Author: Fr George Dimopoulos
Source: Orthodox Sermons for all the Sundays of the Year – Volume I
Publisher: Christian Orthodox Editions
“It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians” (Acts 11:19-30).
The Book of Acts, dear brethren, gives us the history of the Church during the Apostolic Era. Its purpose is related to us by its author, Luke, in the prologue: “But you shall receive power, after the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all of Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The marvellous poet Aeschylus describes in one of his tragedies the capture of Troy by Agamemnon. In order that it might be known in the palace of Atridon, he built a bonfire on the peak of the mountain Eola, whose flames soared to the skies. The fire was relayed from mountain-top to mountain-top until it reached the mountain of Aralimaeus. There one of the palace guards caught sight of it and joyfully informed the rulers of the capture of Troy.
Luke employs a similar device in Acts. He takes the holy flame on the day of Pentecost, and relays it from Jerusalem to Samaria, from Samaria to Damascus, to Antioch to Tarsus of Cilicia, Lystra, Derbe, Galatia, Mysia, Troas (Troy), Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus and, finally, to Rome, into Caesar’s household. Thirty years of Pentecostal fire are described by Luke in his outstanding Book of Acts – beginning with our Lord’s Ascension into heaven and ending with Paul being brought in custody to Rome and cast into prison.
Let us look into today’s Epistle Lesson, concerning the sufferings and persecutions of the Christians at Jerusalem. The deacon Stephen was viciously murdered, stoned to death by religious fanatics. The rest of the Christians who remained in Jerusalem, with the exception of the Apostles themselves, scattered as far as Phonecia, Damascus, Cyprus, and even to the seacoasts of Asia Minor. But more came to Antioch. Their persecutors at Jerusalem must have rejoiced in their supposed “destruction” of Christianity.
Brethren, here is ample evidence of the truth expressed by Paul in the words, “All things cooperate for the good of those who love God”. (Romans 8:28). Persecution caused the Church to grow. Affliction produced great joy. The stones beneath which the bodies of martyrs lay were used in the construction of churches. The persecuted Christians became dynamic witnesses and preachers of the Gospel, telling the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. The majority of the people opposed them, but the hand of God was with them mightily. “And a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Many disciples gathered in the city of Antioch, due to its political and geographical position. Up until that time they had been known as Disciples of Christ, or Disciples of the Apostles.
Henceforth they were to bear a new name. “And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch” (Acts 11:26). In those days, the name Christian was associated with people who were set apart from the rest of society, who were overflowing with love, kindness, ready to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. The name Christian thus became synonymous with virtue. Martyrs and confessors were proud to die for that name; the thought of denying it never occurred to them. They would rather be food for hungry lions than renounce Him who had loved them, and who had given Himself for them. Often their last words, upon being thrown into the arena, were, “We are Christians”.
Just what is a Christian? Exactly who has the right to wear that name? Are all of us professing Orthodox Christians really Christians? Do we live as the first Christians lived? Do we understand what Christianity is all about? Do we understand the duties and obligations, as well as the rights and privileges, of being a Christian? What have we given up for the Gospel? What great sacrifice have we made? What have you or I personally done to reach other people with the Christian message? If many of us gave to the Church what we claim to give on our income tax form, the churches would be prosperous indeed. What is a Christian? Baptism in the name of the Trinity is a part of it, but by no means the whole criterion. Those who are baptised, but are not living the Christian life, are “Christ-sellers”, making profit from the name of Christ.
St John Chrysostom writes that to be called a Christian, a man must be a Christian in his heart, and living a victorious Christian life as well. Those who call themselves Christians and live in this world, revelling in its pleasures, are as counterfeit as the play money with which we amuse our children. They may have all the external characteristics of a real dollar, but they don’t have the market value. “A Christian”, writes St John of the Ladder (Climachus), “testifies by means of his life and work that he believes in Christ”. A contemporary author writes:
“Real Christians always prefer the truth to a lie. They are people of faith, and do not make a mockery of God, truth or virtue. They remain steadfast in their obligations, and unmoved from their principles, even when the scales of life seem to be tipping the other way. They remain clean and pure examples for children; respectful of the wives of others. They have the inner strength and reserve to conquer their base desires, and to keep them in check. Really great people, they have the utmost respect for the lowly”.
To this we would add: they give all they can to bring the good news of God’s love for men in Christ to those who have not heard, or who have failed to accept this truth in their lives.