What’s in a name? Quite a lot. Our names often have meanings to us. Mine is James Joseph. James for my maternal grandfather and Joseph for a brother of my father who died as an infant. So in my name some of my family story is held and retold in me. Other times, though, names are chosen not for meaning but for how they sound. For example, my wife is called Nuala. This name means ‘fair shouldered’ or blonde haired. However, she is a beautiful brunette. Still the name sounded lovely to her parents and she carries their knowledge of her loveliness in her name.
And then we have nicknames. These can sometimes be cruel, particularly (though not exclusively) when applied by children at school. These nicknames can stick and can hurt. Whenever they are cruel they never adequately, appropriately or totally describe the person.
Other times they are short hand or familiar names, like my nickname at school and among childhood friends: Deedsy. I was called it by people who knew me well and I like it.
In the reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we learn about a man in that first Christian community (even before they were known as Christians) called Joseph, but renamed Barnabas. This, translated, means ‘son of encouragement’. Class!
I wonder what he did that others saw and decided it warranted a renaming. We know that he sold land and gave money to the community (Acts 4:36-37). That was a very encouraging act. What we also learn about him as we navigate our way around the new testament is that he often found himself advocating for (or encouraging) folks who were on the outside or who were out of favour.
It is Barnabas who introduces Saul to the apostles in Jerusalem after his conversion. Given Saul’s history of persecuting the followers of Jesus we can imagine that the apostles would have needed some encouragement to accept him. Barnabas also encouraged Saul to join him in pastoring to one of the first Communities outside Jerusalem in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26)
Barnabas sided with the Gentiles at the Council of Jerusalem when the argument from the centre was that the gentiles would not be accepted unless they were circumcised. Barnabas like to encourage the centre to accept the fringe it seemed (Acts 15:2).
We see this again when he encouraged the now renamed Paul to accept Barnabas’ relative John Mark as a travelling companion even though John Mark had upset Paul by leaving them on a previous journey (Acts 15:37-38). Even though he lost that one with Paul, Barnabas was true to his name in seeking to encourage the acceptance of the marginalised.
When we read about him, it is easy to see why Joseph was renamed ‘son of encouragement’.
What name would those who know you best rename you? Would it refer to your ability to encourage? Would it refer to another trait? And what name would capture the essence of who you are? Not who you tell yourself you are. Not who others falsely judge you to be. But who you are. I know that, as we read this, there are sons and daughters of:
And so much more.
Why not rename yourself? Rename yourself the name that embodies who you are and who you can be. And then live out of that name. It’ll be a blast!