The Cloister Walk, V: Antioch

Acts 11:1–26; Galatians 2:11–21

 

So it was that for an entire year they met with the church
and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch
that the disciples were first called “Christians.”

—Acts 11:26

While preaching this sermon series about the twelve stones mortared into our Cloister Walk, I’ve asked myself many times why our forebears from 1958 chose exactly these twelve significant places from Christian History, rather than the scores of other places they might have selected, to tell our ancient story.

The story these stones tell spans 3,500 years; there are only twelve, or one for every three centuries; these places must be very special. But the selection strikes me as a bit eccentric. Lots of important places are left out, and some unexpected places made the cut.   Why these twelve?

Why Antioch, for example? True, at one time, Antioch was one of the most glorious cities of the Roman Empire. In the days of Jesus and Paul, Antioch reached its peak population of 500,000, which made it the third largest city in the world, behind Rome and Alexandria. Herod the Great paved its streets with marble.

Then in the Dark and Middle Ages it became a shadow of its former glory, prone to earthquakes, and also a political football passed around between Roman Christianity, Greek Christianity, Islam, and the Mongols. It is only ruins today.

What makes Antioch one of the twelve most significant places in the history of Kenilworth Union Church? Well, I’m glad you asked. Two huge things.

First of all, Luke tells us in Acts that it was at Antioch that the disciples of Jesus were first called ‘Christians.’   At Antioch the world recognized for the first time that the followers of Jesus were not just odd Jews, but something entirely new and distinctive.

It’s an extraordinary name to be known by, isn’t it? I mean, we’re so used to it we don’t even notice the lofty expectations we impose on ourselves when we call ourselves by the name of Christ. A ‘Christian’ is, almost literally, a ‘Little Christ.’

We throw it off so casually. Some people shop only at ‘Christian Businesses.’ The United States is a ‘Christian Nation.’ Europe is a ‘Christian Continent.’ Somebody who helps a blind man across the street is a good ‘Christian.’ The significance of the name is cloaked by overuse.

Maya Angelou was always surprised by the number of people who claimed to be Christian once they made their confirmation or a public profession. “What,” she always wanted to say, ‘You’re a Christian. Already?’ For Maya Angelou Christianity was something you spend your whole lifetime living up to. Few of us deserve the label.

The city of Antioch was founded 300 years before Jesus by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, so I have to tell you this story about Alexander the Great. Maybe you’ve heard it. Alexander of course was one of the greatest military leaders in history. He’d conquered the whole known world of his day, and they say that when he reached the banks of the Indus River, he wept because there were no more worlds to conquer.

As you might expect, the thing that Alexander the Great hated more than anything else in the world was cowardice. One day Alexander was presiding at a series of courts martial, and one soldier after another was brought before him for dereliction of duty. Some were sentenced to death and others to the brig. Alexander was not known for excessive clemency.

Then they brought a 17-year-old boy to the General. The young man had been caught fleeing the battle from fear and hiding in a cave instead. The other soldiers in the courtroom just looked at the floor. No one present expected this to end well. But the boy was so young and so afraid that Alexander’s face softened. He asked, ‘Soldier, what is your name?” Witnesses knew in that moment that this timid soldier at least had a chance. The boy answered, ‘Sir, my name is Alexander. The General grew stern and angry once again. “What did you say, young man?” “My name is Alexander, sir.” “One more time, Boy,” said Alexander the Great. “What is your name?” A third time the boy answered, “My name is Alexander.”

Then the General rose from his judicial bench and grabbed the young soldier by his tunic and practically lifted him off the ground and commanded, “Soldier, change your conduct, or change your name.” It’s something to think about, isn’t it?

How do we own a name as lofty as Christ’s? How do we deserve the name ‘Christian’? Did you see Dylann Roof’s bond hearing the other day? Did you hear the survivors of his victims showing him mercy and forgiveness through their tears and suffering? Did you get just the smallest glimpse of the almost miraculous grace of the African American Christian?

A reporter who was there at the hearing said, “It was as if the Bible Study never ended.”[1] Yes? We will deserve the name ‘Christian’ when we live as if the Bible Study never ended.

So that’s the first huge thing that happened at Antioch; it was the place where the name of Christ was first turned into an adjective to describe his followers, and we’ve been trying to live up to it ever since. And the second huge thing that happened at Antioch is that from there St. Paul won a decisive argument with St. Peter.

Now, if that doesn’t sound like such a big deal to you, let me explain: For the first ten years in the history of Christ’s baby Church, all Christians were Jews. Christianity was nothing more than a sub-sect of Judaism; Christians were just Jews who believed that the Messiah had come and lived in Nazareth during his brief earthly sojourn. All Christians kept kosher and observed the Sabbath, and all male Christians were circumcised. If you were a Gentile convert to Christianity, you had to start keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath and get circumcised.

And then Paul comes along and, after a brief career of harassing these peculiar Jews who worshiped a carpenter from Nazareth, gets knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, which we’ll hear about next week, and convinces himself that God is calling him, Paul, to preach Jesus to the whole world. Not just Jews but everyone.

This proposal scandalizes the very Jewish Church in Jerusalem. And Peter, of course, is the very first pope of this Jewish Church and it’s his job to get Paul to stop preaching Jesus to every unwashed Philistine in every major city of the Roman Empire.

And when Paul and Peter get together to work this out, Paul says to Peter, “Look, you stubborn fisherman, you and I both know that we are saved by faith and not by works of the law. You and I both know that you can’t get close to God by keeping kosher and going to synagogue on the Sabbath. Only Jesus can get you close to God, and, though Jesus was in fact a Jew, Jews have no monopoly on his grace; Jesus belongs to everybody; Jew or no, kosher or no, Sabbath or no, circumcised or no. Everybody on earth deserves to hear the Good News of God’s love in Jesus the Christ.”

This is the very heart and soul of the Christian Gospel, and it is first preached by St. Paul to St. Peter himself. Even the first Pope needs a sermon now and then.

And after listening for several hours to Paul’s bullet-proof disputations, Peter finally discovers that nobody ever wins an argument with St. Paul, capitulates, looks down sheepishly at his shoes, and says, in a near-whisper: “Brother Paul, you’re right. Jesus belongs to everybody.”

And that is a big deal if you are an Irish American. That is a big deal if you are an Italian American. That is a big deal if you are a Dutch American or a Spanish American or a Greek American, because the only reason we European Americans worship Jesus of Nazareth instead of trees like our distant European ancestors the Druids, is because St. Paul wins an argument with St. Peter.

And so they call Antioch the Cradle of Global Christianity. Paul uses Antioch as his headquarters and launches all three of his missionary journeys from there, and after 10,000 miles of walking, sailing, and horsebacking the length and breadth of the sprawling Empire, the Good News of Our Glad God reaches every urban center in the Mediterranean Basin.

It is at Antioch that the Jerusalem Church discovers that Jesus is for everybody, and Jesus’ Church is a lot bigger, and a lot messier, and a lot more motley, and a lot more checkered, and a lot more brindled, and a lot more multi-hued and polyglot, but also a lot lovelier, than they ever dared to dream.

And now you know why I feel as if God has hurled this Antioch rock straight at me. In Columbia, the American and South Carolinian flags fly at half-mast, and the Confederate flag flies high above.

They call her Mother Emmanuel. In a city which was once the bustling headquarters to the slave trade and where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, in the state which was the very first to secede from the Union, she was born because her members were not welcome in white churches. When her members rebelled against the horrible idea of slavery in 1822, she was burned to the ground; her members worshiped in secret till after the War. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from her sanctuary in 1962.

We still don’t understand how big and mottled and beautiful Jesus’ Church truly is. It’s tempting to think of Dylann Roof as a troubled, mentally-challenged, high school drop-out. We would like to think of him as an aberration, just a whack-job. But whack-jobs don’t spontaneously appear ex nihilo; nobody creates himself; he grows from innocent seed to ugly weed in the soil of culture.

The words he spoke to those welcoming Bible Study folk: “You’re taking over our country; you’re raping our women.” Those twisted lies come straight to his brain and lips from the fabricated mythology and revolting propaganda of white supremacy. Dylann Roof didn’t make himself.

Do you remember how Francis McDormand puts it to Gene Hackman in that old film Mississippi Burning? “Hatred isn’t something you’re born with. It gets taught…At 7 years of age, you get told it enough times, you believe it. You believe the hatred. You live it… you breathe it. You marry it.”

But here’s the good news. Despite, or maybe because of, its fraught history, the City of Charleston is already coming together to obliterate Dylann Roof’s malice. They know that Jesus’ Church is a lot bigger and a lot more checkered and a lot lovelier than we ever dared to dream.

After the shooting, at a prayer meeting in another AME Church in Charleston just down the road from Mother Emmanuel, Bishop John Richard Bryant took the pulpit and looked out over the multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation—blacks and whites, Jews and Christians—and he said, “You look like a quilt. You’re patches. You all fit somewhere.”

Or, as St. Paul puts it to the Galatians from his headquarters in Antioch: “In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, neither black nor white, neither gay nor straight, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

At Antioch, we learned that the Church of Jesus is a quilt. We’re patches. We all fit somewhere.

 


 

Please pray with me:
Loving Father of us all, hear our prayers.
Heal our broken hearts and help us to know your consolation.
Still our anger and help us know your peace.
Speak to our confusion that we might understand your truth.
Calm our fear, that we might be delivered into your surpassing love.

We lift up to your safekeeping:

Sharonda Coleman-Singleton: 45, a speech therapist and track coach who taught her athletes how to throw the discus, leap the hurdles, break the tape, and be honorable young women.

Cynthia Hurd: 54, A librarian who loved books, family, her city, and finding the answers to questions.

Susie Jackson: 87, chorister and usher at Mother Emmanuel for many, many years.

Ethel Lee Lance: 70, sexton at Mother Emmanuel for 30 years.

DePayne Middleton-Doctor: 49, Admissions Counselor at Southern Wesleyan University, mother to four daughters, the youngest is 13.

Clementa Pickney: 41, Pastor of Mother Emmanuel, State Senator in South Carolina, a voice for the disenfranchised.

Tywanza Sanders: 26, a recent college graduate who died defending his aunt from the shooter.

Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr.;  74, AME Minister on the staff at Mother Emmanuel.

Myra Thompson: 59, a Preacher’s Wife and Bible Study Teacher who loved Jesus.

Receive them into your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.


 

            [1]Nikita Stewart and Richard Pérez-Peña, “I Will Never Be Able to Hold Her Again. But I Will Forgive You.” The New York Times, June 20, 2015.