Names: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, May 8 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne. The lectionary text cited is Acts 9:36-43, in which Peter raises a woman from death.

How many names do you have?

The immediate answer to that question might seem obvious—many of us have a first, a middle, and a last, with maybe one or two more thrown in for good measure by our parents. But it’s not always that straightforward—some of us also have old nicknames, the recollection of which might make us squirm with delight or embarrassment; affectionate names given by friends and romantic partners; and names that we have claimed for ourselves later in life as we have better understood who we are and how we wish to be known to the world. There might be other names, too, that we’d rather not hear—the hurtful, insulting ones that were hurled at us at one point or another, the ones that still rattle around in our memory like heavy stones. 

There is great power in the names we carry; power to heal and to harm; to remember who we are and to be reborn. It should not be surprising, then, that much of Scripture is taken up with the giving and the changing and the remembering of names, including the ones we have applied, with the limitations of human language, to the unspeakable name of God. 

We might say that, in some way, the entire story of God’s people thoroughout the Bible is the search for a name—a name by which to know ourselves, a name by which to address the ineffability of divine truth, a name to call out into the silent infinitude of the stars—a name that is sufficient to say what life is, a name that can capture in full something that is ultimately beyond words.

I got to thinking about names because of today’s passage from Acts, where Peter restores to life a woman in the city of Joppa, a woman who bears two names, Tabitha and Dorcas. As the writer of Acts informs us, Dorcas is the Greek translation of the Aramaic name Tabitha, which means “gazelle.” Now, it would be easy to pass right over this detail as we read about her miraculous resurrection, but I think we would miss something important if we did so. 

Commentators note that Tabitha/Dorcas, in addition to being a woman of some financial means who was able to support the widows in her community, was also a woman that straddled two worlds. Joppa is a port city, and given her two names, it is likely that this disciple of Jesus was a Greek-speaking Jewish woman who occupied a liminal space between her Israelite identity and her ties to the Hellenized world of the Roman empire. Her two names suggest that she had learned to traverse the ambiguous territory between colonized and colonizer, between membership in an oppressed nation and the society of the imperial oppressor.

We do not know how she managed this interplay of names and identities, but we do know that in the midst of them, this woman who was both Tabitha and Dorcas dedicated her life to service in the name of Jesus. And perhaps, for her, the name of disciple–follower of the Way, sheep in the flock of the Good Shepherd–was the thread that bound her disparate roles in a fractured world. 

But then note what happens in the passage. Peter (himself another bearer of two names) comes to see the body of the woman, and in raising her back to life, he says, “Tabitha, get up.” Not Dorcas, but Tabitha. Her first name, the name that was with her from the beginning, the name spoken in her people’s original language: this is the name by which she is called back to herself, this is the name that inaugurates her resurrected existence. It is Tabitha, tzvia in ancient Hebrew, the same word that names the gazelle leaping on the mountainside in the Song of Solomon, that is the name of life for her. That is the name by which God, through Peter, breathes life back into her body. And while the Scriptures do not tell us anything about her life after this miracle, I can’t help but imagine that, for the rest of her days, she remembered the sacred power of being brought back to life by the sound of her original name. Tabitha, get up. 

What is the name by which God would call you? What is the name that encapsulates your deepest self, the name that is life to you? And, conversely, what names have been put upon you that no longer work, that no longer tell the whole story of who you are called to be?

I speak not only of given names and surnames, but also of the roles and identities by which we are known and named, which, while important, are too often over-simplified, objectified, and used to label and limit our complexity—old, young, healthy, sick, parent, child. Priest, layperson, spiritual wanderer. Gay, straight, trans*, Black, Brown. American. Foreigner. Pro-Life. Pro-choice. Democrat. Republican. Do these names actually tell you who you are, or who your neighbor is?

Or is there a deeper name, an original name, by which you must identify yourself and those whom you encounter if we will ever hope to actually know one another? Is there a name for ourselves that will bring the dying parts of this world back to life?

There is, in fact.

And it turns out that the woman known as Dorcas heard that it day as she awoke from the sleep of death. Because a funny thing about the name Tabitha—tzvia. That word, in its original language, doesn’t only mean gazelle, but also, simply this: beautiful. Her name was beauty. 

Beautiful one, get up. 

This is the name by which God knows each of us. This is the name that God has called us from the moment the world began. And this is the name by which God, in Christ, desires us to know one another—the name underneath our names, the name beyond every label and slur and stereotype. The name that will bring anyone back to life. 

Beautiful one, get up.

And this is the only name that can heal us, that can see us through the divisions and the suspicions that have plagued not only our recent history but the entirety of the human story. It is only when we know ourselves as beautiful, as beloved, and when we see that same thing in the face of our neighbors, in the face of our enemies, as Jesus taught us to, that we will begin to move back from the brink.

It is only when we see and name the inherent beauty and dignity of all creation and develop a reverence for what God has made and called good that we will move closer toward the kingdom wherein we were meant to dwell. It is only when we stop name-calling and start naming each other as beautiful, when we start noticing the beauty we see, even in the places and people where it’s not first apparent—it is only then that we will finally speak our own true names, and it is only then our mortal tongues will begin to utter something that approaches the one true name of God. 

The God who woke Tabitha from the dead.

The God who woke Jesus from the dead.

The God who will wake each of us, on the last day, saying, quite simply:

Beautiful one, get up. 

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