No solo artist, this one – Tuesday, 4th Week of Easter- Acts 11:19-26
The pericope of today would be akin to a movie flashback. Suddenly we are taken back to chapter seven where the story had branched off with Philip’s ministry to the Samaritans and the eunuch of Ethiopia. Now we are brought back to the moment where the Church was scattered following the martyrdom of Stephen.
We were told in chapter seven that barring the apostles who stayed in Jerusalem, the rest were scattered. This scattering must not be seen as an abandonment of the faith, for the disciples continued to preach in the name of Jesus with great success, a case in point being Philip himself.
We are also told that the other (unnamed) disciples went to Phoenicia, located along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea stretching through what is now Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel. There were some who also went to Cyprus and Antioch. The early Church was convinced that the mission of Christ was to be preached only to the Jews and this they did faithfully (verse19). But the Lord had other plans for His Church.
We read in this pericope, that some from Cyprus and Cyrene (in modern-day Libya) who heard the word (perhaps Gentile converts to Judaism) took this message to the Hellenists (Greek speakers) in Antioch. I am so tempted to think of these people as the first “lay catechists” of the Church, for while the disciples had a one track agenda of evangelization, the Lord used people with a Gentile background to speak to the Gentiles. The connection must have been instant, for we are told that a “great number became believers and turned to the Lord.” (verse24).
So successful were these “lay catechists” that on hearing the news in Jerusalem, the apostles sent Barnabas to Antioch. This is the third time we hear of Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles, and we always hear his name spoken well. It is he who sold his land and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (4:36-37) and who vouched for the authenticity of Saul’s transformation before the apostles in Jerusalem (9:27). Now he is mentioned as a “good man full of the Holy Spirit and faith” (verse 24).
True to his name, which means one who encourages, Barnabas did not come down from the Jerusalem headquarters, descending as it were on this ‘branch office’ in Antioch with a, “I know better than you attitude.” Barnabas we are told first observed what was going on and saw the “grace of God” and “rejoiced and exhorted (encouraged) them all to remain faithful with steadfast devotion.”
Barnabas should be the example to all the members of the clergy and religious, who rush into new assignments with an “I know better than you” attitude. He is an observer of their strengths and provides the encouragement for growth. Barnabas is no solo artist; he recognizes the potential this mission field has, and so in humility goes to Tarsus to look for Saul whom he brings back to Antioch.
The result of this wonderful partnership in ministry which they laboured for a year comes to fruition; for it is in “Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” We have to be careful as to which Antioch we are referring to, for of the seventeen ancient cities in Turkey that were named Antioch, only two are known to scholars; Antioch of Pisidia, which was one of the main stops on Paul’s missionary itinerary, and further east Antioch of Syria on the Orontes where the Gentile Christian community were first called Christians.
Oftentimes there is an impression created by preachers that this was a defining moment for Christianity in Antioch because of the name given to the followers of the way. The truth is, we would never know if this name was even used in a derogatory way by some who hated the Christians. But one thing we know for sure is that it took the Christians a long time to evolve into the Christian character that we are familiar with today. The followers of the way may have had a new name, but their Jewish character continued for a long time.
Fr Warner D’Souza
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