ANTIOCH STILL MATTERS
Acts 11:25-26 & 13:1-3
Two thousand years ago, there was a city and a region in eastern modern-day Syria called Antioch. The city, which no longer exist, was on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and the land was between the coast and the city and region of Damascus, which is still the capital of Syria. After the stoning of the deacon Stephen in Jerusalem, the early Christians scattered to various parts of the world. Some like James the brother of our Lord remained in the city. But, some went to Rome, others to Alexandria, others to a tiny village called Byzantium which would later be called Constantinople. Still others went to nearby Antioch. These cities became the five major headquarters of the Christian Church each with its own bishop.
Since then, the church has had many divisions. The bishop of Rome felt himself more important than the others and made up his own Catholic church with changes to the original doctrine. A German monk, Martin Luther made changes to Roman Catholicism including changes to the scriptures. An English King, Henry XIII, made himself the head of his own Anglican (here in America, Episcopalian) church. Some English colonist took Luther’s version of the Bible and became Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians, and later Pentecostals. Now, anyone who has a Bible and can preach can make up his or her own church. Today, there are about 40,000 denominations and non denomination in America alone. Yet, with the churches they established, the churches of Jerusalem, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch continued to practice the same Orthodox Christianity they learned from the Apostles and the first believers.
The fact that Christianity still exist in Syria is often forgotten or ignored in the recent news reports. People tend to forget that Syria has been a haven for religious minorities since it became an independent nation after WWII. President Bashir Assad and his father before him has continued to allow the church where Barnabas and Paul continue as it did since 33 AD alongside a Muslim majority in peace. Today, much of the focus on the conflict in that land revolved around the use of chemical weapons. As of now, there is no proof that the Assad regime alone is responsible for the use of these horrible tools of war. Thanks be to God that the Syrian government has accepted the plan to give the ones they have and the plan is to be watched by international observers.
Yet, no one is pressuring the rebel Free Syrian Army to stop allowing Islamic extremist to commit horrific atrocities on Christians and moderate Muslims. While there are some rebels who have legitimate gripes against the Assad regime, the rebels are also made up of terrorist groups such as al-Queda (the same people who gave us the 9/11 attack) and the Muslim Brotherhood (who is carrying out a campaign of terror against Christians in Egypt). And the atrocities committed by these groups in Syria are well documented. Two Christian bishops, one of them the brother of Patriarch John X of Antioch, have been held hostage since April. In every village seized by the rebels, Christians have been forced to leave or convert to Islam. This weekend in the village of Maalouda should have been filled with Christians celebrating the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. But the rebels captured the city, desecrated the churches, and the Christians who were not killed or captured have fled this town where the faith was practiced for 2,000 years.
I offer you today brothers and sisters that we should pray for and stand with the Antiochian Christians and all who are suffering at the hands of the terrorist in Syria. We should urge President Obama and our law makers to stop giving military aid to the Free Syrian Army as long as it has al-Queda, the Muslim Brotherhood, and other terrorist organizations among them. Reading the scriptures, we can see the Godly example that the early believers from that region has set for us.
It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians, or “little Christ.” These men and women had a reputation of prayer, fasting, and doing good for others that was seen and teased by the locals in Antioch. The Jews who lived there scoffed at the idea that the disciples believed that Jesus was the Christ. The Romans, Syrians, and others didn’t think much of them at first. But, the more these disciples resided in the city and region, the more they influenced people to join them in the faith. This ought to be a testimony we all aim for. That people may laugh at us and joke on us for being serious about living as new creatures in Christ. But the more they see us, some of them will change their minds and follow us as we follow Him. Today, we say that we are the only version of the Bible most people will ever read. Back then, the Bible hadn’t even been written yet and they were already living the life. Therefore, we have the example. Pray, fast, love others in such Spirit and truth that people will call us Christian not simply because we go to church. Folk should call us Christian because that’s the way we act. The Antiochians gave us the example.
It was from Antioch that the Apostle Paul spread the Gospel to Asia, Cyprus, Greece, and Rome. At the time, he was still known as Saul of Tarsus. For years, he persecuted Christians approving of Stephen’s stoning. He was on his way with permission from the Sanhedrin to arrest more believers until Jesus stopped and blinded him on his was to Damascus, Syria. Even though, Saul was converted and preached Christ in that city, some disciples were still suspicious. One “Son of Encouragement,” Barnabas reached out to Saul who was at his home in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch where they and other leaders led more souls to salvation. After a year of serving there and having fasted and prayed, they were set apart by the Holy Spirit. With more prayer and fasting, they then went on their journey. In this instance, Paul and Barnabas were not fleeing persecution from the Jews nor Romans. These were missionary journeys with the specific purpose to spread the Gospel to the known world. Here is another great lesson we learned from that ancient land. That as Christians we are to encourage new believers, give them a place where they can grow and help others know the love of God through Jesus Christ. This is where we learned that we must diligently seek the will of God even more than the regular desires of the flesh and move according to the voice of the Holy Spirit. The first Christian missionaries didn’t come from London nor Liverpool. The first Christian missionaries were not Lott Carey nor Lottie Moon. Paul and Barnabas were the first Apostles to the unbelieving world and they received their calling in Antioch.
Antioch was not just a church for simple Jewish converts like the first 12 Disciples. It was a church that was for everyone and served everyone. Look at the backgrounds of their prophets and teachers. Barnabas and Saul were Rabbinic scholars. Manaen was a nobleman who grew up with the son of the Herod that tried to kill the baby Jesus. Lucius was the son of Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross for Jesus up Mount Calvary. I don’t know about Simeon’s background. But, most scholars say that with the nickname “the Niger;” he was a dark-skinned African or African descendant. When Lebanese and Syrian immigrants settled in New York, Pittsburgh, and other cities in the early 1900’s, they brought the Antiochian Orthodox Church with them. Today, the same warm spirit of welcome and desire to share the ancient Christian faith is still with them. In 1987, 2,000 Evangelical Christians diligently studied what the early church was like and found it to be Orthodox. It was the Antiochians that welcomed them into the faith. When I am not preaching here on Sunday mornings, I attend the Sunday prayers and Divine Liturgy at St. Basil Antiochian Orthodox Church in Poquoson. When I am at St. Basil, I worship with a lady who had to be baptized in secret because she was born in Communist Russia, an Ethiopian altar boy whose family came her to find better opportunities, A priest who ran into doctrinal problems with the Presbyterian Church as a result of studying in one of their top seminaries, and a hodge-podge of people of different backgrounds from all over Tidewater who desire to worship as the early Christians did. I have found this ancient church to be as welcoming today as it must have been 2,000 years ago and teaching the same doctrine as it did in the days of Barnabas and Paul.
I am not asking us to convert to the Antiochian Orthodox Church. But, we Baptist should see in the scriptures and in our hearts that our brothers and sisters who still live in the ancient land and practice the ancient faith should be prayed for protected. If we don’t want to join them, we ought to pray for them and stop supporting the people who are beating them. I like and voted for Barack Obama just like anyone else in here and believe he has done many good things as our President. But, I spoke out against how wrong George W. Bush was for starting the Iraq War which resulted in the persecution of Christians who used to live in relative peace and safety. I cannot be silent when Christianity is under threat in the place where the faith first got our name. I cannot be silent when our government is militarily supporting those who are killing the saints who are still worshiping the way they were taught by saints like Barnabas and Paul. I cannot be silent just because our President looks like us and ignore the fact that Lucius of Cyrene and Simeon called Niger looked like us too.
In 1965, the Greek Archbishiop Iakovos stepped out of his comfort zone and on the road from Selma to Montgomery. The words he offered back then ring true for us today. “The church will not be pessimistic, nor sit quietly in its handsome houses of worship while the war rages outside its churches for the bodies, minds and souls of its parishioners.” Let us pray and stand in solidarity with the Antiochian and all oppressed Christians.