19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. 24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.
Fair weather fans are the worst type of fans. They only root for their team, when their team is doing well. For them being a fan is more about looking good in the moment, rather than loyalty for the long haul. Fair weather fans may be the worst type of fans, but they are not easy to spot. You have to know the person for a few cycles of good and bad sports seasons to begin to see that they only care about their team during the good times, but quickly abandon hope during the bad years. The followers of Jesus who traveled to Antioch in our first lesson for today from Acts 11, were not fair weather fans. The people of Antioch could tell that they were in it for the long haul as Christians because they wanted to tell them about Jesus.
The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. The Christians in Antioch changed history. Their passion for Jesus Christ was so apparent in their lives that they were called Christians. They may have held the honor of being called Christians, but their path to Antioch was not one for fair weather fans. In Acts 11, we heard that the Christians were traveling to Antioch because they were
“scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed.”
Stephen was one of seven leaders in the early church in Jerusalem chosen to help distribute food and aid fairly among the people. Many times, Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,” which made the church love him and the enemies of the church hate him.
The jealously among leaders in the Synagogue of the Freedmen, Acts 6, became so great that they plotted to kill Stephen. The leaders stirred up the people against Stephen by falsely accusing him of blasphemy. The uproar against him became so great that he was put on trial before the Jewish leadership. On trial before their high priest, Stephen explained the history of God’s people from Abraham to Moses and to the exile in Babylon. Stephen accused the high priest and the others of having the same hard hearts as the Israelites of the past that turned away from faith in God. Stephen’s accusations were right, but the leaders didn’t want to hear what he had to say, so they took him outside the city walls and stoned him to death.
Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria… and 3 Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
About seven or eight years after Stephen’s death and the persecution against the church in Jerusalem began, our reading from Acts 11 picks up with these words,
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews.
You can imagine that the believers who fled Jerusalem wanted to be cautious as they moved into new cities. They were refugees now wondering if they were going to be persecuted again in their new cities when people found out they were followers of Christ.
The believers who settled in the city of Antioch faced unique challenges. Antioch was a thriving metropolis filled with all the glory and gloom you might expect to find in a large city today, like Houston. Antioch like Houston, was close to the ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, allowing for its port city of Seleucia to bring in all kinds of trade. The city also thrived on fashion, the arts and luxury, which also brought with it all the corruption, vices and immorality that the Greek culture could muster. The believers who settled in Antioch faced the challenging balance of doing business with people in a broken culture of entitlement and perversion and loving the same people enough to share Jesus with them as their only way to be saved and set free from sin and God’s punishment.
Christians have always faced unique challenges throughout history because the world hates Jesus. Stephen was stoned to death because he tried to share Jesus with the Jews in Jerusalem. Then, the persecution that followed the death of Stephen drove Christians to flee from Jerusalem. These two events are examples of active persecution. You and I don’t often face active persecution as Christians living in America, rather we face a more subtle, passive persecution like they faced in Antioch.
The opposition to Christians in Jerusalem wanted them death, but in Antioch and America, the opposition simply lives as if Christians were already dead. In most places, even when a person does not believe in God, the term God is still able to evoke a sense of fear and reverence, but when a culture makes themselves into gods, there is no room to care about anyone else, even God. Much of America now lives in a virtual world on Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook in which they try to live up to unrealistic standards of wealth, beauty and understanding. Thus, this culture that we live in has set up two temptations for us as Christians. On the one hand, we fall into the trap of the world and are working to create our own kingdom filled with worshipers…oh, I mean followers. Or, on the other hand, we work to completely shut ourselves off from the world and only interact with fellow believers.
However, our second lesson from 1 John 4, makes it clear how believers from any generation are to live.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
If you have fallen into the trap of loving yourself and this world more than God, you are in danger. At the same time, if you say that you love God, but do not love one another, then you may not love God as much as you think you do. All of us are guilty of these temptations and sins, but what can we do to fix it?
We cannot fix our sins, nor can we fix this sinful world. Instead, it is God’s love for us that saves us. 1 John 4 continued to say,
9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.
Our sins and the sins of the world have been paid for through Jesus. He sacrificed himself for all people. Jesus died for the sins of those who put him on the cross and stoned Stephen to death, as well as for the sins of Abraham, Moses and his disciples. Jesus loves all of us and wants all of us to be saved. And Paul wrote in Romans 10:14,
“how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”
The unbelieving world may hate Jesus, but we still want to tell them about Jesus.
After a while, it’s easy to spot fair weather fans because they stop talking about their team during a losing streak, but true fans are always talking about their team. In our reading from Acts 11, we heard that
20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.”
The cities of Cyprus and Cyrene are separated from the city of Antioch by the Mediterranean Sea. There was literally and ocean separating these people, but they came to Antioch to share Jesus. The deep love the believers from Cyprus and Cyrene had for God drove them to share Jesus with those who hadn’t heard of him.
The passion these people had to share the message of Jesus reminds me of the passion of some sports fans. It is amazing how bold fans can be for their teams. My favorite situation is when a person moves to a new state and continues to root for their old sports team. The loyalty among true sports fans runs deep. And even though most have plenty of clothing and stickers on their vehicles to represent, even if they didn’t, most of us would still know they are fans because they are always talking about their team.
You have a team that is better than anything you’ll find on a field, court or in a dugout. In our gospel reading from John 15, Jesus said,
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.”
Jesus chose to give you faith in him and he also sends you out to share that message with others. A message so powerful, it can change the hearts of those who hate Jesus and persecute the church.
When Stephen was stoned, we heard that a young man named Saul was there who approved of his death and began to persecute the believers himself. The same Saul, was brought to faith by Jesus and is now known as Paul, the greatest missionary that ever lived. And when the news of all those coming to faith in Antioch began to spread, Barnabas brought Paul to see for himself. And Paul and Barnabas stayed to teach them for a whole year.
People love their sports teams, but no one likes a fair weather fan. You and I are not just fans of Jesus, we believe in him. He put us on the winning side by giving up his life to save us. There are no off seasons with Jesus because he won the battle once and for all on the cross. When the world tries to make you a fair weather believer and turn you back to unbelief, return to the Word of God to hear what Jesus has done for you. When you are in the Word, God strengthens your faith and fills you up with love to share the good news with others. I pray that the people you talk with this week at work or school and with family and friends, they will call you Christians because you want to tell them about Jesus. Amen.