Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian (OLD)


Acts 11:19-26

“In Antioch … the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” -Acts 11:26

Okay. You know the hand signs that go with the poem. Let’s do it together.

Here is the church.

Here is the steeple.

Open the doors,

and see all the people.

One of the common images of church is a building with a steeple. Two hundred years ago churches had steeples. The steeples represented the church’s leadership and respect in the local community. Bell ringers rang the church bells in the steeple to signal celebrations, funerals, emergencies. The community gathered at the church for weddings, rallies, and celebrations. The church bell rang for funerals. John Donne refers to this tradition in the poem, “For whom the Bell tolls.” Bells were tolled in time of attack so the community could gather and respond. The steeples and bells symbolized the church connected with the community.

Did you know that in the days of Ben­jamin Franklin an unusually high number of church bell ringers in Europe and New England died in lightning storms? Believing that lightning was an act of nature, churches expected their bell ringers to ring the bells in the steeple throughout the storm in order to protect the community from catastrophe. There was an old tradition that churches and homes could be saved from fires if the church bell was rung throughout a storm. Franklin discovered that lightning was a form of electricity that could be grounded, and there was no longer a need for bell ringers to risk their lives up in the steeples of the churches through storms.[1]

Steeples and bell towers made churches the tallest building in the town. Joseph Campbell, twentieth century scholar in comparative religions, has sug­gested that you can tell what a society considers important by examining its tallest and largest structures. For a thou­sand years the largest and tallest buildings in Europe were the cathedrals. Christianity ruled! For the first hundred years in our own nation the same was true. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the tallest buildings in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco were no longer cathedrals and churches but multi-story banks and businesses. Have you noticed what new structures now dominate American cities? Stadiums and ballparks! It makes you think.

So, if steeples used to symbolize the church’s influence, respect, and connection in the community, what happened to the church in modern American society? Was it simply that we no longer needed steeples and bell towers, an architectural shift? I have a theory. I suspect too many local congregations became trapped inside their own buildings. They forgot what the steeples symbolized. Instead of steeples and bell towers connecting the church with the community in times of joy and sorrow, churches became private clubs with little connection to the local community. Churches lost their reputation as helping to pull the community together in order to serve each other. The word “Christians” became associated with judgment and separation.

This weekend, let’s go back and recall the first time the word “Christian” was used and what it symbolized in the Roman world.

Now those who were scattered because of the perse­cution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he ex­horted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. 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 11:19-26

The young wife was a mixture of fear and excitement when her husband announced they were invited to a formal dinner with the boss and several visiting dignitaries. “Dar­ling,” she responded, “I have been home with three small children for the last four years. I haven’t kept up with the news in the press of diapers and baby food. I don’t think I remember how to have an adult conversation!” He responded that all she needed to do was watch television news for a week and she would do fine.

When the big night arrived, she was seated right next to a foreign ambassador. She sat quietly for a few minutes lis­tening to the conversation. Finally a topic came up with which she was particularly familiar. She had watched the news, read a couple of magazine articles and felt confident to comment on it. She shared her viewpoint and was pleased to see that the foreign ambassador was enthralled by her. In fact, the more she talked, the more the rest of the table grew quiet, completely captured by her thoughts. “I am making a really good impression on everyone,” she thought to herself. That is until she looked down and realized she had just cut the ambassador’s steak into tiny bite-sized pieces.

We can relate can’t we? We easily fall into familiar routines and maintain our comfortable traditions without much thought. It takes thought and intentionality to change. This is why the story of the Holy Spirit sending the church beyond its comfortable traditions is so striking.

The Book of Acts tells us the church at Antioch broke long-held expectations. Prior to Christianity, it was believed that God’s chosen people should not mix with outsiders. Then the Holy Spirit sent Pe­ter to eat non-kosher food in a gentile’s home. The Holy Spirit taught him that we are to love the entire world, including those who are different from our own traditions and cultures.

Acts 11 reminds us that this paradigm shift from being a church only for Jews in Jerusalem to being messengers of love and reconciliation between God and all people was un­comfortable for the followers of Jesus. Not only were the ones inside the church uncomfortable, but those outside the church didn’t like it when the old paradigm was broken. “Who do you think you are, welcoming people from other cultures, worshipping with Jews and Greeks side by side?” In anger at these inclusive followers of Jesus, a negative epithet was given to their movement: You, you … “Christians”! “You act like each of you is a tiny Christ, thinking you can love people and save the whole world.”

The first church outside of Jerusalem, Antioch, broke the traditional rules of separation by welcoming Jews and Gentiles, young and old, women and men, slave and free. This is where the name “Little Christ” or “Christians” was first coined. Those crazy Christians thought people could live together lovingly. They believed the ills of society could be healed. They thought people from different cultures could forgive hurts and work together with mutual respect and joy.

I wonder, does the name “Christian” still symbolize welcome, inclusivity, healing, and grace? The first Christians were accused of thinking they could actually restore the whole world...

Loren Eisley a generation ago had a beautiful story titled “The Star Thrower.” The story is about a man walking down a beach spotting a boy picking up a starfish. The man asked the boy what he was doing. The boy pointed to all the stranded starfish that had been washed up in high tide. The boy says he is trying to save the starfish. The man explains that there are so many starfish, he can’t make a difference. The boy responds as he tosses a starfish into the ocean. “I made a difference for that one.”

Many of us are familiar with this sweet story. Preachers, including myself, back in the twentieth century used it as an illustration to remind us that each of us can make a difference in our world. I recently read a twenty-first century Christian adaptation of the starfish thrower. It goes like this.

A man walking down the beach noticed a girl doing something. He asked what she was doing. “Uploading a picture of these stranded star fish onto my facebook page so my friends can tweet their friends to come help return these stranded starfish to the ocean before sunset.”

The man asked her, “What does tweet mean?”

The girl rolled her eyes and picked up a starfish to throw it back into the waves. Then she said, “If you want to help, this is how you do it.”

Within an hour there were dozens of youth out throwing starfish back. When they finished the rescue project, their gathering turned into an impromptu celebration. With music and dancing, the crowd celebrated their shared moment. Then someone suggested to the girl, “This was really cool that we saved the starfish this time. But what caused this and how can we keep starfish from getting stranded in the future?” The man who had first met the girl, spoke up and said, “I work for a zoological research group that could study it.”

See the difference between the twentieth century version and the new version? The earlier version assumed that most problems are too big and the best we can do is one by one rescue a few, but most of the starfish will die. The new version suggests that if we collaborate with our shared resources, we can help restore the world.

What if this was what came to mind when people heard the word, “Christians?”

[1]Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003) 137.

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