The Sacrament of Speaking Names (Easter Sunrise Sermon)

“The Sacrament of Speaking Names”

John 20:1-18

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

Easter Sunrise Service



Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”

3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.

11But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.

13They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.

15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher).

17Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.(NRSV)


Names have power, don’t they? The name of someone you love, or that special someone you don’t much like can evoke deep emotions and a variety of responses. Your own name has particular power. Hearing it gets your attention quickly. When I hear my name spoken to a person who shares the name Allen, it can feel like a tiny slice of me gets peeled off and laid on that other person.

Saturday a week ago, a group of us went to Laurel Run Park for a spring wildflower hike. Nature was just showing off that day, and our experience was enriched by learning the names of many flowers. They were just as beautiful when all we had to describe them was color, shape, leaf, and aroma. I can’t speak for the others, but when I could name a blossom – Virginia bluebell, wood poppy, squirrel corn, jack-in-the-pulpit, spotted mandarin – I felt a new connection not only to the particular plant but to the splendid, greening forest around us. Bird watchers feel that way about birds, as do foresters about trees, and marine biologists about fish, mechanics about engines.

If a church is growing, long-time members often say, “I look around on a Sunday, and there are so many people I don’t know.” What they’re usually saying is, I don’t know their names. And that can make even a familiar sanctuary feel a little foreign.

Preparing for this morning, I did a quick scan of the gospel of John and found that characters’ names appear frequently in the narration, but very seldom in conversation. Jesus names John the Baptist once. He says Lazarus’ name three times. The first two times he’s telling his disciples that Lazarus is dead. The third time he says, “Lazarus come out!”

Jesus calls Peter by name four times. The first time occurs when Jesus renames Simon, and calls him Cephas, Peter. The other three come at the end of the gospel in the context of three quick repetitions of the same question: “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

In John’s gospel Jesus speaks a person’s name only in those critical moments when significant change is in the works.

What’s most interesting is that I didn’t find a single instance of anyone referring to Jesus by name. He’s most commonly addressed as Rabbior Lord, but never by his name. On Thursday night, however, something interesting happens. In the garden with his disciples, he’s surrounded by Roman soldiers and temple police. Bearing torches and weapons, they are, one imagines, a fearsome sight. But they need help finding and arresting Jesus. And guess who helps.

“Whom are you looking for,” asks Jesus.

“Jesus of Nazareth,” they say.

“I am he,” says Jesus.

In John, Jesus identifies himself in seven I am statements: “I am the bread of life… I am the light of the world… I am the gate…I am the good shepherd…I am the resurrection and the life…I am the way, the truth, and the life…I am the vine.” But when Jesus says “I am he,” and lays claim to the specific name of Jesus, the soldiers and the police fall to the ground just like Saul. The name Jesus­has a power all its own. To speak that name is to dip into a well and draw out the energy and authority lying deep within the person known by that name.

Maybe that’s one reason people take Jesus’ name in vain. Fewer and fewer people are speaking the name Jesus as grateful and committed disciples, but even when it means nothing in a religious sense, that name seems to jump out when people confront and express deep feelings of fear, exasperation, wonder, anger, and joy. Sure, it grieves me to hear Jesus’ name used in the same way as a common vulgarity, but whenever I hear that name, however I hear that name, it awakens me. It calls me to confront who I am in Christ – or at least to who I claim to be.

Again, that’s the power of a name. A name can wake us up, open our eyes and ears. And when the voice speaking our name is Jesus’ voice, it can blur the lines between the physical and the spiritual. It can reveal things we can see no other way.


         “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”

Mary hears these questions and sees a man she assumes is the gardener. To her he’s just some guy who doesn’t know what she knows, who hasn’t experienced what she has experienced, who hasn’t lost what she has lost. But maybe he knows something.

         Sir, if you moved the body that was in this tomb, please tell me where you moved it. I’ll take care of him. No questions asked.

Imagine that moment: A woman stands in front of a tomb. She’s doubled over in grief from the horrific death of someone she loves and the added insult of his missing body. In that moment, the only thing standing between her sorrow and the mystery that we are still wrestling with, still coming to terms with, even as we celebrate it, is one word – her name.

“Mary,” says Jesus.

When Mary hears her name in that voice, she turns. Even though she’s already in the middle of a face-to-face conversation with this man, John says that Mary turns. On the other side of that mystical turn, which began with the speaking of her name, Mary’s world is redefined by something that transforms hopelessness and grief into thanksgiving and joy.

The first time Saul hears Jesus call his name, it knocks him down and blinds him. When Ananias utters Saul’s name and Jesus’ name in the same sentence, Saul’s sight is restored. After that, he sees himself and the world differently. And while all is transformed and new, Saul finds that he must live and work according to the challenging demands of Resurrection, which itself lives by the challenging rule of love. So complete is Saul’s renovation, he must have a new name – Paul.

Resurrection speaks to us. It calls us by name. It turns us in love toward each other, toward all people, and toward the totality of God’s Creation around us. That makes us more than witnesses to Resurrection. We are agents of Resurrection. No, we do not make Resurrection happen, but when we, as disciples of Jesus, speak another person’s name in authentic, Christlike love, we give that person the chance to hear Jesus himself speaking that person’s name. Speaking names has the power of sacrament, the power to create new faith, hope, love, and belonging.

From this Easter morning onward, know that you are loved by the Resurrected One. He has spoken your name. He has turned you. He has redeemed you and entrusted his name to your voice.

May you speak that name boldly and with purpose. And may you embody the love of the living, speaking, ever-present Jesus in everything you say and do.

A blessed Easter to you all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s