A reflection on Acts 11:19-26 for Diocese of Salisbury staff prayers.
Try to imagine the world of Antioch as the refugee disciples in our reading would have known it. Antioch was the third largest city of the contemporary Empire, after only Rome and Alexandria and it was, by ancient standards, enormous, with a population of around half a million. Situated just inland from the great bend in the Mediterranean coast, near what is now the Turkish-Syrian border, Antioch’s roads ran to Asia Minor, and on to Greece and Italy; to Syria, Judaea, and on to Egypt; and to Mesopotamia and then beyond the boundaries of the Roman world to the Parthian Empire that was the forerunner of modern Iran.
Taken by the Romans in 64 BC, Antioch was favoured by them for its wealth and strategic location and the city, already large, was granted new public buildings and even a visit by Julius Caesar. It was famous for its opulence, obsession with fashion and devotion to pleasure.
By this time Antioch’s Jewish community would have been large and centuries old, and part of the kaleidoscope of ethnicities and faiths one might expect in a major metropolis of the Empire. That good road link would have ensured a steady stream of pilgrims to and preachers from Jerusalem.
Into this world came refugees from the very first persecution of Christians, which followed the martyrdom of St Stephen. Precise dating of events in the Acts is always difficult, but given that Paul and Barnabas are already part of the Christian story, we are probably talking about the mid 30s.
From today’s reading, these refugees seem mainly to have been sheltered and possibly rather sectarian Jewish Christians, native to the Holy Land. How strange the thronging pagan crowds of Antioch must have seemed to sheltered Torah scholars who had lived entirely in the world of pious Jerusalem Jews, or those who flitted between preaching in the small towns of Judaea and fasting in the desert. What did they make of the parading high-class whores and the wealthy businessmen arrayed like peacocks, one wonders?
Here they arrived, probably penniless, probably with no idea of how they were going to make a living, with their Greek strangely accented and in some cases so rudimentary that it condemned educated men to earning the most of basic of livings. Such stories are still ten a penny in our country, today.
Yet among them were a few Jewish Christians who originally hailed from the diaspora, from Cyprus and Cyrene, from cities culturally very much like Antioch, albeit smaller and poorer. For these Christians, the flight from persecution in Judaea may even have been something of a relief, a return to the world of teeming, polycultural, Eastern Mediterranean cities where they had been raised. And these men and women seized the opportunity to preach the Gospel in their native Greek, to people very much like those they had grown up among. To use the current buzzwords, they had the right cross-cultural experiences to evangelise in a new context.
Outside the Jewish heartland, a new word needed to be invented for the followers of this strange cult of the crucified, resurrected, Messiah – Christians. And here was the Christian story already unfolding much as it would continue to for 2,000 years. Only after dispossession and exile was it possible for the Kingdom of God to continue to grow towards fullness. And here in the plazas and crowds of Antioch began the first great Christian ideological conflict. For the status of those pagan converts and the topic of circumcision divided the early Church, Scripture tells us, as bitterly as gender and sexuality issues divide the Church of today.
That seemingly alien city, so remote in time, was not so different from our world after all. The same themes are there: death before resurrection, exile leading to the discovery of a new home, and conflict between people who struggle to understand just how much greater God is than our capacity to grasp. And there the believers met, like us, to pray, to break bread in Christ’s memory, and to worship the God who loves the world too much to leave us in our comfort zone.