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 Acts 11:11-26   Psalm 148   1 Peter 4:12-16   John 12:20-26

 May 19, 2019

Rev. Dr. Warner Bailey


What’s in the C of TCU?  Of course, any Horned Frog will tell you the C stands for Christian.  Texas Christian University.  But you could read the sports page and never know that.  What’s in the C of YMCA?  Again, the C stands for Christian.  Young Men’s Christian Association.  Today the sign on the building simply says, “Y” with a little YMCA at the bottom.  And what’s in the C of the Center for Transforming Lives?  Well, that’s rather obvious, isn’t it?  But what was it called before that?  The Young Women’s Christian Association. The YWCA.  In each of these organizations, and there are many more, a process of decision making has resulted in a major change in how they brand themselves to the public. Christian loses out.

The reality is that in an increasingly secular nation, all non-profits have to be vigilant and nimble in communicating effectively to potential supporters and clients.  Christian may sound foreign more and more, and sadly, often the word is accompanied by awful stereotypes or simple ignorance.  Some organizations decide, for communication’s sake that it is better to drop it—although for the record TCU is still officially known by its full name. 

These cultural shifts move us to look again carefully at what is the meaning of Christian in the New Testament.   What did early Christians tell the non-Christian world about themselves?  It may surprise you that, for all its importance, the name Christian is mentioned only in two places in the Bible, and you heard them today.  What is the story behind them?

Our starting point begins in the city of Antioch.  You’ll find it three miles inside Turkey across the Syrian border.  By the middle of the first century the city of Antioch was home to a half-million inhabitants.  The city is situated on the Orantes River with easy access to a port on the Mediterranean Sea.  This made Antioch the juncture of trade routes from Europe to India and China.  Antioch had strategic importance and is a major reason why a large cosmopolitan population of Jews, Syrians and other Gentiles came to live there.  Behind Rome and Alexandria, it was the third largest city in the Empire.

In the mid-thirties of the first century, the followers of Jesus suffered their first persecution in Jerusalem.  It was triggered by the stoning death of Stephen for whom this church is named. Many believers concluded that they could no longer live in Jerusalem, that they must flee for their lives.  They decided to move to Antioch where they could blend with its cosmopolitan population.  When these religious refugees arrived from Jerusalem, they resumed their preaching of Jesus as Lord among the multicultural population in Antioch.

What happened when they preached?  The Book of Acts solemnly proclaims: “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord.”  The preachers in Antioch rejoiced to see the great prophecy of Isaiah being fulfilled before their eyes, “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”!  It was stupendous! 

The Jesus-movement, which began in the rural countryside of Galilee, climaxed with Easter in the urban setting of Jerusalem and then jumped to the cosmopolitan center of Antioch.  From there it radiated throughout the Roman Empire.  It may have been persecution that forced some believers to leave Jerusalem and start a church where it is safer in Antioch. However, God used that upsetting turn of events to do a new thing in Antioch.  God stretched the church beyond its Jewish culture, to make the church multi-cultural, to make the church a home to all persons.  In Antioch, God gave “to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts l1.18) 

In Antioch believers will be called Christians for the first time. Heretofore they had been called Jewish names like “Galileans” or “Nazarenes” or “followers of The Way.”   I conclude that only when the church welcomes both Gentiles and Jews can it be called Christian.  What’s in a “C”?   What will we tell our secular nation what our brand name means?  Well, C for Christian means a specific commitment to Jesus that brings you into multi-ethnic, multi-cultural community.  It means following a Christ into the wider world and worshipping a Christ with people who are different from you.  It is as simple as that.

What’s in a “C”? … It means following a Christ into the wider world and worshipping a Christ with people who are different from you.  It is as simple as that.

Our second story from 1 Peter reverses the direction.  It begins by what the non-Christian world tells us who we are.  Christian, in Greek, is Christianoi.  Christianoi is the Greek way of saying a word that was first created to be spoken in Latin.  Latin is the language of the Roman Empire.  Christianoi appears to be “a label created by hostile outsiders, probably Roman which…represents a negative judgment of this group.”[1]  In this case people are suffering under this word Christian. 

Why should this be happening?  The worship of Caesar, the Roman emperor, as god was at the heart of the grip of the Roman Empire on everyone.  This religious practice had the objective of giving the empire complete control. Those who confessed Jesus Christ as Lord refused to join in this patriotic worship.  They could honor the emperor, but they could not let the State take over their lives.  Their refusal made others view them as those who hated the human race such as murderers and thieves. They were exposed by their neighbors and shamed publically.  They were slandered, reviled, abused, tortured, and killed.   It was all calculated to make them give up their new-found allegiance to Christ as Lord instead of Caesar. 

The Roman prosecutors coined the word Christianoi to mean something like “Christ-lackeys.”  Christianoi is similar to wop, dago, wet-back, and the infamous “n-word.”  That’s what the non-Christian world called us with the name Christian. 

C for Christian means Christ in you contradicting the dominant culture, means Christ in you going counter to the tide of what is conventional and popular and safe, means Christ in you confronting the challenge of an autocratic state to the holiness of God and upholding the humanity of God’s children.  To be Christian is to become the enemy of the State for Christ’s sake when that State sucks up all power unto itself and refuses to be judged by a higher law.

To be Christian is to become the enemy of the State for Christ’s sake when that State sucks up all power unto itself and refuses to be judged by a higher law.

1 Peter cleverly turns a word meant to demean and denigrate into a badge of honor which someone persecuted could use as a strategy for not buckling under.  Call yourself a Christian with pride.  Christ, by whom you are smeared as his lackey, he, too, was also called an enemy of the State and was crucified.  Call yourself a Christian with integrity. Christ to whom you cling, he, too, suffers with you and you have a part in his sufferings.  Call yourself a Christian with joy.   The State thought they had triumphed when they killed Christ, but God raised him from the dead, so the State no longer has the power to scare us into submission.  Christ on whom you cast yourself, his resurrection gives you the hope you need to hold out for your vindication.  His resurrection gives you the hope you need to keep your integrity from slipping away from you. To the outside world, you may look defeated, but you know, deep down, that your defeat is joined with Christ’s defeat, so that his victory becomes your inheritance.  That’s what the name Christian means.

I understand the need for non-profits to be clear in how they brand themselves.  What I am more concerned about is our being clear about what we mean when we use the word Christian.  What we have in our Bibles are two stories that complement each other to give us the full picture of our name.  Christian means our singular commitment to Christ who makes us into a joyously welcoming community with a positive outlook for the future.  Christian means our utter opposition to any power or person who sucks up all control and rears itself above all accountability.  Christian means facing the consequences of that opposition.  Christian means a wholesale trust in the power of God to bring victory out of defeat.  The obvious negative we turn into the opposite positive, and we drive the powers of darkness nuts by the power of our inner hope.  

[1] For what follows, see David G. Horrell, “Between Conformity and Resistance: Beyond the Balch-Elliott Debate Towards a Postcolonial Reading of First Peter” in Reading First Peter with New Eyes, Methodological Reassessments of the Letter of First Peter, edited by Robert L. Webb and Betsy Bauman-Martin.  London and New York: T & T Clark, 2007, 140. and Torrey Seland, “πάροικος καἰ παρεπίδημο: Proselyte Characteriztions in 1 Peter?”  Bulletin for Biblical Research 11.2 (2001), 264.