New Names: Learning the Gospel From Trans People
You know that phrase, “That’s a game changer”? It signifies a new element in a situation that changes it completely.
I wonder if we could coin a new phrase, one that would have a lot of resonance in the Bible: “That’s a name changer.”
We see some important instances of God changing people’s names throughout the Bible, and a name change always signifies deep personal transformation for the person affected.
Think of Jacob being renamed Israel, or Saul becoming Paul.
(Note: God did not change Paul’s name specifically, it was a gradual shifting throughout the Biblical texts over time. “Saul to Paul” is a shorthand for Paul’s changed life rather than a divine event like the other name changes.)
Those name changes require the person to leave behind an old identity and everything that went along with it—the good and the bad.
In fact, the change being demanded of Jacob and Saul was so significant that neither they nor others would recognize them after the fact.
That’s part of why they needed a new name.
Their names were changed also because they were being sent out on a new mission. They had important new work to do, and taking on a new name was part of what helped them set out to do that work.
The old self that they had, with all of its baggage and history, was unequal to the task. They needed a fresh start to take on challenging new work.
This was definitely the case for Abram in our story from Genesis today.
He was 99 years old—that’s no time to pull up stakes, set off on a long journey, and found a new nation!
He couldn’t do it as Abram, he had to become Abraham.
And God’s renaming of him was part of how God equipped him to take on the task.
Few of us have been literally renamed, but doubtless the work God has called us into in different seasons of our lives has required us to take on a new identity, one that may look unfamiliar to our friends and family.
How consciously and intentionally have you received the new name God gives you when God leads you to new ministry?
In our gospel story, we have someone else who received a new name: Peter.
Peter started out named Simon, but when he recognized and named Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus changed his name.
The name “Peter” comes from the word for “rock,” when Jesus says in Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
Peter’s new name was part of his commissioning for his new work, a tool and a touchstone to remind him of the deeper and wiser identity Jesus was calling him to live into.
But the interesting thing about our gospel lesson today is that Peter gets a third name.
He started out as Simon, then became Peter, and at this moment, Jesus gives him a new name: Satan.
That’s pretty scary. That’s certainly not a name any of us would want.
Unfortunately, in that moment, Peter had earned the name “Satan” that Jesus gave him.
He was acting as the Adversary, setting his mind on human things rather than divine things, as Jesus says.
He took on the role of Satan, and Jesus named that honestly.
The same is true for us. God gives us our names to teach us our identities, but when we take on false and destructive identities, Jesus will not hesitate to name them openly.
Lent is a good time to think about what aliases we’re living under.
What names are we wearing when our greed, selfishness, or fear take over? “Celebrity, Despot, Whiner, Martinet, Thief, Scolder, Pessimist, Coward, get thee behind me!”
I learned a new term this week that, because of my privilege, I did not know before: dead-naming.
This is the transphobic practice of using the name a person had prior to their transition to their true gender identity.
For example, a person dead-naming Caitlyn Jenner would call her “Bruce.”
This is an act of violence and aggression that can deeply negatively affect trans people.
It is one of the routine acts of oppression trans people are subject to that I as a cisgender person was shamefully blind to until someone pointed it out to me.
(Just in case “cisgender” is a new word to you: a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with the sex assigned to them at birth.)
Learning about dead-naming cast these stories of name changes in the Bible is a whole new light for me.
Trans people, by right of their hard-won experience, have a resonance with Israel and Abraham and Paul and Peter that is far deeper than I could ever understand.
They know what it is to be called to live into and proclaim a name that both signifies the change they have undergone, and yet is a truer reflection of their deepest identity than they ever had in the life of their old name.
What do you think it felt like for Abraham, going on an extreme journey through wilderness and then struggling to hold together a fledgling new nation, when someone thoughtlessly called him “Abram”?
What was it like for Paul, under constant threat of violence and imprisonment as he tried to spread the gospel, when someone who didn’t support his new life taunted him by calling him “Saul” in public?
Peter’s old fishing buddies knew him as Simon, and they probably never appreciated or understood the depth of transformation and truth that the name “Peter” expressed.
But Peter went through an even worse dead-naming when he tried to stop Jesus from doing the work he was called to do.
Being dead-named as Satan is something any of us, transgender or cisgender, could invite onto ourselves if we deny the true identity and purpose of anyone else in our lives—or even our own.
Peter has to return to the truth, the truth of who he is and the truth of who Jesus is, before he can shed the name of death that momentarily clung to him.
And any of us who dead-name someone, refusing to honor their transition and reinforcing transphobia either through malice or willful ignorance, have instantly earned the words we will hear from Jesus: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
New names that express the reality of our truth are divine things.
And so trans people, in their courage to proclaim their true names, are speaking the Word of God into the world.
Once again, the gospel is proclaimed most clearly by those of us on the margins, and those of us in the center of power need to hear Jesus’ words: “Let anyone with ears listen.”
Cisgender people like myself will not have to cling to the integrity of proclaiming true identity in the midst of the storm of oppression that trans people endure.
I can only imagine what it must be like to walk the long journey to full and free identity while weathering everything from outright physical violence to the daily pain of benign but still deeply hurtful misunderstanding and ignorance.
But the witness of trans people and their visceral understanding of what it means to say yes to the grace of transformation in their lives is such a blessing to all cisgender people.
Cisgender people have smaller and less public transformations to undergo, and we can look to trans people for guidance in how to live into the divine name placed at the center of our souls before time.
How blessed we are to have the name-changing stories in scripture to point us along the way.
How many of those whose names changed in the Bible were gender non-conforming in some way? Peter? Israel? Saul?
How many more were unnamed by the text but joyfully named among the saints and angels?
Revelation 2:17 says, “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
In the beginning, we’re the only ones who know our true names.
But praise God for the ones who are teaching us how to name the truth, and tell the world.
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