If someone says to you, “You are one of those, a Christian!”, how should you receive their words?  Is their statement, “You are one of those, a Christian” intended to be a statement of fact?  Or is that statement an accusation that you are a religious troublemaker, “a Christian”?  Or does the statement, “You are one of those, a Christian!”, intended to mean you are politically a potential subversive?  Or is that statement a compliment?  The answer is “Yes,” to all those questions.  If someone says to you, “You are one of those, a Christian!” it is a statement of fact because you follow Christ.  It is an accusation that you are a religious troublemaker because you believe the only way to God is through Christ.  You are also politically subversive because your primary allegiance is to God through Jesus Christ and not to the government of the nation in which you reside.  If someone says to you, “You are one of those, a Christians!” then it is a compliment because you are a person known by the fruit of the Holy Spirit which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

          The first time someone was known to have said to another person, “You are a Christian!” was about 2,000 years ago in the city of Antioch.  Then Antioch was in the Roman province of Syria.  Today, we would locate the city in the southern part of modern-day Turkey.  Two thousand years ago, Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire.  There was Rome, of course, the largest and most important city of the empire.  Rome was followed by Alexandria in Egypt as the second largest with Antioch coming in third.  At that time, of the approximately 800,000 residents of the city, there were only about 25,000 who were Jewish.  The balance was pagan of one sort or another.  There were few, if any atheists, in ancient times.  It was in this city; people were first called “Christian” with all its various meanings.  How did that happen and what difference does it make to us today?

          We begin our understanding with the words of Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, the acts of the apostles.  Luke wrote, “19 Now those [disciples of Jesus] who had been scattered [from Jerusalem] by the persecution [led by Saul] that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word [about Jesus] among Jews” (Acts 11:19).  Persecution is the targeting of a particular group for hostility treatment based on their ethnicity or religious beliefs.  Persecution of the early church began shortly after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension into heaven by the Jewish authorities, leading eventually to the killing of a faithful man, Stephen.

          But rather than ending the early church, the death of Stephen had for the Jewish authorities an unexpected effect.  The early church began to spread.  In our opening scripture today, Luke said disciples left Jerusalem because of the death of Stephen and went to Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch.  A later Roman follower of Jesus, Tertullian, said this about persecution.  “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”   Tertullian would write, “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That's why you can't just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are” (Apologeticus). 

And so, these disciples, witnesses to the martyr’s death of Stephen, went to Antioch to share the good news of Jesus with the Jews of the city. But something else happened in Antioch that had not occurred in Jerusalem.  Luke wrote, “20 Some of them, however, men [Jesus’ disciples] from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks [the pagans] also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them [disciples/missionaries], and a great number of people [Greeks] believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:20-21). Luke described an unexpected development.  Jesus’ disciples, all originally followers of Judaism, not only shared the good news of Jesus as the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, that was expected, but also they shared their story with non-Jews, the Greeks, pagans, and these people believed as well.  In Antioch, there were now gatherings of Jesus’ followers with a Jewish heritage meeting together with people with a pagan heritage to worship the same God. These two groups, that previously would have nothing to do with each other, were now believing in the same Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

Luke wrote, “22 News of this [Jews and Greeks worshiping together] reached the church [the apostles] in Jerusalem, and they [the apostles] sent Barnabas to Antioch” (Acts 11:22).  The news of Jews and Greeks worshipping together was hard to understand and hard to believe.  Jews and pagans with their long history of mutual distrust, hatred, and disgust for one another now, suddenly, were worshipping together.  It was as though each had been broken free from the bonds of their own traditions to begin something new.  This news had to be investigated and so the apostles sent their best man to Antioch, Barnabas or bar Nabas, the son of the encourager, comforter, and consoler.  If anyone could sort through the truth of Antioch and set things straight, certainly someone of the stature and credibility of bar Nabas could do so.

Luke continued, “23 When he [bar Nabas] arrived [in Antioch] and saw what the grace of God had done, he [bar Nabas] was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He [bar Nabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24). What bar Nabas saw stunned him.  God’s grace had been poured out.  When God pours His grace upon us, it is not an act of God coming down to us.  It is an act of God raising us up toward Him.  God poured out His grace on these people, Jews and Greeks, raising them up to put aside their mutual histories and traditions so that God could knit them together as a new creation, a single church holding in common that Jesus had come from God and died for their sins and had risen from the dead.  A new creation had come into existence upon the earth, the church of the New Testament, the church not of two flocks but of one.

Bar Nabas was glad, he was rejoicing, to see this marvelous new creation that God had brought to life and what God was doing to sustain it and grow it. And so, bar Nabas encouraged the missionaries and the disciples.  The response by bar Nabas makes me think back to the advice the Jewish leadership received when the Sanhedrin wanted to put the apostles to death at the beginning of the persecution.  Luke wrote, “34 A Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men [the apostles] be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he [Gamaliel] addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men… 38 [Therefore, in the present case] I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:34-35; 38-39).  Bar Nabas could see that the coming together of Jews and Greeks could only mean one thing, this was from God and could not be stopped. There is an important lesson here for us.  We, as a church, cannot expect anything we do to succeed if what we do is of human origin. If we are going to do something as a church and we pray, “God bless us in what we are about to do,” then we are seeking to call God’s grace down to us.  If, however, we have prayed and God has revealed to us through prayer what He desires us to do, then God’s grace pour down on us to lift us up toward Him.  When that occurs, when we do what we are called to do by God, then it will not fail because it is from God.  Bar Nabas rejoiced because he saw something arising that could not fail because it came from God.

After a short while, bar Nabas, could see that he and the original missionaries were not going to be able on their own to pastor and lead the growing church of Antioch.  That is a great problem to have.  Luke wrote, “25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he [Barnabas] found him [Saul], he [Barnabas] brought him [Saul] to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people” (Acts 11:25-26).

          Here again, we see the leadership of bar Nabas.  He was a respected member of the inner circle of the church of Jerusalem with significant influence with Jesus’ Apostles.  So great was bar Nabas’ influence that the apostles gave him that name, bar Nabas, as a sign that he was a man who acted like the offspring of the Holy Spirit.  And when news of this new creation of Jews and Greeks in Antioch reached the ears of the apostles, they sent bar Nabas to investigate.  He was a man full of the Holy Spirit and well respected.  And what bar Nabas found was wonderful.

But more than just wonderful, bar Nabas showed the influence of the Holy Spirit over him in two significant ways.  First, leaders in the church must use opportunities to bring others into the work of the ministry.  So, bar Nabas sought others to come and work with him in Antioch. Second, bar Nabas saw the need to involve Saul in the work at Antioch.  Why Saul?  There were two reasons.  First, Jesus had told Ananias, the man who was sent to baptize Saul, that “This man [Saul] is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15b).  Saul had been commission to bring the good news to Greek and Jews and now, in Antioch, bar Nabas could see that mission had begun. Saul must be made part of it for doing so was of God.  Second, bar Nabas understood the overarching ministry of the church is reconciliation. The work in Antioch began because Saul persecuted Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem causing them to flee to places like Antioch.  Involving Saul in the work of the church in Antioch would provide a tremendous witness to the power of God to reconcile wounds among believers.  Bar Nabas, full of the Holy Spirit, understood that Saul working with those he had once persecuted to bring glory to God would reconcile a division within the church.  Bringing Saul into Antioch would require God’s grace to be pour out lifting every one of them up closer to God.  There is something powerful when God transforms your enemy into your ambassador.  Scripture says bar Nabas and Saul taught together for over a year and the church grew because wounds had,  been healed. 

 “17 (Therefore,) if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. 20 We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. 21 God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:17-21).  Bar Nabas’ decision to bring Saul into the church of Antioch helped Saul experienced reconciliation with God and within the church.

Now as the church of Antioch, this odd combination of Jews and Greeks, grew, the church became visible.  Other people, Jews and Greeks alike, people of high standing and authority as well as common people, began to notice of this new thing, this group of people of all histories coming together as one.  Luke said it was at this point that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26b). 

It is hard to tell from the ancient histories to know for sure who called the group in Antioch, Christians.  There is a case to be made that Jews who refused the missionaries’ message of Jesus called those who did Christians to make it clear these people were not Jews.  Ancient histories show that the Jews thought of the missionaries as troublemakers because they were willing to share the testimony of the Gospel of Jesus and so they called them Christians as a way of identifying the trouble making people of the city.  Ancient histories also suggest that the Romans started calling the group Christians because they held their allegiance was to Christ not Caesar.  This meant being called a Christian was a dangerous title suggesting the people were politically subversive.  Or perhaps the word Christian was developed to reflect a people who desired peace for themselves and their neighbors.  This meant being called a Christian was a compliment.  All those titles fit then, and they fit today.  If you are a Christian, you are not a Jew, not a pagan, you are a troublemaker, you are a political subversive, and you are to be complimented because you are reconciled to God and have the ministry of reconciliation.

What else does this scene in Antioch teach us for our life today? First, the church then formed because of the grace of God.  Nothing has changed.  Our church exists and will only continue to exist by the grace of God.  Over the decades, God has poured out his grace on the people who form this church to bring them together on this spot to worship Him and serve in His name.  We have an varied collection of backgrounds melded together as a new creation.

Second, anything this church does, meaning anything we might do, must be done through God otherwise, if what we do is of human origin, it will fail.

Third, we who call ourselves Christians have been reconciled to God. God is no longer interested in our past lives and prior sins.  That has all been taken care of.  What matters now is remain faithful to Him and that we pursue a ministry of reconciliation in the name of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, like the New Testament church of Antioch we should be willing to be called Christian because we are a new creation.  We are troublemakers who believe in imitating Jesus Christ and doing as he commands.  We are political subversives because we believe our allegiance is to God not to the body politic.  We are to be lifted up by God’s grace to act in accordance with the Holy Spirit and be loving, kind, peaceful, and generous people.  This week wear well the words, “You are one of those, a Christian!” Amen and Amen.