Names are important

One of the most fascinating chapters in the New Testament is Romans 16. Yet at first sight it is one of the most boring of chapters, for it is largely a list of names. Here Paul greets twenty-six individuals by name:

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia  my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. 10 Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. 11 Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. 12 Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. 13 Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother—a mother to me also. 14 Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. 15 Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. 16 Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

Of what possible interest, some might say, can these verses be – apart perhaps from some keen Christian parents looking for a ‘Biblical’ name for a child? Yet in many ways it is a highly instructive list of names. For instance, of the twenty-six named individuals nine are women and seventeen are men, but more women than men are commended for being active in the church – what has changed! Furthermore, only three of the twenty-six can be positively identified as Jews; fourteen appear not to have been born in Rome itself and were what some might call ‘immigrants’. A study of the names also shows that some two-thirds of those mentioned were probably slaves. The church in Rome was an amazing cultural mix.

Even more significant, argued the great Swiss theologian Emil Brunner in The Letter to the Romans: Commentary (Lutterworth, London 1959, page 1227) this list comes at the end of “the greatest, the richest and hardest piece of doctrinal writing in the whole Bible”. It is one and the same Paul who penned the fifteen preceding chapters and this sixteenth chapter. From this Brunner drew the fascinating conclusion:

“The Christian Community consists of persons, and the most important, indeed the only thing in the Community that matters are persons, and the most important, indeed, the only  thing in the Community that matters are persons: God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and Christian people. The relationship of these persons to one another – that alone is essential in the Christian Community; it does not concern things or doctrines in themselves.”

However, there is another important aspect to this list of twenty-six people: Paul greeted so many by name. Indeed, it is noteworthy that even in a church Paul had yet to visit, he knew twenty-six people. I wonder, did Paul realise the significance of greeting people name? Did he know how powerful that is?  According to Dale Carnegie, an American famous for courses on self-improvement courses and salesmanship “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language”. Similarly, Joyce Russell, a ‘business coach’ wrote in the Washington Post (20 January 2014):

A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person. It is the one way we can easily get someone’s attention. It is a sign of courtesy and a way of recognizing them. When someone remembers our name after meeting us, we feel respected.

In other words, to greet people by name shows that we value them –  they count. For me one of the most wonderful verses in the Bible is John 10.3, where Jesus says that the Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name”. What a difference those words make to me. Whereas agencies such as the National Health Service and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs know me primarily as a number, Jesus knows me by name. He values me. He loves me.

In turn we too are called to love one another and value one another by knowing one another by name. Names are important and for that reason we too should greet our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ by name. It is not enough to say on a Sunday morning, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Superficiality may be sufficient in the everyday world, but not amongst God’s people. We need to be able to address one another by name.

‘That’s fine in a small church with a dozen people’, some might say, ‘but in our church with 120 members that is impossible’. I beg to disagree. I am convinced that when English people say they have a bad memory for names, by and large they are not telling the truth. What in effect they are saying is ‘I can’t be bothered; I am too lazy’. The proof of this is to compare English people with Americans. It is rare for an American to forget a person’s name. In American culture knowing a person’s name is important, and so Americans tend to make a real effort to remember names. It is not that they are any cleverer than us – it is that in this respect they are more determined.

How many names can we expect to know? Without effort probably most people can remember at least 150 people by name – but with application we can know many more. Indeed, I read of an American mega-church pastor who claimed to know all 16,000 of his members by name.

What’s the secret? Probably in the first place by showing more interest in the people we meet! It often helps by repeating a person’s name. In my case, I always have some cards in my jacket – and I immediately write down the names of people I do not know. When I get home, I write up the names and the conversation – indeed, although no longer a pastor, I have a file on mu computer in which I list names, addresses, and salient information about the people I meet. As far as I am aware, this private list is not protected by data protection!

Of course, there are ways in which we can help one another. Some churches expect their members – including the minister(s) – to wear name badges every Sunday. That is also what happens at Rotary – at every meeting the members are expected to turn up with their name badge. If that seems over the top, then what about having a regular (once every three or four months?) ‘name-tag Sunday’ when everybody attending the service is asked to fill in their name on a badge or on a sticky label?

The fact is that names are important, for people are important.

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