I am always fascinated by the place where Christians were first given their name. This place, although sometimes overlooked in obscurity, was known as Antioch. It comprised of people of different ethnic backgrounds who began to cross the interior walls of the city to hear the gospel and join the church. The church at Antioch, more than any other church in the New Testament, was responsible for building a bridge to transport the gospel across the great cultural and ethnic divides of the first century. The term "Christian" was first used at Antioch not because of the crosses that were worn or the religious practices observed but because of the broad impact of the message of Christ upon the community (Acts 11:26). This community sensitivity was shown by their desire to help Judeo-Christians who were scattered about to be supported. The Church at Antioch provision for financial assistance to refugees was neither an edict nor a suggestion given by Paul and Barnabas to the church. Consistent to my Lutheran understanding of theology, the Antioch Christians response to their neighbor was not motivated by "good works" but stemmed from the spontaneous urge to respond generously to the prophetic word by helping in a practical way.
What made this community of faith stand out is their benevolent actions was not motivated in acquiring members but in understanding the individual and collective needs of the community. Furthermore this is shown in Acts 13, which shows the cross-cultural team of elders, formed around the foundational ministries set forth forth by the apostle Paul and Barnabas. Luke described the church at Antioch as, "In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon, who was of African-descent and many others." The eldership comprised of cultural, ethnic and socio-economic representation of the community and the church. This unique team of elders, expressing strength in diversity, was like a "dream team" in an athletic contest. They were able to represent a relevant perspective of the Scriptures and the heart of God to their multi-ethnic community.
I am hopeful that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America will continue to be guided by the Holy Spirit and look at the Antioch model for multiculturalism. The question that I believe that will surface in the coming years is how we define what constitutes a minority if many communities in the United States are changing. Racial, cultural, economical and housing changes are all occuring right before our eyes. Rather than fleeing to more comfortable, predictable environments or having churches shut its doors, the Antioch Church stayed and become part of the change. Innovative methods of ministry must be developed in an attempt to serve the new ethnic groups moving into their neighborhoods. The Antioch Church will see this change in community as new mission fields where the gospel of Jesus Christ must be proclaimed. This proclamation doesn't come through tokenism, the appointment of "yes men and women" or the installation of unqualified leaders. This will come through as Barnabas and Paul sought out indigenous leaders that already resided in their given contextual communities to be trained, mentored and developed by new and relevant ideas. We must be a church with a powerful gospel that will transcend all the enclaves of the city and as Paul affirms in Ephesians 2:19: the ethnic walls between Jew and Gentile being torn down in Christ. This means that the church itself is built together not through assimilation but a city of strangers becoming a holy temple animated by God's Holy Spirit. I want to become like the Antioch church and be called a "Christian" not based on if I am wearing my clerical collar or my credentials but through my love that is shared to those who are oppressed, scattered, downtrodden reflecting the one that I represent as a Christian-a wandering Galilean by the name of Jesus.
Follow Reverend William E. Flippin, Jr. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/pastorbilljr