Acts11:19-25 gives us the context:
”Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among 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.
News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, 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.
Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So 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.”
1. Antioch is the place to which the early believers fled as it was known for its cultural diversity and religious tolerance. They knew they would be strangers but they would be safe. It was a city that attracted scattered people from all across the Empire and was able to absorb them.
But it absorbed them not by assimilation but by walling off the city internally. The city was divided into four quadrants with gates and walls. We have our own version of that even today. Cities are divided into sections that are bounded by streets – not walls. They are made up of high concentrations of particular races and cultures. Everyone knows where those boundaries are – even the names of the streets where the change begins. Larger cities have Little Italy, Chinatown, Little Korea or Little Vietnam. Any good real estate agent can draw you a map of the boundaries although they exist nowhere in writing.
However, in Antioch they existed not only in writing but there were thick walls inside the city that divided it into the four distinct quadrants and each had very little, if anything, to do with the others. Each was a world unto itself with all the services it would need.
Shortly after arriving in Antioch the Christian community had a remarkable distinctive. It’s people lived in all four quadrants but the church did not divide. It drew people from all four into one place. The church at Antioch had become a melting pot instead of a club or a neighborhood church – what we would call homogenous by attracting people who looked like themselves. The early church built gates and portals in the walls. They did not tear down the walls but they opened them to allow people to move from one quadrant to another and to join together instead of separately.
In fact, the church was so unique in this and crossed so many boundaries and mixed so many definitions and demographics that people inside and out had to find a new name for what they were. They were not Jewish or Gentile. They were not slave or free. They were not male or female as their primary identify. They became known as Christians as there was no other description that could contain all the diversity they displayed.
I suspect it was Barnabas, one of the most respected leaders of the earliest church, who encouraged the diversity. After all, it was Barnabas who loved being with all kinds of people from many different places. He loved introducing people who had differences. He loved finding rare talent and bringing it along. He loved the diversity of the early church and the value of bringing a variety of cultures and backgrounds together.
2. And that is where our story for this morning begins: Galatians 2:11-14
”When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”
Each of the characters has something to protect:
James, the brother of Jesus, is anxious about losing the traditions he has known all his life. The sociologist Max Weber, describes what he calls the routinization of charisma or the institutionalizing of the founder. James is perfect in that role. He is part of the past and uncertain about the future direction Paul is taking the church. He does not actively resist it but is not comfortable making wholesale changes.
Peter, again, is anxious about fitting in and fearful of what people will think. On the one hand his experience with the vision of the unclean animals has changed him but, like his vehemently denying his association with Jesus in Herod’s courtyard, he is afraid of being found out. Yes, Peter has a temper and is impetuous but we should not take that for genuine courage. A bad temper is often the sign of insecurity and fear. An angry man is a man controlled by fear.
Barnabas, the lover of diversity and the encourager of new talent, is even taken in by the pressure to conform and not rock the boat. He backs away from his support for Paul and, likely, is even embarrassed by what follows.
Paul is ever the confronter and the one you regret bringing to the party. It’s true for many new converts. They say things they might not say years later. They do not know how to confront without nailing even their friends and supporters. Later, in Chapter 3, he calls them the “foolish Galatians” and has some of the harshest words in his letters for the Jews from Jerusalem who want to keep the believers under the old rules and customs.
The Jews from Jerusalem are anxious to keep the club limited to as few as possible. After all, if you let too many of those kind of people in you dilute the purity of the group and risk losing your distinctiveness. They wanted to keep the group limited to those born into it or married into it. They wanted to keep their traditions, rituals and celebrations that let everyone know how special they were. They wanted to hold on to their privileges and their identity and to keep the new people at arms length. “Yes, they are Christian but we don’t have to mix with them. After all, the Messiah is a Jew, one of us, and not one of them.”
3. Antioch is about a constant struggle in the body of Christ. Even now. The church at Antioch is not just an ancient site. We are all members of the church of Antioch in that way. It is perpetual and never ending. The pull of being with people our own kind is part of our nature and over time the definition of “our own kind” becomes even more narrow. We divide into what we call echo chambers today. We want to hear our news from people like us. We want to live with people like us. We want to have our children marry people like us. We want the world to fit and subscribe to our narrow but long held definitions of righteousness. We long for the old days and the old ways. We want to be the chosen, the special, the elite and the standard by which everyone else is judged. It is only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can find those gates in the walls. If we try to legislate or regulate or force it we only make a bigger mess of it. It’s not about being comfortable or merely tolerant with people who are different – sometimes radically so. “Tolerance is the virtue of a man with no convictions” is how G.K. Chesterton put it. It does not mean we don’t have confrontations and disagreements. It does not mean we disregard our deep differences.
But, what it does mean is the one command Jesus left with us is more difficult than any of the 613 laws and regulations in Judaism. “Love one another.” I know, I know, I know. Believe me, I know.
“But what about…..But what if….” I so much wish Jesus had left a list of what to do in each circumstance but he didn’t. He left only the Holy Spirit and without the Holy Spirit we have lost all of our ability to follow that one commandment. We cannot on our own love one another.
He left only one description of our identity – not evangelical, conservative, progressive, orthodox or fundamentalist. What is the one sign that we are followers? “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” How many ways have we changed that single command and sign of identity in the eyes of the world? We have expanded that to include they will know we are followers by how we vote or where we stand on prayer in schools, Second Amendment, immigration, Supreme Court appointments and civil unions. In a world of ever narrowing identity politics have we become just another group of victims feeling themselves persecuted and misunderstood?
When Moses was afraid of returning to Egypt to deliver the Israelites he said they would question his credibility and no one would believe that he had been with God. God gave him a sign to convince them not of the power of Moses but to answer their one question, “How do we know the Lord has appeared to you?” That is all they wanted to know. How do we know you have been with the Lord. The world is asking the same question the Israelites asked thousands of years ago. “How do we know you have been with God?” How do we know you are not just another opportunist, self-appointed savior, power obsessed political climber wanting to be at the top of the heap?”
What do we have to show? Moses could throw down his staff. We don’t have what the world would call a miracle – but it is. We show the world we have been with God by loving one another. We are not called to love the whole world. We are not commanded to take over the world and run it with our people. No, there is just one thing and it would be truly miraculous – the greatest miracle the world has ever seen and something they could never duplicate. “All men will know that you have been with me if you love one another.”
The older I get and the more I understand how miraculous this would be I understand this:
“When a newspaper posed the question, ‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:
G. K. Chesterton.’
Wendell Berry said well what I am coming to believe:
“As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.”
Yes, I know there are a thousand questions about what it means to love one another and I would much prefer Jesus had given us more practical instructions and while difficult we could still implement them. I wish he had given us 10,000 rules and regulations that would at least theoretically, be possible to follow and obey. I wish he had left footnotes with explanations or even a short list of exceptions but he didn’t. Only this, “love one another.”
Friends, I am seriously afraid we are going into a time when “brother will betray brother to death and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death.” Matthew 10:21. Violence against people who disagree or are seen as enemies of the people will be permitted and excused. Sociopaths may give the permission but it will be ordinary people turning on each other. It will be the wolves encouraging the sheep to consume each other.
Ashton shared a review of the book, “Anatomy of a Genocide” that says so well what I fear the most:
“Killers knew their victims personally, and most of the time such familiarity only added to the sadistic glee with which they slaughtered children or buried entire families in mass graves. Many of the perpetrators were known as decent folk before the killings began, not displaying any particular tendencies toward violence or ideologically fueled hatred. And afterward, they were able to return to their normal lives without a trace of their capacities for cruelty or any indication of remorse or shame. The bloodshed seemingly left no stain.”
These are not skinheads or antifa. They are us – decent people.
In 1951 Hannah Arendt writes in “The Origins of Totalitarianism”
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
This is why the world desperately needs the church to build holes and gates in the walls and to confront the hypocrisies of those of us who desire, like Barnabas and Peter, just to get along with everyone. That does not end well. It is why the definition of Christian cannot be political or even a religious affiliation. It is not limited to one quadrant. It can only be those who love one another against all odds and obstacles. It can be only one sign that proves we have been with God – that we love one another.