When Barnabas had found Saul, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they associated with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’. Acts 11:26
Growing into the Nickname
One of my joys in reading the Acts of the Apostles is in being reminded of how what we know about the church unfolded before the eyes of Jesus’ first followers. The church was not simply plunked down like a Monopoly Game, with the board and the rules and the money and the playing pieces. No, each part was discovered or revealed just at the moment when it was necessary.
In Chapter 11 we read that a community of believers began to develop in Antioch. This city dated back centuries to the conquests of Alexander the Great and was on the direct trade routes from the Far East and Persia. The Romans likes the site so much that they built a great Forum in Antioch and constructed roads in and out of the city paved with granite that still exist today. As many as a half million people lived in the city, rivaling Alexandria as the eastern capital of Rome.
Barnabas, who I wrote about a few weeks ago, became a central figure in Antioch. He has been sent from Jerusalem and arrived in the midst of a thriving and joyful community. Luke tells us that Barnabas was well respected by the community, “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith”. Things were going so well that “many people were brought to the Lord”.
The scripture verse cited above tells the next chapter in the story. Perhaps the work was just too much for one leader. Perhaps Barnabas remembered the power of Saul’s story of transformation on the Damascus Road. Whatever the cause, Barnabas ventured north to the sleepy town of Tarsus, where Saul was born to bring his friend to Antioch.
Together, these two leaders would offer a powerful witness. Barnabas carried the authority of the Jerusalem Church; the twelve apostles had sent him to Antioch. Saul brought his dramatic conversion story; the voice of Jesus had turned his life around. For an entire year, they were guests of the church and teachers.
A new identity emerged in Antioch. The church was no longer an offshoot of Jewish life and practice. At Antioch, they needed a new name and that name centered on Christ. I’ll let the distinguished William Barclay tell the rest of the story.
“The title began as a nickname. The people of Antioch were famous for their facility of finding jesting nicknames. Later the bearded Emperor Julian came to visit them and they christened him ‘The Goat’. The termination –iani means belonging to the party of; for instance Caesariani means belonging to Caesar’s party. Christian means These Christ-folk. It was a contemptuous nickname; but Christians took it and made it known to all the world. By their lives they made it known to all the world. By their lives they made it a name not of contempt, but of respect and admiration and even wonder.” (Barclay, Acts page 90)
May we, in our day, live the lives of Christ-folk, so that all may see and know the Good News of God’s saving love!
Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP p. 213)
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. (Acts 7:59-8:1a)
No Single-Track Christians in Acts
The Early Church lived in hostile times. Their proclamation of Jesus as Messiah caused a rift with authorities in Jerusalem. By the time Stephen appears on the scene, Peter and John had already spent time in prison and had been ordered not to preach this new message of Resurrection and new life in the Spirit.
In theory, Stephen should have been buffered from these persecutions. Acts 6 describes how he and six others had been set apart to give food and other assistance to the Greek speaking widows in the community. The Office of Deacon, established by the Apostles, began as a ministry of service bringing Christ to a hungry world.
The Spirit of God will not be bottled up by a single-track program; soon Stephen begins bringing others to Christ. Scandalously, temple priests and others began to turn to the apostles. Stephen was now bringing the world to the church. Indignant Jews from the conservative wing brought Stephen to trial on charges of blasphemy. Stephen responds with the longest speech in the Acts; showing how God’s actions in the past had brought them to this moment.
There are at least two ways to view Stephen. He is the model of a Deacon for the church, taking the church to the world and the world to the church. But I believe that Acts wants us to try on Stephen’s sandals right where we are.
First, ask yourself, how have I carried the message of God’s love and mercy to the world? There are hungry, anxious, suffering people all around. Most of them believe that the church is only a place of judgment and rejection. Every one of us has the chance to bring physical and emotional care to those around us.
But, just as with Stephen, we should not bottle up the Spirit in a one-track program. How can I bring the world to Christ? 90% of new Christians are brought to church by a friend. When you invite someone to join you in church, not only do they receive a gift, but you have a friend beside you in the pew and in whatever you do in church.
The church has held Stephen as its first martyr. This means that he is the first to join Jesus in heaven. We aren’t looking to make martyrs in our day. We are looking for those who can live as Stephen did, speaking directly to God in prayer and forgiving the sins that surround us.
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.