“You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit with a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”
| Acts 10.28, NRSV
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” A childhood defense against taunts, our parents taught us to repeat after them. Long before anti- bullying campaigns and celebrity spokespersons, we were told that words were of little to no effect. Our parents said, “Pay them no mind.” My mother said, “Child, people are always going talk. They talked about Jesus!” She said this as if my twelve- year- old self had the same supernatural confidence, the same blessed assurance as he. No grand purpose had been revealed for me and I had no heaven to go home to.
Compared to physical pain, the emotional wounding of words was dismissed, discounted, denied. No bruises, no blood, no band- aid, we were told to go back outside and play. As if a magic incantation, we were expected to sing the song to keep the bad words away, as if the low self- esteem, the self- doubt that resulted would just go away. Author Anne Lamont says, “To love yourself as you are is a miracle…”[i] But, these wand words didn’t work and neither did, “I’m rubber; you’re glue. Whatever you say, bounces off me and sticks to you.”
It rhymes but it is not true. Not only did the words stick but they stung. Words spoken in anger leave marks. Words hurled in judgement or ridicule leave scars. Words that hiss and heckle can hurt more and for far longer than sticks and stones. Names have power and a presence long after our playground days. Nicknames travel with us into adulthood, whether we like them or not.
There is an African dictum that captures this truth: “Once a word leaves your mouth, it leaves your control.” So be careful what you say because your words can go a long way, following a person for the rest of their life. Like the stones we throw, we cannot take our words back. Irish poet Oscar Wilde talks of fighting words saying, “It is a sad truth, but we have lost the faculty of giving lovely names to things. Names are everything. I never quarrel with actions. My one quarrel is with words.”
And for God, they are one in the same. We say, “Actions speak louder than words” but God’s words are actions. God’s tool of choice was words. Because words have creative power.
No hands and before trees or metals of any kind, God did not build the world. Subjects, verbs and predicates, God spoke it. The existence of all things is called by name into being. “Let there be light!”
And the gospel writer, John, introduces Jesus as the Word made flesh.[ii] Yes, under his skin, Jesus is the Word. And under this epidermis is a word. Yes, God got under our skin.
Eugene Peterson says, “The Word was first.”[iii] “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”[iv] Now then, everything exists in response to God and God is the only One that we answer to in the end. Jesus, the Word never hurt us; still, we threw sticks and stones at him.
So then, James Howe, an American children’s writer offers a corrective on this children’s rhyme: “Sticks and stones may break our bones, but names will break our spirit.”
Poet Ruby Redfort would agree:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can also hurt me.
Stones and sticks break only skin, while words are ghosts that haunt me.
Slant and curved the word-swords fall, it pierces and sticks inside me.
Bats and bricks may ache through bones, but words can mortify me.
Pain from words has left its scar, on mind and heart that’s tender.
Cuts and bruises have healed; it’s words that I remember.
Words have a memory and names convey meaning. We drop names when we want persons to think we’re important. Many persons aspire to become a household name or to make a name for themselves. If accused of something that we did not do, we seek to clear our name. And if we don’t like someone, we drag his name through the mud. Still, we are careful to behave in ways that protect our reputation, not wanting to give our family, occupation or hometown a bad name.
Likewise, God’s name is to be revered and not used in vain. Paul tells the church at Philippi of Jesus’ name, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name…”[i] In response to this truth, we say, “There is power in the name of Jesus.”
And then there are names that are mud to us, names that have come to embody a meaning or experience. Judas is a name that becomes a verb. His name symbolizes betrayal. William Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” but in biblical times, the name determined one’s nature.
In fact, when persons encounter God in the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament, the name is one of the first things to go: Abram becomes Abraham. Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob becomes Israel. Simon is called Peter. Saul becomes Paul.
So how then did Peter, who could not find his tongue when Jesus was arrested and yet, Jesus called him as a disciple, now speak of this division between holy and profane? There was no division between fickle hypocrites and Jesus followers, between betrayers and disciples. Isn’t it funny how quickly we go back to judging others after our name has been cleared? Isn’t it interesting that we can be judge, jury and executioner for everybody else and the lawyer for the defense of ourselves? Surely, Peter had been with Jesus who crossed and erased cultural boundaries, talking to the Samaritan woman at the well. Peter had walked with Jesus who addressed topics we consider taboo, talking to the demoniac, who suffered with multiple personalities, who when Jesus asked his name, replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”[ii] Peter were you there when Jesus is invited to throw stones at a woman caught in the act of adultery?
Surely, Jesus didn’t have to get involved. He didn’t have to get his hands dirty. He could have kept his nose and his name out of it. But, he didn’t. And how disappointing this must be for Jesus, that Peter needs a remedial vision.
Now, it seems as if Peter has forgotten his own dirty deeds, that he used to be called Simon. It seems like Peter’s Jewishness is more important than his Jesus-ness and he cannot associate with those people. Though saved by grace, Peter now touts the law: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.”[iii] To be clear, Peter is not doing them a favor because God has no favorites.
But, Jesus has already preached on this. Perhaps, Peter was asleep, took a long bathroom break or was on his phone when Jesus was preaching on the tradition of the elders. In Mark’s gospel, the disciples are caught by the Pharisees eating with dirty hands. Jesus responds, “It is not what goes into the person but out of the person that defiles.”[iv] So, Peter is sounding a lot like the Pharisees and Friedrich Nietzche would warn him, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…”
I don’t know if tradition or his title got in the way but clearly, God’s vision is bigger than the Apostle Peter’s. Much like Saul, Peter is blind to the big picture. Because God’s family picture will include all nations. Maybe he thought that Jesus had died and left him in charge. Whatever the reason, it is clear that Peter is not one to point fingers or even to call names.
God has sent Peter to Cornelius and a house full of hearers. They didn’t come to hear about old hatreds or segregationist laws. Because as Maya Angelou taught us, “Hate has caused a lot of problems in this world and it has not solved one yet.” Instead, they have gathered to hear about this Eternal Love made evident by the one named Jesus.
Be careful of the names that you call people, because God might call you to preach to them. Be careful of the names you call people, because God calls them your brother and sister in the faith. Be careful of the names you call people, because you may have to answer for them in a house church service like Peter. Be careful of the names you call people, because God has a way of calling you into account for them.
Peter knows that this is not business as usual. He understands now that the gospel is not as easy as it seems, that our relationship with Jesus calls into question the way we relate to other people. Sworn enemies, so what! Rivals for years, who cares? Christ’s blood is thicker than water.
Peter says, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality.”[v] “God plays no favorites! It makes no difference who you are or where you’re from.”[vi] In God’s house and at the Lord’s table, there is no name calling.
[i] Philippians 2.9, NRSV
[ii] Mark 5.9
[iii] Acts 10.28, NRSV
[iv] Mark 7.1-23, specifically verses 18-23
[v] Acts 10.34, NRSV
[vi] Acts 10.34, The Message
[i] The full quote by Anne Lamont is “To love yourself as you are is a miracle, and to seek yourself is to have found yourself, for now. And now is all we have, and love is who we are.”
[ii] John 1.1
[iii] John 1.1, The Message
[iv] John 1.1