There’s an interesting and often overlooked detail in church history that jumps out at me every time I read it. It’s regarding the church at Antioch.
Stephen was murdered in Jerusalem while Paul, then Saul, looked on in agreement. This scattered the Christians throughout the region, with many of them settling in Antioch. Once there, they began living life and sharing the Gospel with many non-Jewish (Gentile) people who became believers themselves. This was a big deal because, up until this point, Christianity was viewed as an evolution, or at the very least an offshoot, of Judaism. Non-Jews were still seen as non-essential and unimportant as it related to the Gospel.
But something interesting happened. Because so many Gentiles were being converted in Antioch, there needed to be a new name attached to this group. Jews didn’t want to be associated with this motley crew of former temple prostitutes, Greek sinners, poor people and other folks who didn’t look the part of evolved Jews. It was the fact that they were marked by love for each other and the people around them that they needed a new monicker – something other than their language, skin color and place of origin – to define them. So people around the region began to come up with another title – “Followers of the Way” or Christians.
There may be one, but to my memory, I can’t think of any other time in history that a group has been identified because they are different. Most groups bear the titles of their shared political leanings, sexual orientation or racial identification. They celebrate others like them but wage war against others not like them. But the Christians in Antioch forced their culture to come up with a new identifier because there was nothing that they shared – other than their love for Christ lived out in their love for each other. Their leaders – identified in Acts 13:1 – included a black man, a Hellenist, a Levite and a former radical terrorist named Saul. It was because of their differences that they were able to best meet the needs, capture the hearts and minister to the various people of their community.
Before I can give an “I Have A Dream” kind of ending, let me be honest. I’m disappointed in the church because we have allowed the brand “Christian” to mean just about everything but what it meant in the first century. We have developed “denominations” that share our views. We’ve developed colleges to expose our thoughts. We have more -isms and -ologies than we can manage and we’ve been far more political than the founding fathers of our faith would’ve been comfortable with. My fear is that we will continue to retreat into other labels instead of doing the work to reclaim our name.
But I also have a hope. I hope, over the next few weeks, we can show people that there is a home for them.
A home where they can be invited in and served.
A home where the color of their skin, the difference in their gender or the vibrancy of their culture embellishes their story and ours as well.
A home where they see they are deeply loved by God and his people.
I love how the writer of Ephesians clearly states this same sentiment. God, may we be able to clearly say the same:
“You’re no longer wandering exiles. This kingdom of faith is now your home country. You’re no longer strangers or outsiders. You belong here, with as much right to the name Christian as anyone. God is building a home. He’s using us all—irrespective of how we got here—in what he is building. He used the apostles and prophets for the foundation. Now he’s using you, fitting you in brick by brick, stone by stone, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone that holds all the parts together. We see it taking shape day after day—a holy temple built by God, all of us built into it, a temple in which God is quite at home.”
Ephesians 2:19 – 22 (MSG)
Reflect On This…
Are there particular groups or labels you prefer to identify with, or be identified as?
Are there particular groups or types of people, particularly types of Christians, you struggle to identify with?
Read again Ephesians 2:19-22. What stands out to you? How is God inviting you to help others feel and know they belong in the home God is building, beyond your preferences and comfort zone?