This months Chaplain’s Letter is written by the Rev Grant Crowe, Amersfoort Chaplain
Summer is coming to an end. We approach a new level of activity in our congregations’ lives, with home groups starting anew or once more, Harvest, All Saints, All Souls & Remembrance Services all approach fast, and quickly our planning picks up speed for our Advent season and Christmas celebrations. Summer to Christmas all in a few seconds! David last month, encouraged us to use a pause button – to take time for personal retreat, to reflect, pray, be still, to listen. I’d like to use that idea – to pause and reflect – in a different way , and before we rush into our own church activities in Groningen, Zwolle, Utrecht or Amersfoort, to hit the pause button and consider some reflections about a 1st century church.
Antioch is near the modern day city of Antakya, in southern Turkey. 2 hours west, by car (on good roads), from Aleppo in Syria. Looking back, biblical scholar, Raymond Brown shares: “if in later patristic history Antioch proves to be a centre of both Christian theology, exegesis, and church power, a centre that affects the church throughout the whole of the Roman Empire, the seeds of its subsequent lofty status are already present in the first century.” Another scholar, Richard Longnecker adds: “apart from Jerusalem, no city of the Roman Empire played as large a part in the early life and fortunes of the Christian church as Antioch of Syria.”
1. It is a church born by persecution. Saul – attacks the church, seeking to imprison all the Christians he can find (see Acts 8). This forces many of the Christians to flee. Some, (v19), travel as far as Antioch, 640 km away from Jerusalem. They tell the good news about Jesus Christ and a new church is born. Striking. On one hand, it would have been possible to focus upon the devastation of the Jerusalem church – estimated, that out of a city of 25000, 10000 were Christians – and yet here, we see how God uses this persecution, to form new congregations, including Antioch. It is moving also to reflect, how it was persecution that drove these believers away from their mother church and yet they seek to evangelise again, the mere act of which could provoke more persecution and force them to move once more. There is much, still today, that we can learn from the persecuted parts of the Christian Church, and it is worth our time to become more aware of their stories and experiences.
2. The Christians – Jewish believers – adapt ‘a fresh and creative’ approach to evangelism.’ Luke writes, some spoke only to Jews, but others spoke to Gentiles / Greeks also – “telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.” This is a radical step – radical because, for the first time, the message about Jesus is now being proclaimed in a non-Jewish manner. Jesus was no longer presented initially as ‘the Christ’ i.e. the Messiah; he is presented as ‘Lord’, using kyrios, a Hellenistic title given to the Greek deities. This word however was also familiar to Jews. The word Kyrios, was the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew name of God in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). It was a vital step. The Jewish believers when talking with Greeks, “found it was of little use to talk of Jesus as Messiah.” 1 There was no difficult translating the word, as the Hebrew word ‘Messiah’ had been translated into the Greek word for ‘Christ’. The issue was the meaning. “The word meant nothing to Greeks and needed endless explanation.” 2 Yet ‘Lord’ Kurios was language they could begin to understand. It is a deliberate shift in language, to speak to the Greeks in a way they could understand better, which enabled their mission to succeed. They were the first Christian apologists.
The Christians in Antioch took a fresh, new, different, but biblically orthodox, approach to sharing the Christian message. They sought a way that would connect with the people in Antioch. The previous approach had worked very well in Jerusalem and Judea, but it would not work with Greeks in Asia. So they adapted their communication.
3. Mother church sends Barnabas (v.22-23) to this new church – a daughter church in effect. They send the ‘Son of Encouragement’ (see Acts 4:36-37), to see what is happening, and he encourages them. I wanted to say thank you again to Holy Trinity Utrecht for all its support – as the mother church – from your daughter church of All Saints. The resources you provided, personnel for rotas, the advice, the prayer, the support. Especially I want to thank again past and present wardens, past Councils and current one, and Father David, for all your encouragement for us as a daughter church. And as we move into our new venue in late October, we thank you in advance for the encouragement through words and prayers you will give us. We hope that, as Antioch was able to be of encouragement to Jerusalem (vv27-30), we will be sometime, in the future, able to be of encouragement to Holy Trinity, as well as to Groningen and Zwolle.
4. The Hand of God – not Maradona in this case (only football fans will get that!), but Barnabas sees the true hand of God at work (v21 & v23). He comes to a church that is quite different from Jerusalem. If the Jerusalem church was still meeting in the temple (possible, as Saul was now converted (Acts 9)), then here was a church meeting in homes. While the Jerusalem church was Jewish, this church was mixed – Jews and Gentiles. And the approach to worship was different. Acts 15 and Galatians 2, suggests that before people – other than Barnabas – came to visit Antioch, Gentiles and Jews ate together comfortably, which would have included sharing the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion together. It appears, that Antioch did this from the start, which was not the practice in Jerusalem. Barnabas however, while things are different in Antioch, he sees the hand, the grace of God at work and “encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts,” (v24). It is easy to look at something different, a different church, a different denomination, and because they are different and don’t do it the way we value and prefer, we somehow can, within us, ‘de-value them’, saying they aren’t as serious about their faith, or not as reverential or not as enthusiastic and so on. But Barnabas’ example – and challenge – when we see churches, congregations, ministries etc, that are different, is to begin with asking – do I see the grace of God, the hand of God in this?
5. Risk taking. Barnabas takes a risk. He sees what is going on, people becoming disciples and then he goes to Tarsus to get Saul, (v25). After his conversion, Saul left Damascus and visited Jerusalem, where he had met Barnabas. After tension in the city caused by his preaching, the apostles encouraged him to go back to his home city of Tarsus. Why was this a risk? Barnabas sees he needs help and goes and gets someone, we know will be a great apostle. But why did this church exist in Antioch? Persecution. Who led that persecution? Saul. So we don’t know how this went. But Barnabas – who I always imagine as a big version of Gimli (Lord of the Rings) – brings in Saul and says, ‘hi everyone, this is Saul, do you know him?’ and perhaps some church members said ‘yes, I know him, he is the reason that my family is in prison, or because of him I am living 640km north from my home etc). Barnabas brings in someone, who potentially, could have caused great division. But there is no sign of this reaction and when we read the rest of Acts, I feel a great sense of warmth between the Antioch church and Paul, which wasn’t there to the same degree as between the Jerusalem church and Paul. The believers in Antioch were people of great generosity in their love, were forgiving, accepting him as a fellow believer and accepting him that he could teach them.
Risk. When you chat to most priests – I think – and ask them about points along their way of discerning the Lord’s calling, I think most will talk of being given opportunities to try / do something. Maybe someone invited them help with a youth camp, or to do readings or intercessions, or some other way. Barnabas gives Saul a great opportunity, supported by the Antioch congregation. Can we this autumn, give someone a chance – to invite someone to help us with a ministry or a task in church – not because we need the help necessarily but because it will perhaps be a step along the way of them serving our God? Can we be a church who allows such ‘risks’ where people can be invited to try things and if they fail, we do not say ‘never again’ but help pick them up and encourage them to try again. Barnabas took a huge risk and yet he felt sure under God it was right and he knew Saul, the church supported his actions and blessing – as we read – v25-26 – came to the church and of course, later to the wider Christian church as Saul / Paul grew in his ministry.
So we press the play button, as we head into the autumn, but consider if the church in Antioch has things to say into our individual and corporate lives.