Lights To and From Antioch

May 17, 2018 Length: 8:09

Fr. Emmanuel Kahn gives the sermon for Sunday, May 6, 2018.


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The reading from chapter 11 of the book of Acts that we have just heard explains that in the middle of the first century Barnabas was sent to Antioch to investigate whether it was true that “a great many” there who were not Jews had truly “believed and turned to the Lord.” In other words, did they really understand the life and teaching of Jesus Christ? Barnabas “came and saw the grace of God [that is, the love of God], [and] he was glad; and he [urged] them all to remain faithful to the Lord with a firm purpose of heart.” Furthermore, Barnabas went to Tarsus, looked for Paul, found him and brought him to Antioch. Then “for a whole year” Barnabas and Saul went from church to church and “taught a large number of people.”

That great fourth century preacher, theologian and leader, St John Chrysostom offers us a beautiful description of what Barnabas and Paul did in Antioch. St John preached that Barnabas and Paul “similar to those in Jerusalem [offered] their care [to] everyone, treating the entire world as a single household.” Remember that all of the original apostles were Jewish. 11 of the 12 had lived their whole lives as Jews; and St Luke was a convert to Judaism. Initially, all of these men and the many women who followed Jesus Christ so faithfully lived and prayed as Jews who were seeking to establish God’s Kingdom in a Jewish context. They all had to learn that Jesus the Messiah was not going to establish a kingdom on earth that would free the Jews from the persecution of the Romans.

Today we know that Jesus Christ came into the world not only to save and guide the Jews, but also “to treat the entire world as a single household”—to guide everyone into the fullness of life possible with God the Father. However, the Jews of first century Palestine had very little contact with those who were not Jewish. Although Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city with people from many different cultures meeting each other, in Galilee and much of Palestine, Jews had very little contact with those from different cultures and different religions. In the Gospel of St Matthew, chapter 15, when a non-Jewish woman was begging for the healing of her daughter, Jesus Himself had told his disciples that He “was … sent forth [only] to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Then Jesus Christ healed her daughter, but these early followers of Christ remained quite suspicious of those who were not Jewish. Then, because of the stoning of the deacon and saint-to-be Stephen, and the subsequent persecution led by Saul before he became Paul, many Jewish Christians left Jerusalem and began to draw non-Jews to Christ. Those Jewish Christians who had boldly remained in Jerusalem at the risk of their lives were surprised.

It was in Antioch, as this reading from the Acts of Apostles states, that “the disciples were first called Christians.” The best description I’ve ever read of what happened at Antioch comes from St Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century Church leader and brother of St Basil the Great. In his sermon, On Perfection, St Gregory tells us: “Our good Master, Jesus Christ [gave to us] a partnership in His revered name [that is, a partnership in His name that we respect and hold in awe].” St Gregory explained what it means for the entire world to be a single household: “We get our name,” he preached, “from no other person connected with us. [Whether] one happens to be rich and well-born or of lowly origin and poor, [whether] one has some distinction from … business or position, all such conditions are of no [importance] because the one authoritative name for those believing in Him is that of Christian.”

Then St Gregory explained that because we have this name of Christian, we have two responsibilities. “It is necessary, first of all,” preached St Gregory, “for us to understand the greatness of the gift [that we have received] so that we can worthily thank … God who has given [that gift] to us. Then, [second], it is necessary to show through[out] our lives that we ourselves are what the power of this great name [Christian] requires us to be. The greatness of the gift of which we are deemed worthy through the partnership with the Master becomes clear to us [when] we recognise the true significance of the name of Christ…. [When] in our prayers we call upon the Lord of all by this name we [can] comprehend the concept that we are taking into our soul [that is, we can understand the central meaning and purpose of being Christian].”

Now, St Gregory saw that these two responsibilities might be too big to live out all the time—to always thank God for everything in our lives and to always be worthy of “the power of this great name [Christian].” So, St Gregory set before us a model, a single person—St Paul. St Gregory preached: “Paul, most of all [people] knew [who] Christ is, and Paul imitated Him so brilliantly that [Paul] revealed his own Master in himself….This man, Paul,” preached St Gregory “knew the significance of the name of Christ for us saying that Christ is ‘the power and the wisdom of God.’”
Another important example of a person who learned “the power and wisdom of God” is the Samaritan woman at the well, Photini, whose life we celebrate today.  Whereas Paul is a magnificent example of a Jew who became Christian, Photini is an equally magnificent example of a Gentile—a non-Jew—who became Christian. Both were outstanding missionaries. Together they show how “the entire world as a single household” can become Christian. The name Photini means “the enlightened one.” It has been noted that “In Greek sermons from the fourth to the fourteenth centuries she is called ‘apostle’ and ‘evangelist’ {and] is often compared to the male disciples and apostles and found to surpass them.” She drew her five brothers and two sisters and many others to Christ. Then she travelled to Rome as an Antiochian Christian, met the Emperor Nero and to the Emperor’s horror, drew his daughter   to Christ. Despite years of persecution and prison life in Rome, neither Photini nor any member of her family wavered in their commitment to Christ before they were all executed.

We can be proud that it was in Antioch that missionaries like St Paul and St Photini and those they drew to Christ “were for the first time called Christians.” Let each of us be known and live as Christians.