Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christian. “[T]he disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.” That’s what our text asserts today. Out of the clear blue this term of disparagement, as some scholars suppose, was applied to the Church’s faithful in the great Syrian city of Antioch. And yet, rather than being a term of disparagement akin to a slur of some kind, this word has become one of endearment for many, received as a sort of badge of honor, a confession on the lips of many a martyr. The holy martyr Peter Apselamus simply replied to his interrogator and executioner when asked his lineage and rank, “Christian. I am a Christian!” (Prologue of Ohrid I, p. 54). For him, as for all like him, there was nor could be no greater honor or calling on earth than to be a Christian. Think of all those whom we venerate as confessors and martyrs of the Faith, who could’ve simply skirted death by “crossing their fingers behind their backs,” confessing Mohammed, and converting to Islam to save their hides because “God would understand.” But, they freely chose death rather than to deny Jesus Christ. They willingly claimed the name Christian than to be called or known as anything less. In today’s rapidly increasing world of polarization, the term, the name Christian, is once again becoming a word of disdain on the lips of those who stand in utter opposition to the conservative values of the Great and Holy Tradition, who view Christians of the orthodox bent an obstacle to the world’s progress. “[T]he disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.”
But, what does it mean to be Christian, to be a Christian? That word is so ubiquitous nowadays that I’m not sure there is any one definition of it. It is a noun. It is also descriptive such as in “a Christian endeavor.” And, it can be a verb – Christianizing, christening. When the word Christian was applied to those early believers in Antioch, there was a reason they were labeled Christians. There was something that word captured for both them and those who chose to use it to identify these anomalies among them. Those who were known originally as disciples, believers, as a Jewish sect were stamped as followers of “The Way” or a sect of the Nazarenes, that is, those who followed Jesus of Nazareth (Ac. 6:14; 9:2; 19:23; 22:4; 24:5, 14). These early believers and followers of the Lord Jesus were known as those who have turned the world upside down by their teachings and practices (Ac. 17:6), not necessarily something appreciated by the population-at-large. This Christian Church was viewed as a competitor with the local gods and deities, as a suitor for the affections of others, at times a threat to the established political order, and a direct attack on economics like we will hear about next Sunday that will lead to the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in a Philippian jail (Ac. 16:16-40; 19:23-41). These Christians made a definite impact wherever they were found.
But, what does it mean to be Christian, to be a Christian? As widely accepted as this word is now, ironically, it is used only three times in the entire New Testament. Here in today’s reading; once at Ac. 26:28 when King Agrippa confides to the imprisoned Apostle Paul, who had just given his testimony of conversion to Jesus, “’Thou almost persuadest me to be a Christian;’” and, finally, in 1 Pe. 4:16 when the Apostle speaks of suffering “as a Christian” as opposed to suffering because one is a murderer, thief, evildoer, or a busybody. To suffer “as a Christian” is nothing to be ashamed of, Peter says, but rather should be relished because thereby God is glorified. Far from dominating the vocabulary of the New Testament, the word Christian resides in virtual obscurity (much like our Lord), and yet it became the choice of preference to substantially capture those who confess faith in in the Name of Jesus Christ! As such, they were called Christians! We are called Christians.
But, what does it mean to be Christian, to be a Christian? The most basic and simplest answer is found in the word itself: Christ. To be Christian, to be a Christian, is, first and foremost, always all about Jesus Christ, to be of Christ, to be in Christ. Jesus Christ incarnated in His flesh a very particular life, a specific way of being and doing and thinking which all who bear His sacred Name are called to embody in themselves and to replicate by the grace of His Holy Spirit. Even if this term were meant by its users originally to be a slur or slanderous, they nevertheless recognized something of Jesus Christ by its application to those who confessed the Name of Jesus Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (Jn. 14:6).
Perhaps, at this point, it might be good for us to turn to a saint of the Church and martyr for Jesus Christ for some guidance and help on our quest: What does it mean to be Christian, to be a Christian? We turn to him who was the second Bishop of the great and ancient see of Antioch in which the disciples were first called Christians. We know him as St. Ignatius Theophoros, which means, “the God-bearer.” One tradition of the Church has it that Ignatius was the child whom our Lord had set in the midst of His Disciples and said to them that they must become as this little child (Mt. 18:1-5). Most certainly, however, Ignatius, along with Polycarp, another saint and martyr who became Bishop of Smyrna, sat at the feet of the Apostle and Theologian John, being catechized directly by the Evangelist himself! Ignatius’ letters, written while on his way to Rome where he would achieve his heart’s desire for martyrdom, were well received and beloved by the Church, so much so that they were read liturgically, that is read in the holy assembly of the saints in Christ, which made them, at one point, strong contenders for inclusion in the canon of Sacred Scripture. It is this holy martyr and Bishop of the Church we turn to.
Writing to the Church at Rome on his way to that city where he will receive the martyr’s crown of victory, St. Ignatius pleads with those believers, begging them for the love of God, not to prevent or interfere with his martyrdom by intervening in some form or fashion on his behalf. In effect, if they loved him as they say they do, then they will not seek to liberate him from his bonds and destiny in Jesus Christ. He trusts that what they have taught other disciples, they will now practice towards him. “Just pray,” he says,
that I will have the strength both outwardly and inwardly so that I may not just talk about it but want to do it, that I might not merely be called a Christian, but actually prove to be one. For if I prove to be [a Christian], I can also be called one, . . . The Work [Christianity] is not a matter of persuasive rhetoric; rather, Christianity is greatest when it is hated by the world.
Indeed, at another point, he makes the claim that “only since his arrest has he begun to be a disciple” (The Apostolic Fathers, Lighfoot, et. al., p.81).
“Now,” beloved, let us “lay aside all earthly cares” (Cherubicon). Allow this most holy saint and Christian martyr to dwell in your thoughts and in your hearts, just as he allowed Jesus to do so in his heart, and thereby earned the title of Theophoros (the God-bearer). He yearns deeply “not merely to be called a Christian,” that is, to bear the label in name only, but he wants just as profoundly to “be one.” In other words, it’s easy to have the name Christian in times of relative comfort and security, but it is all the more essential to actually be what that gracious name truly is in times of adversity and testing! Only if he “proves” to be a Christian can he rightfully then be called Christian. “For Christianity,” according to this holy soul and true shepherd of souls, “is greatest when it is hated by the world”! Or, as an early Father of the Church who sadly fell into error later in life, rightly put it, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Tertullian).
Beloved, I could go on trying to explicate and exposit, but somehow it would feel like trampling on holy ground. I need to allow this great saint and holy hieromartyr – this Christian icon – to speak to us from his own experience worthy of our deepest contemplation and emulation. His words, his life, his witness is as contemporary as any nowadays, especially in light of the current state of affairs in this country! I fear I can only say – and that honestly – I know more about sin and being a sinner than I do about being a Christian! I confess this to my own shame. To humbly acknowledge that only since his arrest has he begun to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, to humbly yearn to not only prove to be a Christian but to be called one . . . . . . . What can I say? What can you say? Is that my prayer, my heart’s deepest longings? Is it yours? In his famous collection of lives of the saints, St. Nikolai of Zhicha observes in one of his many reflections that a Christian is similar to a betrothed maiden who thinks continually of her beloved. A Christian, he says, thinks only of Jesus Christ the Beloved (Prologue of Ohrid I, p. 228).
By the grace and mercy of God, I can only hope and pray and strive to be Christian, to be a Christian one day, to be actually Christianized in my heart, in my thinking, in my faith, in my life, in my words, in my actions, in my silence. As such, “Christians are made, not born” (Tertullian). Thus, we hear our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ say elsewhere, “’Strive to enter through the narrow gate, . . . .’” (Lk. 13:24) and, again, “’the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force’” or “’press into it’” (Mt. 11:12; Lk. 16:16).
So, what does it mean to be Christian, to be a Christian? I wonder what people around here might be calling us?
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, especially St. Ignatius of Antioch, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!
Ac. 11:19-26, 29-30