a synagogue. He ends it similarly; in the temple. Mark tell of Jesus's public ministry beginning with the "cleansing" of a man with an "unclean" spirit in a synagogue - a "holy" place. And he ends it with Jesus "cleansing" the temple, the most "holy" place, which Jesus has declared to have become corrupt, unclean. And each time, and in several similar incidents in between, his actions raise questions about his authority. "What authority do you have to challenge the system: to make holy what we call unclean and to declare unclean what we call holy? What authority do you have?"

The authority question is partially answered by the people in this opening story. Jesus is teaching in the synagogue, and what the people comment on is that he teaches with authority, not like the religious experts they are used to. Immediately (Mark’s favourite word!), immediately the man with the unclean spirit leaps up, and when Jesus silences the spirit and liberates the man, the people's response is again to comment in awed terms on the authority of "his teaching". Notice if you will, two things about this encounter with the demonic. The demonic spirit goes on the attack the minute that Jesus is being compared to the established religious experts of the synagogue. Mark is telling us that it is no coincidence that this unclean spirit happened to be there that day. He is saying that there are demonic spirits at the heart of the established religious system. The same point is being made in the later story of the cleansing of the temple. And while it is unlikely that this demonised man is one of the scribes, he has an important place in the system over which they preside: the place of a victim. He has been named as unclean. He has his prescribed place and he is limited and controlled by it. The system needs its victims, its scapegoats. There must be many who are named as unclean in order for others to be meaningfully named as the holy ones. Without the sacrificing of the unclean, the system would collapse.

And secondly, note what the demonic spirit does when it attacks Jesus. First it challenges his authority in this place. "What have you got to do with us?" "What gives you the right to come in here and upset the established order of things. If you are going to come in here teaching, then teach the way we teach. Don't go setting yourself up as some kind of alternative authority. What have you got to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?" And hear that last bit; the naming begins. Not Jesus son of Joseph, but Jesus of Nazareth. And we already know what that name means. "What good can come out of Nazareth?" But the demonic spirit doesn't stop there. "I know who you are!" Here we go. The struggle for control is on in earnest. "I can name you. I can put you in your place. I can tell you who you are! You are the Holy One of God!"

Now like many people, you may be puzzled as to why Jesus immediately demands that the spirit shut up. Why wouldn't he be happy to be so named in public? Not a bad description that: the holy one of God. But remember what we have already noticed about how it is not only derogatory names that can lock you in a place and limit you. If Jesus accepts this name, he buys into the system it comes from. If he is willing to wear the title "the holy one of God", then he endorses a system by which a whole lot of other people are thus named as the unclean ones, those who are not of God. If he willingly wears that title, then he is locked in to behaving as one who puts himself above others, and who colludes in naming others as outcasts and misfits and unacceptable. And that seems to be precisely the system he is steadfastly refusing to cooperate with or offer any legitimacy to. He takes a stand against that system of naming and blaming, and commands the demonic spirit to shut up and get out. And the people are awestruck by the authority of his teaching. Of his teaching? What was he teaching? Well Mark doesn't give us any extracts from what Jesus said to the people, but when he notes that his actions inspire awe over his teachings, we are surely being told that his actions are an enactment of his teachings. Surely then he is teaching the people that they no longer need be defined by the names the religious and legal system has given them. That in the eyes of God, everyone is acceptable. Surely is teaching that God will not recognise a system that says that only a few can be truly holy, and sacrifices the rest as the scapegoats by which the holiness of the few is preserved. Surely he is teaching them that such a system, albeit embedded in the established religious systems as of course it always is, is a demonic lie which must be silenced and resisted.

But that resistance is of a peculiar kind. The demon screams, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?" For the demons, and for the guardians of the establishment that they have infested, the only way they know of resisting and controlling is to destroy people. People are named as a threat, as unclean, and then destroyed. And if they won't cooperate with their own destruction by accepting their prescribed roles at the bottom of the food chain, then they are lynched and eliminated. But Jesus has not come to destroy anyone, he has come to liberate the oppressed and the oppressors alike. And it is precisely his unwillingness to reciprocate the violence and destroy his opponents that unmasks the desperate violence of their system. When they crucify the one who will do no violence, the extent of the corruption of their system is shown in all its naked brutality.

I need to finish up soon, but I want to make a quick jump to a short line from the reading we heard from Paul's correspondence with the Corinthian Christians, because I think he says something of crucial importance if we are to be set free from the power of being named by others. He is talking about the danger of knowing too much and loving too little, and he says that "anyone who loves God is known by God." "Anyone who loves God is known by God." And I'll bet that Jesus was saying something along those lines to the crowd gathered to hear him teach in the synagogue that day. "Anyone who loves God is known by God." And might he not have also named its opposite: "Anybody who loves this present order of things is known by this present order, is named by it." For what Jesus is telling us is that it is not what anybody else says we are that defines who we are in God's eyes. It is being known by God and named by God as God's beloved child. If you know yourself through the eyes of others, through the eyes of those who control the world and its violent ways, then you will be named and controlled by what you know of yourself there. But if you come to know yourself through the eyes of God, and through the name that God gives you, you will be set free by it and given life beyond measure.

In a few minutes we will be gathered around this table and Christ will be here. We will gather with Christ as our host to taste the first fruits of the coming freedom and joy. And Christ will be inviting each of you, by name, to meet him here, to be known by him here, and to find your true liberated identity in being known by him. And to be sure that you know that there is no violence in his knowing of you, he will place his life bodily in your hands where you may reject him and collude with those who took him in hand and destroyed him, or you may accept him into yourself and be one with him. And in that moment of choice, you will be making a name for yourself. I pray that you will choose a name that liberates, a name that knows violence only in the suffering of it for the sake of life, a name that embraces the holiness which is the origin and destiny of us all.