He Calls Us Each by Name – Br. Lain Wilson

John 10:11-18
Acts 4:5-12
1 John 3:16-24
Psalm 23

I’ve been thinking this week a lot about a guy named Paul.

Probably not the one you’re thinking of.

He lived about fifteen hundred years ago, somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean.

We know that this Paul, this specific Paul, lived. And we know absolutely nothing else about him.

But we can even know this much because his name appears on a small lead seal, about the size of a quarter.[1] I worked for over a decade with seals like Paul’s.[2] Although they literally sealed, secured correspondence, they also served like an email signature, including information like titles, jobs, devotions, city of origin. Whatever a sender thought was important to signal about themselves, to make themselves known. Or they just included their names, like “Paul.” And that’s it.

Much of my work, effectively, was doing my best to distinguish one Paul from another.

But this work was so rewarding, because that object, and the name that went along with it, are often the only evidence we have that this person lived, the barest glimpse into a life that may have been as rich, in its own way, as our own.

I cannot know this Paul in any meaningful way. And this gap—that he lived and loved and died and I can know almost nothing about him—really brings home to me what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and they know me” (Jn 10:14). Even when no one else does, when no one else can, I know my own and I call them each by their name.[3] I call you by your name, your proper name, unique to you, capturing all the textures and contours and colors that define you as fully yourself.

Think about a friend or family member whom you would say knows you. Perhaps they know you with the knowing that comes from decades of partnership, from countless hours of conversation and companionship, from shared interests or hobbies or pursuits.

Think about what they know about you. How they know you.

Now—what don’t they know? What can’t they know, about you, about your innermost self? What desires and needs are unexpressed, what fears or joys unvoiced? How does your proper name, this sign of your unique, irreplaceable self, resonate in your own heart’s chamber? With what richness does it echo back to you the fullness that is you?

Jesus, the good shepherd, knows you this way.

Jesus, the good shepherd, hears the echo of your proper name in your heart’s chamber, and answers.

The psalmist’s familiar, beloved words invite us into this relationship of being perfectly known, of our fears, desires, and needs being perfectly known and answered: “I shall not be in want,” “I shall fear no evil,” “my cup is running over.” Others in this world can only know us partially, incompletely—and long after we have departed this world, it may only know our names, and maybe not even that. In some distant future, when the world forgets our lives and loves and even names, we are assured that our shepherd does not forget us—that we will “dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.”

Isn’t this comforting? Wherever we are on our life’s journey—isn’t it comforting to know that we are known more fully, more completely, more profoundly than we can know even ourselves? That our name, in all its complexity, is heard? And that we are called by that name?

This is all very comforting. But it is also very individual. “The Lord is my shepherd,” “he revives my soul,” “I shall fear no evil.” What Jesus reveals to us today is not about individuals. Unlike Luke’s parable of the lost sheep, Jesus is not speaking singularly here—“sheep” is always plural, and the singular usage, alongside “shepherd,” is a collective one: “there will be one flock” (Jn 10:16)

God does know us, individually, fully. Knows us and calls us by our name. But the point is who we are to and with each other—how we are made one in Christ. One flock. One people. One family.

This word “family” has been used by the author of Acts: among those Jerusalem authorities are “all who were of the high-priestly family” (Acts 4:6). Against them are arrayed the imprisoned apostles, themselves a family. Made a family by their relationship with Jesus Christ, the cornerstone in their own arch. Made a family by the Holy Spirit, given to them at Pentecost. And made a family by their own love and care for one another, by their loving actions: “if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick,” Peter begins (Acts 4:9). “Little children,” says the first letter of John, “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 Jn 3:18). We show that we belong to the family of God by belief and action.

And if we are made a family in Christ, so he gives us a family name. Not a name like Smith or Jones, though. Instead, a family name that reveals what matters, what defines us as followers of Christ. A name that reveals the textures and contours and colors of the life in Christ. A name like “Loves one another,” “Does good for another,” “Believes in the name of Jesus,” and “Lays down their life for another.” A name that allows us to be known, and to know each other, more precisely, more immediately, more fully.

This is a family name that we can claim. One that we are called to claim, commanded to claim: “And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another” (1 Jn 3:23). And, like the apostles, this is a family name that allows us—no, invites us—to know especially those whose names we don’t know, whose names we might not even want to know.

Something new happened about a thousand years ago on lead seals like Paul’s. Alongside those that include the standard names and titles and jobs appears a small group that are anonymous. Instead of a name, a short poem appears: “Know whose seal I am by looking at the letter.”[4] It’s not Shakespeare, but it does point to something new. These letters don’t survive, so we don’t even know a simple name. Have we lost even this barest glimpse of a past life? Perhaps. The letter and name may be gone, but the invitation, the intention, survives. An invitation to discover our kinship with someone who will always be anonymous to us, yet fully known to God.

What part of your name, resonating in your heart, do you desire to make known, to be heard? How can you invite others to look into the letter of your heart and read your name written there?

The good shepherd knows us. Knows us and calls us each by name. The good shepherd forges us into a family, a flock. It’s up to us to get to know our fellow sheep.

Amen.


[1] Seal of Paul (sixth century), BZS.1947.2.1577, Dumbarton Oaks, Coins and Seals Collection, Washington, DC. https://www.doaks.org/resources/seals/byzantine-seals/BZS.1947.2.1577 (accessed April 21, 2024).

[2] May Wang, “Behind the Scenes: Cataloguing our Byzantine Seals,” The Oaks News, Dumbarton Oaks, June 29, 2021. https://www.doaks.org/newsletter/news-archives/2021/behind-the-scenes-cataloguing-our-byzantine-seals (accessed April 21, 2024).

[3] Paraphrase of the Collect for the Fourth Sunday of Easter: “Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads.”

[4] For example, Anonymous (eleventh century), BZS.1947.2.1439, Dumbarton Oaks, Coins and Seals Collection, Washington, DC. https://www.doaks.org/resources/seals/byzantine-seals/BZS.1947.2.1439 (accessed April 21, 2024). There are several variations on this inscription. The classic study is N. Oikonomides, “The Anonymous Seal,” Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 4 (1995): 71-79.

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