The Spirit of Antioch
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is one.
The epistle reading for today is from the Book of Acts, Chapter 11, Verses 19 to 30. This is the story, written by the apostle and evangelist, St Luke, of how “the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” What happened was that after the stoning of St Stephen in Jerusalem, many followers of Christ “scattered because of the persecution.” Initially, as the epistle explains, these Jews from Jerusalem “began speaking the word to no one except to Jews alone;” however, in Antioch, a large city, some 300 miles north of Jerusalem, these Jewish followers of Christ began “speaking to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a large number … turned to the Lord.” Understandably, the followers of the risen Christ in Jerusalem were concerned; and Barnabas was sent to Antioch to find out what was happening.
Barnabas was very wise; and as soon as he saw that “the grace of God” was with these new followers of Christ, “he rejoiced.” Then he went to Tarsus to find Saul and bring him to Antioch. So it was, as the epistle tells us, Saul and Barnabas “for an entire year met with the church [in Antioch] and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” Why? Why were these events in Antioch so important that the name “Christians” was given to those who followed Christ, not only in Antioch, but eventually everywhere in the word, in the first century and for the next twenty centuries and for all time?
The primary reason why Antioch was so important for the growth of Christianity was that in Antioch it became possible for anyone, not just Jews but anyone, to become a Christian. Both today’s gospel from St John, Chapter 4, about the Samaritan woman at the well, and the previous Chapter 10 of the Book of Acts, about the Roman centurion, Cornelius, who was baptised in Caesarea by St Peter make that same point—anyone who seeks Christ can find Him. As St Peter so eloquently and simply begins his talk in Caesarea: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the [person] who fears [God] and does what is right is welcome to Him.” That has always been the spirit of Antioch—global, not limited by the backgrounds or nationalities or previous attitudes of new believers in Christ, but hopeful that each one of us can grow in our understanding of Christ and our desire to serve Him. Some 2,000 years ago the Church in Antioch was committed only to Christ and not to the promotion of any nationalistic creed or ethnic group. That same readiness to embrace anyone who wishes to come to Christ remains a key characteristic of the Antiochian Orthodox Church today, both in the Middle East and in the British Isles.
Last week Father Gregory spoke of the work of St Augustine of Canterbury at the end of the sixth century and the beginning of the seventh century, evangelising the pagan people of London and Kent. Today the saint who serves as a model for Orthodox mission is St Theodore of Tarsus, a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church who was indeed born in Tarsus, the home of St Paul, some 100 miles from the city of Antioch. St Theodore came to Anglo-Saxon England on May 27th, 669—more than 1,300 years ago, at a time when life expectancy appears, from archaeological evidence, to have been in the thirties. Yet St Theodore was already 67 years old when he arrived on these shores; and he then served as Archbishop of Canterbury for twenty-one years until he was 88—somewhat of an encouragement to us older folks in our 60s and 70s and beyond. Two younger priests had already declined to make the journey to Britain, which took St Theodore and his companions a full year.
The crucial point to note about St Theodore was that although he had been brought up in Tarsus and been a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, when Pope Vitalian appointed him to become Archbishop of Canterbury St Theodore was a monk in a Greek-speaking monastery in Rome. The pope wanted to be sure that St Theodore would not attempt to impose Greek Orthodox customs, language and liturgy on his new country. St Theodore remained true to his Antiochian roots; and as the Troparion of his feast day, September 19th, says, he “carried the spirit of Paul the Apostle from his Eastern homeland.” Indeed, the Kontakion of St Theodore’s feast day sets out his remarkable achievement and his challenge to us: “Clap your hands O West, welcoming the Apostle of the East coming to you bringing Christ, shining in the highest. O Theodore, you knew that the Lord is for all and upholds all. O Theodore whose heart the Lord enlarged by His love, make our hearts worthy so that they become as wide as the heavens and intercede for us.”
That is the central message of St Theodore both in the seventh century and for the Antiochian Church today in the British Isles—“The Lord is for all and upholds all.” The roots of Orthodox spirituality for St Theodore and for us are in Antioch in the Middle East, but our lives are lived in the British Isles of the 21st century. It is here in the present moments of our lives that we seek and find Christ. We are not Christians striving to recover past memories of an ancient culture in a different land. On the contrary, we bring into the present our commitment to Christ and our desire to worship Him. It is right that here in the Orthodox Deanery of the Antiochian Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland, we should proclaim the necessity of a united Orthodox mission in which we call upon all Orthodox Christians living in the British Isles to worship Christ here, not living out memories of their other “homelands” to which most will return only on occasional family visits. For the most part this heartache lies entirely outside the experience and concern of their children and grandchildren. This can be a painful lesson to learn but as always in life, reality must prevail, and especially if the Church is to survive, grow and flourish here.
With this in mind it needs to be emphasised that before we can reach out proclaiming the fullness of Christ effectively to other Christians and non-Christians, all of the Orthodox Christian groups in the British Isles need to learn to work together to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox faith. We should not apologise for our boldness in asserting this unity of the Orthodox faith, linked to the necessity to worship in English, in order that both we and our children can deepen our understanding of Christ.
Father Alexander Haig has reflected that in the life of St Theodore “we have this linking together of Antioch and the British Isles which was not reproduced until the very end of the twentieth century” in 1993 when His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch, of blessed memory, welcomed orphaned communities of Christians who were seeking to deepen their commitment to Christ by joining the Church of Antioch. I understand that this group of searching Christians entered the presence of the Patriarch expecting to abase themselves in order to be received. However, he greeted them with the words, “Welcome home;” and they knew that they had indeed found their true home in Christ. Today we receive that same offer: the door to that home remains open to each of us.
On arriving in England, St Theodore found that Christians were disorganised, often even warring with each other—similar to the situation today, although now we use only words as our weapons. In A History of the English Church and People, St Bede relates how St Theodore had been chosen because “his deep knowledge of both sacred and secular literature, combined with his reputation for honesty and fairness, made him a suitable candidate.” St Theodore built upon his existing knowledge and character to ensure the effective teaching of Orthodox doctrine, making numerous pastoral visits, and appointing many new bishops for smaller pastoral areas. As St Bede tells us, “in selecting men to fill the vacancies, [Theodore] looked for three qualities: deep knowledge of the Scriptures; an ability to communicate that knowledge to [ordinary] people; and, above all, personal holiness.” A contemporary Christian writer, Donald Atwater, commented: “St Theodore found the Church in England an unorganised missionary body; he left it a fully ordered province of the universal Church.” That same challenge confronts us today: we are unorganized as a pan-Orthodox missionary body, but we do have the ability to share the Orthodox faith with our fellow Orthodox believers and then reach out to others, Christian and non-Christian alike.
Let us stand and conclude with a prayer to the patron of our Antiochian Orthodox Deanery of the United Kingdom and Ireland: : “St Theodore, great son of Antioch, noble and loving Bishop and Pastor of the English people, pray to God for us!”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn