October 16, 2016 “Our Brand” – Acts 11:19-30
October 16, 2016 – Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost
We drive a couple of 18-year-old Toyotas. Our four cars before that were Toyotas. Our next car will very likely be a Toyota. We like the brand. Likewise, I typed this sermon on a Dell computer. The one before it and the one before that were also Dells. In the past I’ve been partial to Sony electronics and Craftsman tools. I have my brand loyalties.
Some of you may stick faithfully to Starbucks coffee or Geico insurance or Huggies diapers. You may consistently shop at Jerry’s or Bi-Mart or Oldfield’s because they are store brands with local connections. Brands and names matter to us as consumers. They matter spiritually as well. For our text today, I’ve chosen to focus on when we as followers of Jesus first received our “brand” name. It’s during the beginnings of the first church in Antioch of Syria in Acts 11.
Verse 26 of our text ends with what sounds like an almost offhand remark that “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” Notice that they “were called” Christians. It doesn’t say they called themselves that. So that spiritual brand name you and I take so much for granted, and would probably give ourselves, was not originally something the people of Jesus chose. It arose in a hostile environment.
Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman empire, maybe in the world, after Rome and Alexandria. It had a population of over 500,000, maybe three times the size of Eugene. It was located on the Orontes River in the Roman province of Syria in what is now southern Turkey, just north of the border of modern Syria. There was a large Greek-speaking Jewish population there. Persecuted Jewish believers from Jerusalem fled north there to get lost in crowds and be safe. But they also talked about Jesus.
The end of verse 19 says those who fled persecution at first talked about Jesus only to other Jews. But something different happened in Antioch. We read about Philip and Peter and Paul, but the founders of the church in Antioch are anonymous. All we know is that they were Greek-speaking Jewish believers, “men from Cyprus and Cyrene.” They spoke the language of the Gentiles, so in a huge city full of Gentiles they began to tell the story of Jesus in that language.
As you read Acts last week or heard me preach through the beginning of it this summer you learned about Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian eunuch and then Peter’s witness to the Roman centurion Cornelius. Both were crucial moments when the Gospel crossed over barriers separating Jewish believers from Gentiles. But each of those situations was limited. The Ethiopian was one man. Cornelius and his family were one household. It was only in Antioch that disciples of Christ really “began,” as it says in verse 20, “to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus.”
Antioch was located on major trade routes and had plenty of wealth. They also had a reputation for sophisticated culture. And like many large cities today, they had a reputation for immorality and corruption. A temple to Daphne and Apollo was located a few miles downstream and was an ancient center of sacred prostitution. When Rome began to grow more and more corrupt the, Roman writer Juvenal remarked that “the filth of the Orontes has flowed into the Tiber,” meaning that Rome, the capital of the empire, had taken on the corruption which characterized Antioch.
All that wealth and immorality created a spiritual void waiting to be filled. There a lot of religion in Antioch. Its Greek population was fascinated by mystery religions, cults which offered secret knowledge of a mystical cycle of birth, death and re-birth. The good news about Jesus’ resurrection spoke to that spiritual hunger. Verse 21 says “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
The Gospel was spreading, but Jerusalem was still the center of the faith. Word came back to the original church there. They had just heard Peter’s story of the conversion of Cornelius and his family and that helped prepare the apostles for the report of more Gentiles becoming believers now in Antioch. They sent a good man to investigate, Barnabas. Barnabas was himself from Cyprus, a Greek-speaking Jew. In Acts 4 we’re told about his generosity in selling his home and giving the proceeds to the needy in the church.
“Barnabas” means “Son of Encouragement.” That is just what verse 23 says he did in Antioch. He arrived and saw the grace of God in the lives of Gentiles and he was glad. So “he encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” As I said, verse 24 tells us Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” His ministry was successful and “a great number of people were brought to the Lord.” But it was too much for Barnabas to handle by himself.
More and more Gentiles came to Christ. Barnabas saw he needed help teaching them all they needed to know. So he went to find Saul, who had been out of the story since chapter 9. Paul had to sneak away from those who wanted to kill him in Damascus. He went back to his home town of Tarsus. Barnabas found Saul and brought him to Antioch. Verse 26 says that together they spent a year there meeting with and instructing the new believers. Paul and Barnabas as your professors—there would be a class to sign up for!
The believers in Antioch became so numerous that they got noticed, even in that big city. The general populace of Antioch gave them a nickname: “Christians.” You may have heard that “Christian” means “little Christ,” but that’s not exactly correct linguistically. That “-ian” ending is not a diminutive or comparative. It doesn’t really mean a little imitation of that to which it’s attached.
Christ, of course, is Greek for “Messiah.” It means “anointed,” and is really a title. It’s not Jesus’ last name. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. But Greeks thought these people worshipped a man named Christ. So a word was coined for Christ followers by adding the Latin ending ianos, which means “belonging to” or “identified with.” Those in Herod’s party were Herodians. Those connected with Augustus Nero the emperor were Augustians. And those who belonged to Christ were Christ-ians. They were in the Christ party.
Most Bible scholars will tell you that “Christian” started out as derogatory term used by outsiders. It only appears three times in the New Testament: here, in Acts 26:28 and in I Peter 4:16. Each time, you might see it as a name applied somewhat negatively by others to followers of Jesus. The terms “believers” or “disciples” or “brothers” or “saints” are used much more often in Acts and in the New Testament as a whole.
But if you turn over to that mention in I Peter chapter 4, down near the bottom of page 37 in your Books of the Bible, you hear Peter tell us not to be ashamed of that name “if you suffer as a Christian.” It may have started out pejoratively, but followers of Jesus were ready to bear to proudly accept that title if it was applied to them.
There’s something else hidden in the words here. It says “The disciples were called Christians…” That Greek word for “called” has another meaning that has to do with setting up a business, putting out a sign. It’s like our “DBA,” “doing business as.” It’s very possible that Luke is saying that Antioch is where believers in Jesus first did their business as “Christians.” It was the first appearance of the “Christian” brand name.
We are loyal to brand names because they stand for something. I like Toyotas because as one of my friends said to me a long time ago, “they run even when you don’t take real good care of them.” The brand represents reliability. Thirty-five years ago when Beth and I bought our first television, a Sony, the salesperson said, “and you will want to get the extended warranty.” “No,” I said, “I don’t need that. That’s why I’m buying a Sony. And that television was still working when we gave it away twenty years later.
A brand can stand for reliability, for luxury, for comfort, or even for a flavor you like. What qualities does the Christian brand stand for? You can see some of them right here in the church at Antioch. To start with, we saw in verse 20 that Jews began to speak to Greeks about Jesus. It was the first Christian community to deliberately and actively practice multi-cultural diversity. People from different social and ethnic backgrounds came together and worshipped Jesus as one fellowship in Him. That’s a quality sorely needed in our time, a brand that bridges the differences between people.
That year-long course of study with Barnabas and Saul is another quality of the Christian brand in Antioch. They were people who got together and learned about their faith. They wanted to know what Jesus said and did, to discover what this grace that God had shown them was all about. Christian is the brand for people who still do what you’ve been doing, reading and talking about God’s word together, growing in depth and understanding.
There are many other qualities of the Christian brand. That’s really what the New Testament is about, what we’re trying to learn. We want to know and put into practice everything our brand represents. But let me point to just one more brand quality that shows up in our passage here, in the verses right after it says they were called Christians. Verses 27 and 28, at the top of page 74 in The Books of the Bible, tell how a Christian prophet predicted there would be a severe famine in the Roman world. The response, the Christian response, is there in verse 29 and 30. They sent help to their brothers and sisters in Judea, to the mother church back in Jerusalem. In hard times, they were generous toward others who had even less than they had. That’s still part of the Christian brand. It’s Christians who give and do the most for people in need when disaster strikes.
So that’s our brand. Christians are people who welcome others who are different from themselves. Christians are people who are constantly learning and strengthening their faith in Jesus. And Christians are generous people who are always helping those in need. I focused on this text today because the qualities of the Christian brand are what show up over and over in the pages we read from Acts last week. This is what Christians do. This is who we are, people from diverse backgrounds united by a common faith in Jesus that we learn together, and we demonstrate that faith in generous service.
If you look at our reading for Friday from I and II Thessalonians, you see the same brand qualities there. As he writes to that church in northern Greece, Paul encourages them to maintain just those aspects of their brand. He praised them for their love for each other, saying he didn’t even need to write anything about that. He rejoiced that they so strongly welcomed and stayed faithful to the message of Jesus, telling them they were a model in that regard, “your faith in God has become known everywhere.” With regard to generosity, he had to push them a little, urging everyone to work and not be idle, so that they could continue to have enough to share with those who really needed it. “Don’t lose that part of our brand,” he was saying.
Businesses will tell you that it’s hard to maintain brand identity. They spend millions trying to keep a name before consumers and get them to believe it represents something they want. We in the church struggle with our own brand as Christians. Some have even wanted to give up on it, so I hear my colleagues talking about being “Jesus followers” or something like that instead of being Christians.
People have looked at Christ and they have looked at Christians and the comparison has not been favorable. Mahatma Gandhi was not a Christian, but he read the New Testament and admired Jesus. He is reported to have said, “I have often considered being a follower of Christ… except for Christians” and “I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians.”
To be a Christian, to be named by the name of Christ, is an awesome responsibility. We fail at it over and over. The Christian brand has come to mean “fundamentalist crazies like the Muslims,” “self-help spirituality,” “a club for people who need lots of rules and structure in order to feel good,” or “nuts who hate gay people and want to teach religion instead of science in our schools.” On The Simpsons, Bart asked his dad what religion he believes. Homer hemmed and hawed and finally replied, “You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don’t work in real life. Uh, Christianity.”
Samsung had a superb brand reputation. Twenty percent of the Korean economy was based on Samsung. Then a few Galaxy 7 phones caught on fire and that reputation, that brand is going up in flames with them. The Christian Church has brought hope and help to our world over and over, but when Christians do evil things like a pastor here in Eugene was accused of this past week or when Christians fail to help those in need or when Christians push away people who are different, then our brand is burning too. At best “Christian” may suggest something like a starry-eyed idealist with little appreciation for reality, and at worst it means an ignorant, bigoted zealot out to bend everyone to our own way of thinking. As marketing people would put it, like Samsung we’ve suffered “brand deterioration.”
Call yourself a “Jesus follower” if you like. That’s fine. But the real way to handle the deterioration of the Christian brand is to claim it back and make it attractive once again. Let us be Christian in a way that makes that name something to be proud of rather than ashamed of.
Our record is not all bad. Not by any means. Years ago a former Valley Covenant member named Kathy told our family about going on a mission to Indonesia to help those devastated by the tsunami. Their team was warned not to evangelize, not even to say the name of Jesus for fear they might be deported from the predominantly Muslim area they would serve. Yet as Kathy worked with one young woman, training her to help others in need, that Muslim looked at her and said, “You know, we cannot understand why it is the Christian countries which are helping us. The Muslim countries have not helped us at all.” That’s the kind of brand recognition we want.
“Christian” can be a curse or a blessing. Yes, our name is cursed by many at home and around the world. But you and I have the same call those in Antioch had to live up to our brand. We have the opportunity to change the curse into a blessing. Whenever you take the trouble to meet and get to know someone who is a different color or speaks a different language, you are building our brand. When you sit down to read about Jesus and talk about Him with others, you are strengthening our brand identity. And when you offer help or financial support or encouragement or even a listening ear to someone in need, then the brand that represents Christ our Savior is being advertised to the world.
If you haven’t yet, now would be a great time to take that brand as your own, to trust Jesus as your Savior, to be baptized if you haven’t been and become a Christian. If that brand is already yours, if you call yourself a Christian, now more than ever is the time to let its quality shine, to represent Christ in your own life in all His grace and glory.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj