Tuesday of Week 4 of Easter – First Reading

Commentary on Acts 11:19-26

The results of the early persecution were to scatter the Jewish Christians to places like Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Phoenicia was a country about 15 miles wide and 120 miles long stretching along the northeastern Mediterranean coast (corresponding to modern Lebanon). Its important cities were Tyre and Sidon, which are mentioned in the Gospels.  The Phoenicians were legendary seafarers.

Cyprus is an island in the north-eastern Mediterranean and was the home of Barnabas the Apostle. Antioch, on the river Orontes, was the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and the third largest city of the empire after Rome and Alexandria. It was 25 km (15 miles) inland from the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.  The first mainly gentile local church was located here.  In many ways, it would become the headquarters for the mission to the Gentiles, and from here, Paul (in today’s reading still called “Saul”) would launch his three missionary journeys – more about them later.

Today we have the story of the Church being founded in Antioch in Syria.  Chronologically, it was an immediate sequel to the martyrdom of Stephen, and the savage persecution which followed and scattered the Jerusalem Christians in many directions.  However, in between these readings, we have been looking at the work of the deacon Philip and Peter’s involvement with the Gentiles.  We also saw the conversion of Saul, which is presumed to have already taken place.

At first the refugees only evangelised their fellow-Jews.  But then Jewish Christians from places like Cyprus and Cyrene, on the north coast of Africa, who were used to more pluralistic societies, also began to approach “Hellenists”, i.e. Greeks who were not circumcised – in other words, non-Jews.  These people responded very well and many became disciples of the Lord Jesus.

They used the term “Lord Jesus” rather than “Christ”, which was a title more suited to Jewish audiences with messianic expectations.  With the non-Jews, Jesus was more usually called “Lord”.  He is “Lord” because, elevated to God’s right hand, he now rules over the Kingdom which he inaugurated:

The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.

This indicated God’s approval and blessing on their work, sometimes indicated by signs and wonders.  It was the beginning of the church at Antioch, one of many ‘churches’ to be set up in the following years.

When all this came to the ears of the people in Jerusalem, who were still thinking primarily in terms of Christians only as Jews, they sent Barnabas to investigate.  Jerusalem, where the apostles were centred, had a right of supervision over other churches.  And so, the sending of Barnabas was in keeping with Jerusalem’s policy of sending leaders to check on new ministries coming to their attention.  As a Hellenistic Jew from Cyprus, Barnabas was an obvious choice for this mission.

It is clear that Barnabas was very happy with what he found:

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…

He saw clearly that the gentile converts were very genuine, and encouraged the local church to continue what it was doing. About Barnabas, Luke comments in Acts:

…he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.

Similar words had also been used to describe Stephen.

Then, Barnabas went off to Tarsus, a city in the province of Cilicia, in what is now the south-eastern corner of Turkey, and brought Saul back to Antioch. Saul had been forced to return to Tarsus after his conversion because the Christians would not believe in its genuineness.  They believed he was simply trying to infiltrate the Christian communities with the intention of destroying them. This resulted in even greater numbers joining the Church community under the leadership and formation of Saul and Barnabas, who stayed on for a whole year in the city.

Once again we see innovation and new ground coming from the fringe rather than from the centre and how, after discernment, it is seen to be a valid development.  In our Church today, it is still the fringe which pioneers, while the role of Rome is to consolidate.

It is also an example of the phrase: “The world writes the agenda for the Church.”  It was the influence of a local situation which led to the new insights that were seen as a valid development of the Christian vision.

It was here, too, we are told that the “disciples”, that is, the followers of Jesus’ Way, were first given the nickname “Christians”. This also indicates that those who first coined the term took “Christ” to be a personal name rather than a title.  It is not certain whether the followers adopted the name themselves, or whether it was used by enemies as a term of contempt.

In either case, it is a fitting title for those who attach themselves to Jesus and his Way, and we too should be proud of this nickname. It is not something we should hide, nor is it a name that we should dishonour by our behaviour – and still less wear lightly.

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