I grew up in Rochester, Minnesota, a city of 56,000 people at that time, but spent a lot of time in smaller towns in southeastern Minnesota. It doesn’t take long before you realize that just about everybody in a small town has a nickname.
It seems there is an unwritten rule that every bowling league must have at least one Art or one Bud. Every small-town little league baseball team must have a Wheels. Every American Legion or VFW post must have a Buster. And every town must have a Lumpy.
I made water softeners for a plumbing operation in Rochester and we would deliver them to plumbers and hardware stores throughout southern Minnesota. My friend and I would go into the local greasy spoon for lunch (cuz you had to) and sometimes face the glacial stares of Viking descendants who had to trade in their battle axes and maces for plows and post-hole diggers several generations back.
But all you had to do to thaw them was say, “Lumpy sent us.” Now, some towns were more friendly than others and sometimes one of the less congenial townsfolk would ask, grudgingly, “How’s Lumpy doing?” Sensing that they were glad Lumpy was a former resident we would say something like, “Well, the doctor taking care of him after his bike-seat collapse accident said that he should be walking normal in a month or two.” This line was usually met with thoughtful silence and we ate our open face roast beef sandwiches in peace.
I have spent all of my ministry in rural Wisconsin: first in a city of 4,000, then a city of 800, and now a city of 2,300. Two things are unforgivable in small town, rural Wisconsin: being too big for your britches and being lazy.
In a nutshell, small towns tend to despise arrogance and laziness and have a penchant for nicknames. Small town church tends to be low church — just get the worship done without a lot of flash and brass and don’t draw too much attention to yourself. It is funny when people worry about the church getting too fancy-schmancy because that may have been God’s concern as well.
There was a fisherman named Simon who probably was a solid center-of-gravity-type guy. In Hebrew the name Simon means hearer-listener-teacher. There was also an extremely active Pharisee named Saul, who was an incredible scholar and lawyer and energetic defender of the faith. Saul is Hebrew for “asked for” and it implies that Saul was just the talent we asked God to send us, the answer to prayer (that’s a name that could go to your head).
These are Hebrew names rich in meaning and implication that indicate a special set-aside-ness and purpose. And Simon and Saul certainly were talented men important to the early Church, but before they got inflicted on the world they got blessed and humbled.
Simon must have been called Rocky or The Rock by his friends and co-workers because Jesus indicates a knowledge of this when he says, “Blessed are you Simon (son of) Jonah . . . you are indeed a rock and on this rock I shall build my Church.” He goes to being Simon Peter, and the name Peter means “the rock.” It derives from the word “petros,” from which we get petroleum (rock oil), petroglyphs (rock paintings), petrify (turn to rock) and petrol (auto fuel in the commonwealth).
Peter was declared a saint. His seat in Rome is called the Holy See of St. Peter and his lineage by Apostolic Succession is called the Papacy. St. Rocky! His name is actually a nickname.
Saul was more than a little full of himself when he started hunting down heretics (called Christians) and received permission from Jerusalem to pursue these Christians to the end of the earth. Saul was present at the stoning of Stephen in Acts. But on the road to the world’s oldest continuous city, Saul was struck down by the very Jesus he was fighting against. He went through a conversion and a three-year re-education and came out of it as the Apostle Paul, the most prolific writer in the New Testament and its most prominent church planter. Paul means “shorty.”
Neither Peter nor Paul are formal names; they are nicknames. It is a reminder that the church was built by every day, hard-working people who were rebranded by the people who loved them. The kind of people small-town people like and respect. The church was built on Rocky and Shorty and the Twin (Thomas) and the Tower (Mary Magdala) and the Fawn (Tabitha). And many more. Hard work and nicknames — that’s my church!