Names are important. Our names are a key element in our identity. We may be called other things – respect titles, or terms of abusive – perhaps even on a regular basis. But our name is spoken day after day. Our name, and the other words that get attached to it, shape us. In the competing claims of the thief who comes to kill and steal and destroy, and the Good Shepherd who comes that we might know life in its fullness, will we grow-into our God-given identity, or have it stunted or stolen from us? Because our name is such a key part of that identity, its meaning is, I believe, one of the key battle-grounds for our identity.
It struck me afresh today that Jesus chose to ‘build his church’ on a disciple who had two names – Simon Peter – and that this being so, it might have something significant to say about the identity of the Church he planned to build.
‘Simon’ has to do with hearing and listening. We see this being contested in Simon’s identity: will he be the one who insists on being heard, or the one who will listen – truly listen – to God’s voice, and so have something to say worth hearing, proclaiming Jesus’ story with authority?
‘Peter’ has to do with a rock. We see this being contested in Peter’s identity: will he stand firm, or crumble under pressure? Will he try to resist the wind of the Spirit, which smooths a rock over time, or embrace the patterns that wind may carve, turning weaker seams into beautiful features?
These may be valid questions to ask of the Church, too: perhaps too often we insist on being heard, to bolster our own ego, but crumble when it comes to standing-up for justice. But there is something more. In redeeming Simon’s name, and in adding to it the name Peter, Jesus extends a share in two particular attributes of God’s identity: the One who is unchanging in his faithfulness (the Rock); and the One who hears the cry of his people, and whose unfolding response changes.
As the Church, we are invited and challenged to be unchanging in faithfulness, and attentive and responsive to the cry of the oppressed. And, from time to time and on a regular basis, our remaining faithful will depend on our outwardly-changing attitude. Like Peter – like Jesus – we will need to turn away from things our tribe has held essential to faithfulness, in order to be faithful. We can only discern what is unchanging and what must unfold as we attend to the difficult, sometimes slow and gradual, sometimes sudden and unexpected - and for both these reasons often painful – process of listening to one another and listening together to the Holy Spirit. We cannot do that on our own, or within our own particular tribe alone; for ‘Simon’ and ‘Peter’ are massively contested identities. We cannot rush; we cannot presume an end to this process – for that would be the end of our inhabiting our identity. We must not hold our own views as non-negotiable – to do so is to close ourselves to God and neighbour, and deeper self-knowledge and acceptance – and we must truly hear and be moved to respond to the cry of those whose views differ from our own.
Our hope must lie in the knowledge that Jesus, who has given us this foundation, is still at work to redeem our identity. However much it is contested, however far we are pushed to twist the ear and to turn the stone, Jesus is committed to leading us into the fullness of life he intends for us.