Today is the last Sunday of Black History Month. What better time is there for we traditional African-American Christians to start the conversations about our similarities to and differences from the ancient faith that is still being practiced in Africa and other parts of the world? I pray that between today and this time next year that more black ministers will take up the challenge to, at least, take a serious look at Orthodoxy even if we choose not to convert. There is no good reason to ignore our history as a part of the oldest expression of the Christian faith.
THE FAITH OF A NIGER
Acts 11:19-26, 13:1-3
No one can doubt or ignore the role Protestant Christianity played in African-American History. On one of our bulletin boards, there are various images of the Baptist minister and Civil Rights leader we are very familiar with, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are also some smaller pictures of some other ministers that we don’t speak of too often, but also played a major role in our history in this nation. Richard Allen was one of the organizers and first Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest Black Church in America. Perhaps we have friends and relatives in the AME or AMEZ churches in Richmond, DC, or Philly. Absalom Jones is also represented and was a minister of the African Episcopal Church. Our friends at St. Paul’s Episcopal hold him in high regard. We should also be aware of the founders of Black Pentecostal and holiness style churches as well such as Charles Mason who was the first Bishop of the Church of God In Christ. These are the denominations that built our schools, staffed our clinics, faced water hoses, endured bombings, and told an oppressed and brutalized supposed race of nobodies that in Jesus Christ, everybody is somebody. Everybody who is baptized and born again is a child of God no matter what color their skin is. That in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, Roman nor barbarian, slave nor free, black nor white, red nor yellow; but He is in all and is all. Had it not been for the Black Protestant Churches providing education, civic leadership, and most of all proclaiming the Gospel of Salvation, we would not be here today.
But, to say that our Christian heritage only dates back to 1867, 1787, or even 1619 is a gross and tragic mistake that can only do harm to our community. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have been very effective in teaching in the African-American community that Jesus was not the original son of God, but a created being. This false doctrine is Arianism. The original Orthodox Church rejected this teaching in the first two Ecumenical Councils in 325 and 381 AD. And the man who led the fight against that foolishness was an African Bishop Athanasius of Egypt. When we are not aware of our early Christian heritage and doctrine, we are giving the devil room to twist the scriptures and turn us from the truth. So, on this final Sunday of Black History Month, please forgive me for not repeating the meaningful “I Have A Dream” speech, or the John Jasper “Them Bones” sermon. I want to highlight the ancient faith of a Niger.
His name was Simeon. Some ancient sources say that he was the disciple Simon the Zealot. Others say that he was a step-brother or cousin of Jesus. But one thing we do know is that he was dark completed. “Ni-ger” in the Greco-Roman world didn’t mean anything else but dark competed. And this man who would be called some derogatory names even by his own people today was held in very high esteem in Antioch. The first place where the disciples were called Christians had a black man in spiritual leadership. According to ancient church history, he later served as the second Bishop of Jerusalem (around 64 AD) until he was martyred in 107 AD. Today, we celebrate the first black President of the United States, the first Black President of the Southern Baptist Convention. Simeon the Niger was the first black church leader at the headquarters of the first church when the church first took shape. What kind of faith did this Niger have that can help us on our walk with Jesus today?
Simeon the Niger had a faith based on the Lord and the Apostle’s doctrine. At the time of his ministry in Antioch, there was no New Testament. Paul was still known as Saul of Tarsus and hadn’t been on his first journey, much less wrote a letter to anybody. But, Simeon and the other leaders had the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Gospel of Mark or Matthew, and the doctrine of the Apostles who knew Jesus first hand. Simeon and the ministers of Antioch preached the Lord Jesus, the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord. They were active in worship and fasting. But, they also had and acted in authority of the Holy Spirit and the apostolic tradition as they laid hands on Saul and Barnabas and as Simeon returned to Jerusalem to serve as bishop.
Our Niger faith must be built on the Lord and sound doctrine. Scripture and the body of Christ must be our foundation. We must be weary of the numerous, self-appointed “bishops” that seem to be popping up out of the woodwork and doctrines that have no spiritual nor historic ties to our faith. We have too many deceivers who put on a clergy shirt, speak mumbo-jumbo, and twist scripture around to whatever they heard on TV. Even in churches that do practice speaking in tongues, a man has to study, prepare, and pass an examination before bishops before he can call himself one. Too often we hear of ministers who want to bring something into the church not out of historical research or understanding between denominations. Some want to bring new stuff into the church because, “The Holy Spirit revealed this to me.” While the Holy Spirit does guide us, it also reminds us of the things Jesus taught the apostles while He was on earth. And if these new doctrines are not of the sound doctrine of the Niger or those of our Negro forefathers, we need to look, think, and pray carefully to reject false teaching. So, as we journey with Jesus, let’s search the scriptures as he told us to. Don’t fall for anyone just because they have a collar, title, and “a fresh anointing.” Know what sound doctrine is and follow those who humbly and sincerely serve the body of Christ.
Simeon the Niger’s faith aided the spread of the Gospel by accepting folk who normally would have been rejected. Before Antioch, the church was primarily made up of no one but Jewish converts. But, when this church came into being, Cypriots and Cyreneans also heard the Gospel and joined the congregation. Saul of Tarsus, the former persecutor of early believers became a part of the leadership. A strictly Jewish convert congregation would have been counterproductive to the universal mission of the Christ who had to bring the other sheep into his fold. It would not have survived the onslaught of the coming Jewish Wars with Rome as Antioch was in the same part of the world as Jerusalem. But, by accepting all people from different walks of life and listening to the Holy Spirit and ordaining Saul and Barnabas to go out and spread the Gospel, Simeon and the Antiochian ministers became witnesses of a God who so loved the world.
Our Niger faith has to spread beyond the confines of race and social standing. While society is still has elements of racism, there is no doubt that times have changed. While it is good to celebrate and inspire ourselves as African-Americans, we have to broaden our friendships and ministries to evangelize and serve Native Americans, Hispanics, and whites who are also seeking solace and salvation through Jesus Christ. People from such backgrounds should be invited in at every level of church participation. If we limit ourselves only to only our people who have been brought up in our churches, we will only run around in the same old circles, trying to do the same old things, catering to the same old people while our younger generations continue to go through the doors of opportunity that were once denied by our fore parents. I am not saying we should throw our songs, preaching, and prayers in the dustbin of history. But, if the traditional black church is to survive and thrive by spreading the Gospel; we will have to make our proclamations in ways that invite people to hear and believe.
Simeon the Niger had a faith that was part of a universal legacy. Simeon was one of the ministers at Antioch where the disciples were first called Christians. This faith was also shared by Mark the first Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt. The Ethiopian Eunuch, whose name was Djan Darada, laid the foundation for St. Matthew to bring the Gospel to his nation. Matthew would be killed by the Ethiopian prince Favinius. But, the prince repented, converted, and became a bishop himself. And all that time, Andrew preached Jesus in the southern Balkans. Paul, of course started churches from Asia Minor to Italy. Even doubting St. Thomas went as far as India with the Gospel of salvation. These congregations grew during the Roman Persecutions, agreed upon the Holy Scriptures, defined right worship, and held the same belief in times of war and peace for 2,000 years. Simeon is a saint of the Orthodox Church. A couple of Sundays ago, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch, whose headquarters is now in Damascus Syria, enthroned their new leader, Patriarch John X. John X can trace his bishopric ordination all the way back to Paul who was Saul, a co minister of Simeon the Niger.
Our Niger faith should embrace the wholeness and fullness of who we are in Christ. I created the front bulletin board and wrote the skit about the African saints because ignoring these Christian men and women doesn’t make any sense. If we can draw strength from the Muslims Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, why shouldn’t we draw strength from the black man who first made the list of the 27 books of the New Testament and the first non-Jew that was baptized into Christianity? If we can celebrate the New Age believer Oprah Winfrey, why can’t we celebrate St. Catherine who died for her belief in Jesus Christ? If we can get a What Would Jesus Do wrist band, Bible, tote bag, DVD, and ring tone; why can’t we learn prayers from Africans that are still being prayed by Russians, Serbs, Greeks, Egyptians and Ethiopians? We don’t need to start burning incense and kissing icons next week. But if the saying is true, if you don’t know your past you don’t know your future, we African-American Protestants have something to learn from the Orthodox Church. There are plenty of people to honor, prayers to pray, books to read, and even songs to sing along with those who we already know. Simeon called Niger left us a faith of following sound doctrine, ministering to all people, and being a part of the universal body of Christ. Let our Niger faith also be based on the truth, love for all people, and be a part of the great multitude from all nations, races, and languages that will be with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit forever on the “great getting up morning.”