First Called Christians
After Stephen had been stoned to death in Jerusalem and Saul and others began a serious persecution against Jesus’ followers, the disciples scattered to places all around the eastern Mediterranean world where fellow Jews were living. They took the Good News with them to these scattered communities and were gaining many new Jewish followers to Jesus. But they were speaking only to their fellow Jews in these places. Some of the disciples, though, began to speak of Jesus to the ʺGreeksʺ, or Gentiles, and there too, the Spirit was bringing many to Jesus. Indeed, as the passage implies, these gentiles were coming over to this message in ʺgreat numbers.ʺ
Here we see the early Church having to struggle with a very human proclivity—prejudice—or a sense of exclusivity. Because many of the Jewish converts to Christ, who had always had taboos about having contact with Gentiles, who felt that the Messiah was for the Jews alone, became agitated about all of these Gentiles who were coming to believe in Jesus as if they were somehow interlopers, or not worthy of being a part of salvation. But they were open enough to send Barnabas up to Antioch to check into what was happening there. They had to know if the Spirit was involved, if these Gentiles were receiving the Spirit as they had at the Pentecost event.
Barnabas went up to Antioch and soon discovered that the conversion of these Gentiles was, indeed, as real and as powerful as it had been for the Jews. He was so happily surprised and thrilled with what he saw there that he encouraged them and counseled them to remain faithful to the Good News they had accepted. Luke tells us here that Barnabas recognized the truth of what was happening in Antioch, because he was ʺa good man filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.ʺ What a statement! Is that not our hope that people would be able to say that about us? Why was he ʺa good man?ʺ Because he was filled with the Holy Spirit. You see, our goodness is the result of our faith in God and his grace. When we are filled with the Spirit of God and charged, through and through, with faith in God, like Barnabas was, we begin to really ʺseeʺ the world with true clarity. When we are truly inspired by the Holy Spirit, we are no longer blinded by prejudices, foolish prides, and jealousies. We become good, like Barnabas, and we begin to see the good in others, no matter how different they are in any way. We begin to see God dwelling in them too. With Barnabas’ encouragement, the number of gentile converts continued to grow. We pray that the same could be said about us some day. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
Barnabas, filled with the excitement and joy of what he had seen in Antioch, went to Tarsus to meet with Paul and to convince him to come and see for himself. Paul goes with Barnabas and he and Paul spend an entire year there teaching these new Gentile converts who were eager to know more about this Jesus and how they should live their lives in union with him. Again, their numbers grew swiftly. It was here that Paul, along with Barnabas, begin to see their mission was going to be different than that of Peter and the others. Paul begins his journey as the ‘Apostle to the Gentiles.’
These Gentile converts began referring to themselves as Christians recognizing that, though they were not Jews, they too were called to follow Christ. They were different, and they were the same. They were different because they did not share the long history of the Jews who understood themselves as chosen by God to be the people through whom the Messiah would come. But that very Messiah, who came for and through the Jews, came also for them. His message was greater than all culture, all human categories and stereotypes. For Christ, all people are his beloved. Paul would go on to explain later, in his letter to one of his beloved Gentile communities, the Galatians: ʺThere is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.ʺ (Galatians 3: 28)
This has very important implications for us today. We should not be making distinctions between us and fellow Christians. When we make distinctions we are doing so out of human prejudices and jealousies. This is not Christian. When we deny others who, like us are baptized into Christ, who are moved in faith to follow Christ, we are denying the Holy Spirit. We must open ourselves to our fellow Christians like the Jewish Christians did toward their Gentile brothers and sisters in Antioch. God calls all who have come to him, ʺbeloved.ʺ He make no distinctions. Instead of accusing and ridiculing our Christian brothers and sisters because they are not of ʺourʺ Church, we should be praying with them, learning how the Spirit is moving within them. After all, ʺThose who adore heaven instead of the Lord of heaven are like a man who, desiring to pay homage to the emperor, prostrates himself before the imperial palace and venerates its beauty.ʺ (Matteo Ricci, 16th century missionary to China.) It must be Christ that we love first and above all else. If Christ is first and foremost, it will be obvious and evident in what we do and say. In other words, ʺWe will be known by our love.ʺ If there is ever anything that implies an ʺus against themʺ attitude there can be no Christianity in that. Jesus made no distinctions, he came even to save the Pharisees, and the Romans. How can we think otherwise and call ourselves his true disciples? We cannot limit Christ to our own limited human constructs.