April 24, 2016

Named

Acts is the sequel to the Gospel according to Saint Luke. It begins where Luke’s Gospel ends: with Jesus’ Ascension. From there, the story moves to Pentecost—the day on which the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples with a sound like rushing wind and “divided tongues, as of fire.” That day, Peter preached to a huge crowd of Jews gathered from throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. Thousands believed his message and were baptized on Pentecost, and a new community emerged in Jerusalem; a community devoted “to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Despite the expectation that their group would offer an alternative to the world’s judgmental and stratified ways of organizing itself, or maybe it was because they expected more from themselves, the growing community of Jesus’ disciples tackled divisive issues among their members head and ministered to and with people traditionally pushed to the margins of society and excluded—people accustomed to being counted among the lonely, the last, and the lost.

When the Apostles learned, for example, that old prejudices and a language barrier were causing poor widows who spoke Greek to be excluded from the church’s food assistance program, they ordained deacons to oversee the program and ensure that it included all who had need.

When Phillip met a traveler from Africa who had been told that the medical procedure that made him a eunuch rendered him incomplete in the eyes of God, he told the man that Jesus’ death and resurrection brought Good News to all people, including him, and he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in a roadside stream.

And when Jesus—in his resurrection splendor—came to a man of violence named Saul who was also known as Paul, the church’s first great enemy was blinded so that he might truly see what God was doing in the world.

The opening chapters of Acts catalog the social and theological barriers smashed by grace in Easter’s aftermath as the community of disciples spread out from Jerusalem and began to count the lonely, the last, and the lost in their number.

Then the same Holy Spirit that showed up on Pentecost descended on a group of Gentiles. Acts 10 recounts how God arranged a meeting between the Apostle Peter and a Roman soldier named Cornelius. It tells how Peter protested at first—doubting that grace could be so amazing, so powerful as to overcome the social and cultural chasm dividing these two—but God intended for the two to be reconciled.

With a vision on his mind and a believing Gentile standing before him, Peter repented of his protest and realized that God’s grace was for—and God’s people should welcome—everybody.

The apostle confessed,

God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean…[for] I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
“If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ,” Peter reported to his colleagues in ministry, “who was I that I could hinder God?”

News of Peter’s breakthrough spread among the disciples like electricity, bringing power and light to ministries that once seemed impossible. Acts chapter 11 tells us about the most significant of those ministries.

When chapter 11 begins, we find Peter in Jerusalem telling the believers there about Cornelius and the amazing things God was doing among Gentiles—people long regarded by many to be beyond the reach of God’s grace.

When [the church is Jerusalem] heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”
The chapter then shifts our attention to a town called Antioch.
Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen [that is after a group of religious leaders in Jerusalem stoned a man because he refused to renounce his faith in Jesus] traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch [a city favored by Rome in modern day Turkey, near the northeastern Mediterranean shore], and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists [Gentiles] also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.

The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

What happened in Antioch is a very big deal. This is the place where Saul also known as Paul first assumed a leadership position in the church. Considering all that Saint Paul would go on to accomplish, we must, then, count the church at Antioch among the manger in Bethlehem and Peter’s fishing boat on the list of Most Holy Humble Beginnings. More importantly, this is also the first recorded instance of believers who were raised Jewish and believers who were raised as Gentiles worshipping together in any significant numbers, the first example of a truly diverse and multi-cultural congregation.

And isn’t in incredible, isn’t it noteworthy, that in this place, in the city where Jews and Gentiles first came together in a new way because of the Good News of Jesus Christ that “the disciples were first called ‘Christians’”?

We have a name and it is Christian. However, we did not receive that name when we heard Jesus preach, saw him die, or beheld his empty tomb. It wasn’t when the Spirit moved within us, when we were baptized, or when we broke bread in remembrance of him. We earned the name Christian when our experience of the Risen Christ led us to release the reigns with which we’d been trying to restrain love so that barriers could come down, a new fellowship formed, and the full expanse of God’s grace celebrated.

According to Acts, the disciples didn’t become Christians when they correctly figured out everything about Jesus. They became Christians when they channeled the gifts and graces Jesus gave them into a community in which former strangers and sometimes enemies became brothers and sisters in the family of God.

And Paul was there, right in the middle of this amazing community.

Even though there’s no letter to the Church in Antioch in the New Testament, the evidence that his time in that place had a tremendous influence on his thinking abounds.

When Paul proclaimed that the Church’s mission is a ministry of reconciliation, I have no doubt that he was thinking about Antioch.

When he declared that all who have faith in Jesus are one body—the Body of Christ—surely he remembered the barriers in saw come down in that place.

When he preached that whatever we were before Jesus came into our lives—that who we were and where we came from were irrelevant because in Christ we are a new creation, don’t you think we remembered the how Barnabas sought to include him? Don’t you think he remembered what grace did for him and how God used him, of all people, to shape the newborn Church?

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Without love—without a willingness to sacrifice, without a commitment to see barriers come down, without Christ-like humility—all that the Church accomplishes, all that we achieve amounts to nothing and falls short of the name Christian.

Paul could write so boldly because he was there in Antioch. He was there when the disciples earned their new name. He was their when we discovered the “ministry of reconciliation” at the heart of the Gospel.

Dearly beloved

We are gathered here today

2 get through this thing called life

And life in the Resurrection Reality has a name. The name is Christian and it is the name we claim for ourselves when we respond to the call of our risen and living Savior and Lord to be agents of reconciliation and love in the world. Like the saints of old, we, too, become Christians when we channel our gifts and graces into a community in which former strangers and sometimes enemies become brothers and sisters in the family of God.

In Acts the Spirit creates and electrifies a community that smashed old barriers because of God's desire to see God's children gifted and empowered to love one another boldly and I think that's incredibly relevant to our journey to be a church in which everyone--gay and straight, rich and poor, liberal and conservative--discovers just what God can do in and through and for them.

Let’s work to make this community called John Street Church just such a place.

Let’s count ourselves among the lonely, the least, and the lost and celebrate the Good News that God’s grace is sufficient for us, God’s grace is sufficient for all.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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