WHAT’S IN A NAME?
- Christian transcends boundaries
- Christian transmits a message
Text: Acts 11:19-26
In his recent book, Christless Christianity, author and theologian Michael Horton observed that the word Christian is used these days as an adjective much more than a noun. There is a Christian business directory where, among many other things, you can locate Christian psychologists and Christian attorneys. There are Christian bookstores with Christian books and Christian magazines. Inside those Christian bookstores you will be able to find books describing Christian finances, Christian diets, and Christian parenting. Online you can find websites that help singles with Christian dating. A few years ago, a new Christian environmental movement began. If we wait long enough, there will probably be a chain of Christian coffee houses — although given the number of Christians I have seen studying the Bible and have heard discussing their faith at Starbucks, I don’t know if Christians really need to corner that market!
The term Christian was first coined in the first century. In fact, you heard its origins in the First Lesson for today’s service. As the Christian church expanded beyond its Jewish origins, people could no longer consider Christianity a mere development of Judaism. People who were outside the Christian faith coined the term “Christian” to describe people who belonged to Christ — people who believed that Jesus Christ was their crucified and risen Lord. The word Christian was a noun, not an adjective like it is used so often today. And that new noun certainly described and implied some key characteristics about people who identified with Jesus Christ. Today’s First Lesson from Acts 11 shows us two of those key characteristics among the early Christians. What’s in the name Christian? The word Christian transcends boundaries. And those who call themselves Christian transmit a message.
A few years ago, another WELS pastor visited us for a mission presentation about our synod’s work in India. The pastor noted during his Bible Class presentation that the church in India is growing and thriving in spite of persecution. Later in the morning, after the pastor had preached his sermon in the service, I was leading the Prayer of the Church, and I was struck by a request in the prayer that God give us peace for the spread of the gospel. In light of the presentation earlier in the morning, it seemed odd to pray for peace when persecution was helping the spread of the gospel! Peace can help the spread of the gospel, but so can persecution, even though we might not expect it to be that way.
That was the situation in today’s First Lesson. Persecution in Jerusalem was actually spreading the gospel north to new regions. “Now those who had been scattered by the persecution in connection with Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, telling the message only to Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
A few chapters earlier in Acts, Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church, was murdered by the church’s enemies. That act of persecution sent some Christians north along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to the small country of Phoenicia; others traveled further north to Antioch, a very important city in the Roman Empire; still others sailed northwest to the island of Cyprus. But these fleeing Christians did not leave their faith behind. Since the first believers in Jesus Christ were Jews, many of them shared their faith with the fellow Jews they met in the places where they fled, and so there was no small number of new Jewish Christians as a result.
But the new converts were not just Jews who came to believe that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. Some of these fleeing Christians originally came from regions where Jewish populations were smaller, and it seems that they were a little more accustomed to rubbing shoulders with people who weren’t from their same culture and religion. These Christians began to confess their faith to Greeks – people who had no serious acquaintance with Judaism and no expectation for a future Messiah. And look what happened: The gospel transcended boundaries! As a result of Christians witnessing to people of another background, the name Christian transcended ethnic boundaries, and many Greeks were brought to faith in Jesus Christ.
Why do you suppose that many of the persecuted Jewish Christians only confessed their faith in Jesus to other Jews? I think it’s fairly obvious. People naturally relate to those who come from the same background and from a similar situation in life. And certainly their fellow Jews who hadn’t heard that Jesus was the Messiah needed to hear that good news. But we are grateful to see some persecuted Christians step out of their own ethnic group and confess their faith to others. That’s not always something people do naturally, but the name Christian transcends boundaries, and so it is important that our confession transcends boundaries as well.
Ethnicity isn’t the only dividing line that keeps us from associating with others and confessing our faith to others. It could be a generational difference. It could be a difference in political views. It could be different income brackets. It could be the difference between white collar and blue collar. It could be something else. Sometimes we have a golden opportunity to speak about Christ to someone else, but there’s that dividing line between us and the other person. They are not quite like us, and we assume that they won’t be receptive to the message. We conclude that it is not worth the awkwardness. We presume that the person before us isn’t the Christian type, and our confession grows silent.
Who are we to make that determination? Are you any less sinful before God than the people you have held your confession from? Do you remember the sinful condition Luther described in us in the Hymn of the Day?
Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay;
Death brooded darkly o’er me.
Sin was my torment night and day;
In sin my mother bore me.
Yet deep and deeper still I fell;
Life had become a living hell,
So firmly sin possessed me. (Christian Worship #377, st. 2)
You and I cannot claim to be any less sinful before God than the drug pusher and the prostitute. You and I are not more worthy of the love of God than the criminal sitting on death row. Jesus died for the world, including the people we have previously written off as unfit to hear the Christian gospel. Jesus died for the world, including people about whom we would never give a second thought!
But Jesus died for all – and that also includes you! He died for us, who have sometimes been complete failures as his witnesses. He died for us, who have arrogantly played “god” by choosing who is and is not worthy of hearing the gospel. He died for us, who were inbred with sin from the moment of conception.
Jesus died for the whole world – and you are a part of the world for whom he died! He who was born sinless died for the sinful. The One who lived a holy life gave it up in exchange for your sin’s punishment. The One who faced death for guilty sinners has now declared us to be his innocent saints. The One who died on our behalf also conquered death on our behalf and opened the kingdom of heaven to all Christians.
The name Christian transcends all boundaries. So let us live in the light of Christ’s resurrection! Let us live up to the name Christian and bring the Christian gospel to others when those doors of opportunity open before us!
If you have been following the latest news about our church denomination, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), then you know that the WELS is facing some severe financial challenges right now. With significantly reduced funding, over the next few months WELS will need to further reduce its administrative staff, reduce faculty positions at our synod schools, and recall missionaries from world mission fields. That’s not great news to report. So when something good happens in the midst of bad news, we appreciate that good news even more; the good news seems so much sweeter! A few Sundays ago, we watched a WELS Connection video after the service that featured a new congregation in the Reno area. What great news to see a new church get off the ground successfully in these tough economic times!
The early church experienced its own bad news/good news phenomenon. The bad news, of course, was the threat of persecution. But in the midst of the bad news – in fact, as a result of the bad news – there was the good news that the gospel message was bringing both Jews and Greeks to faith in Jesus Christ. Our reading says, “News of this reached the ears of the church at Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.”
We first came across Barnabas in Acts chapter four. He is a Jewish Christian from the tribe of Levi – the tribe that was responsible for worship in the Old Testament era. The book of Acts describes him as a very generous and faithful man. The Jerusalem church put him to work and sent him to Antioch to assist in this ripe field for mission work.
At some point, Barnabas wanted additional help. He traveled to the city of Tarsus to track down Saul, the former persecutor of Christians who had become a Christian himself. We know him by his other name, Paul. Our reading simply says, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch.” Actually, it was more complicated than that. The particular Greek word used in this sentence implies that Barnabas had to make quite a search before he found Saul. We don’t know much about Saul’s life after his conversion and before he was called by the church to carry out the extensive missionary work he did as the apostle Paul. But now he received his first assignment to help Barnabas in Antioch. “For a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.”
In Paul’s future missionary journeys, he seldom stayed in one location for an extended time. There were exceptions, but often he established a new congregation and left others in charge while he moved on to the next location. For his first assignment, however, he and Barnabas remained in Antioch for a year. While we do not have record of their preaching and teaching, we can safely surmise from Paul’s New Testament writings that the message that brought new Christians into the church was the same message that these Christians continued to hear after they had entered the church. Not only was the term Christian basically codified in Antioch, but the Christian message was also transmitted regularly by Paul and Barnabas.
I have heard complaints from several Christians who were once a part of Evangelical churches that the gospel message about Jesus Christ was used to get them in the church, but it was often neglected once they were inside the church. It’s as if the good news of Jesus’ forgiveness and his redeeming work was taken away as soon as you signed the dotted line. But it shouldn’t be that way! There are not two gospels – one for the lost, and another for the found. The Christian church ought not proclaim good news to the unconverted only to take it away from them as soon as the Spirit converts their hearts.
There is only one message that deserves the name Christian. There is one message that brings us into God’s family; one message that is connected to our baptism; one message that consoles hurting consciences; one message that strengthens our faith for our heavenward journey; one message that conveys God’s grace in the Sacrament. Even the word Christian transmits a message that isn’t about the Christian, but Christ – the one to whom all Christians belong. Christ crucified for our sins and risen for our justification is the one and only message that deserves the name Christian. And what better message could there be to carry the name Christian than the good news of Christ’s forgiveness secured for us and his resurrection victory won for us!
This is an exciting week in our church body. Yesterday the teacher graduates of Martin Luther College were given their first assignments into the teaching ministry. Later this week, vicars and pastoral graduates from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary will be given their assignments into parish ministry. Call Day and Graduation Day are exciting times for our church body and for those young men and women who are called to serve. But entering into full-time ministry is also a great challenge in these last days. So pray for those young men and women! Pray that they live up to the name Christian so that their ministry transcends all boundaries. Pray that they live up to the name Christian so that the message they transmit constantly points their hearers to Christ. And pray that we also live up to the name Christian. Pray that we take to heart the good news of the Christian gospel message that enables us to boldly confess this essential Christian truth: He is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.