Rev Dan Swaningson, 11-19-17
And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Acts 11
I want to start here by taking a look at the beginnings of the church in Antioch, started as the church finally breaks out of Jerusalem and starts spreading the gospel. This is huge for the church because not only are they about to jump ethnic lines and run smack into the Lord radically saving the dirty gentiles, but they are about to receive a designation that will stick with them forever; Christian.
19 Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. 20 But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.
22 Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch. 23 When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. 24 For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch. Acts 11
Antioch was a very metropolitan city on the Mediterranean, the third largest in the Roman Empire, and a hub where many people from all over the Empire came to trade and even lived. Here the gentiles were introduced to Christ on their own turf for the first time as the message and Spirit of God was spread around the city from the Greek speaking Jews to the Scythians, the barbarians, and the Greeks and could very well be the ones whom Paul was thinking about when he was inspired later to write:
10 and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, 11 where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all. Col 3
Paul and all his fellow Israelites from the church in Jerusalem, from the Apostles to the newest converts, had their eyes open to the fact that Jesus had indeed come for all mankind and was not going to stop pouring out his Spirit, his love and his grace, based on anyone’s ethnicity, culture, knowledge of their scriptures—the law and the prophets. In their brand new believer ignorance, the Antiochans were just as on fire for Jesus as any who had witnessed and experienced the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem just a few months earlier.
Jesus was giving the Jewish disciples a little push in fulfilling the mission he had given them, the go and make disciples of all nations—using what the enemy intended for harm, the persecution of the church in Judea, and revealing himself through the few who were faithful to speak his name to all who would listen, in a pagan city amongst pagans who had only known the strange perverse and violent demands of their pagan gods and the pursuit to fulfill the lusts of the flesh.
It was the first time the gospel had been widely disseminated to a non-Jewish group and so a new designation would organically arise. The followers of Christ up to this point were simply that; Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, what we today call Messianic Jews, amongst themselves they were simply called followers of “the way.” As Jesus had claimed to be the only way to the Father, their God Yahweh, translated in English as I AM.
Now here was a group of non-Jewish Jesus followers, in a different culture speaking a different language, Greek rather than the Aramaic the church in Jerusalem spoke, and so a new name was coined, perhaps even derisively by those who were witnessing their neighbors suddenly get weird.
Kind of like the rise of the derogatory Jesus Freak of the 70’s, when the gospel spread though the Hippie culture and created a whole new movement in the church, giving rise to what we now call the evangelical church. These born again believers in Antioch were the ‘Jesus people’ always spouting off about this one they called the Christ, (Greek for Messiah) thus they became the Christians, which simply means Christ People. A term that has stuck through the centuries of the church.
25 Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. 26 And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
Interesting that this word is only found three times in the Bible, twice in Acts and once in 1 Peter. Perhaps because it was originally spoken in a mocking way. But, those who were bold enough to wear the title with pride, embraced the term, just like I now have a Jesus Freak sticker on my truck.
Christian?So, what does it mean to be a Christian? I had this short phrase; ‘I am Christian’, stuck in my head for a few days so I decided that meant I was supposed to preach on it. We previously spent a few weeks looking at what the church is—all us Christians collectively--so we need to ask the next question, what is a Christian? Obviously we know what that means or we wouldn’t be one, it is one who has confessed Jesus as Lord, believed that he rose from the dead and received him as Savior. In short; a believer in Jesus Christ, the Jesus Christ we find in the Bible who proclaimed if you have seen me you have seen the Father.
But I want to go a little deeper, you know me, I like to get into the psychological and spiritual aspect of things and tie them together with the real world of flesh and bone, because it is who we are and none of these aspects exists without the other—at least not in a healthy way, like our God--we are also triune beings.
So when we make the good confession of faith and have that sudden realization that Jesus is more than just a story in an old book, that he is more than just another religion among many, when we are born again and radically different in the way we think and perceive the world around us, what does that make us? Who is this new person who now says, as people have said for over two thousand years now; “I am Christian.” Or, as they started saying in the Jesus Movement revival of the 70’s; “I am a born again Christian.”
But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:12,13
What Religion are You?I remember back in the 60’s when I was a kid in Minnesota hanging out with a bunch of other kids, I loved growing up in 1960’s small town America, there were kids everywhere and they all spent their time outside together. Playing or having important discussions and pondering questions like the one that got asked one day by someone in our neighborhood group. What religion are you?
It was a question I would hear many times after that at different times. The answers around the circle that day were things like “Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Catholic”—I don’t remember what I answered at that time, I know I picked one of those--I mean, you can’t just say you don’t know what religion you are, right? I’m sure none of us knew what any of those things really meant, it’s just what we heard our parents say, but when you are a kid you can’t let on that you are less than informed on any subject that comes up amongst other kids.
And so later I asked my mother—whom I don’t remember ever having gone to any church at that time, but we had to be something—“What religion am I?” and she said, “well you were baptized in a Methodist church. . . ” —So there you have it; I am a Methodist. It was good to have a religion.
My little sister, never one to be left out, then asked what religion she was, “Well, you were baptized at a Presbyterian church.” So my sister was a Presbyterian. I was sure my religion was better but we were both confused later when my Dad started taking us to a Lutheran church. I guess we were Methalutherterian.
Of course today in our post Christian society of diversity, that question can have a much different response as it went from denominational differences to different gods altogether and in the broader sense the answer simply becomes, “I am Christian.”
Yet, even within the context of the church of Jesus, I am still asked often—when people find out I am a Pastor the next question is always, “Hope Chapel Red Lodge—what kind of church is that?” I always want to say, and sometimes I do just to make a point, “Christian.” Most people in Montana have never heard of Foursquare anyway, and I hate that we even have denominational labels, we all should just be the church, just being able to say “I am Christian” should be all you need to know.
If they press me I say, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Bible believing followers of Jesus.
In reality, just like that first gentile church in Antioch made of those who were walking in sin and hopelessness one day and were filled with the love and power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ the next, I am Christian and I belong to a family of believers that meets in Red Lodge. I just happen to be affiliated with a group of Christian’s called Foursquare at the moment and have chosen them to be held accountable to as a servant under authority of those whom God has called me to answer to.
17 Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. Heb 13:17
That helps keep me out of trouble, and I need that, we all need that, which is why the Lord established the church and appointed some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers—as Eph 4:11 says.
But ultimately we are all accountable to Jesus and his voice must prevail over all. Because, like I said, I am Christian.
I amThe scripture we started with referenced Stephen, the first martyr whose murder opened the floodgates of sanctioned persecution against the church. A description of him as he was about to be stoned sums up for me what it means to be Christian:
54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” Acts 7:54
Stephen knew in his heart, and not even the threat of death could stop him from proclaiming and having joy and peace in the fact that, because he was a believer in Christ, before the term Christian was even coined, that he was saved, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ and that nothing and no one could take that away. His hope was in Christ alone.
That is who we are, at least who we are if we recognize and claim, live in and cling to, the incredible gift that we have been given.
I want to read to you a rundown of what it means to me to be Christian.
I am ChristianI have a peace that cannot be explained or even understood, it is irrational and at times unfounded and seemingly misguided, it can even seem strongest when the world around me is trying it’s best to destroy me.
I have faith in a God that I cannot see, that I cannot prove, yet I have no doubt is real because my spirit bears witness to my heart even when my mind tells me it cannot be.
I have a faith that, like my hope, is made greater by things that should destroy it. Such as when loved ones suffer, when the bills aren’t getting paid and my dreams and plans are not realized. I have a faith in a God who has proven to me time and again that his faithfulness to me is not always dependent on my faith in him.
I am whole, and I feel whole.
I am confused when people are drawn to me even when I don’t feel very friendly and I realize that the light in me shines not by my effort but as a result of him who lives in me.
I am perplexed that my advice is solicited by those whom I don’t think should even care nor believe what I think until I remember that it is the Lord in me that they are being drawn to, not me. I am often annoyed by this when my flesh is telling me I shouldn’t care nor consider it any of my business but my heart tells me that I love them and the spirit tells me I must and rejoices when I act on it.
I am unconcerned and even a bit expectant as the days ahead of me no doubt outnumber the days behind me because I am unafraid to die, my heart knowing that what lies ahead will be wonderful and exciting even while my mind demands to know the answers to what exactly does lie ahead. My spirit tells me; ‘focus on today and your reward will be great and your mind will have forever to explore the questions to all the answers you seek and more than you can ever imagine.’
Despite the question, today I have a clarity of thought and presence that can only come from the completeness of my being in its joining to the living God.
I am the Temple of the Holy Spirit of God.
I am not an adherent to, nor a member of, a religion, I am a child of God and he calls me son.
I am hopeful, I am loved, I am free.
I Am a follower of the one who claimed to be, and is, I AM.
And God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:14
57 Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?”
58 Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” John 8:57,58
I am Christian, and all that is just the tip of the iceberg.
RelationshipThere is a phrase in there that I think is the key to what it means to be Christian; I am not an adherent to, nor a member of a religion, I am a child of God and he calls me son.
In short, as I and more than likely you have also said at some point in answer to a challenge to your religion; “I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship.” That is what makes this so real, that is what makes this more than just a game of chance—“Hope I picked the right religion.”--more than a set of rituals and rules, more than just an ancient book full of timeless wisdom and confusing theology, more than a place to meet or a group to meet with, more than just some cosmic unseen, unknown power that makes decisions and rules in a vacuum separated and unknowable, it is more than just an aligning of powers brought to bear in our lives by material icons and elements that take on a mystical power when properly manipulated and respected--IT IS NONE OF THOSE THINGS.
It is a relationship with a very real, very knowable and personal God who loves you, knows you intimately and desires nothing more than to be with you and for you to desire to be with him and is proud to have you bear his name, Christian.
22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to Him, “Lord, how is it that You will manifest Yourself to us, and not to the world?”
23 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. John 14:22,23
Being a Christian isn’t hoping that we are good enough to get our new home in heaven someday, being a Christian is knowing that the God of heaven has made his home with, and in, us. Now if that isn’t the basis for a relationship, then God is just wasting his time hanging around in you. If you have believed and received Jesus as your Lord and Savior, he is there wanting to guide you, to fulfill you, empower you, to not just make you whole, but to make you feel whole, to shine through you even when you don’t feel very shiny.
You need to have the Spirit released in you to do those things by asking him to baptize you with his Spirit and if you have done that, then stop doubting and start listening. You are Christian.
Stop trying so hard to be perfect and be loved, stop trying so hard to earn grace and start living in it, stop trying to live up to a standard that cannot be attained in the flesh, and live for the Spirit who is all of those things for you and will help you to overcome all of those hang ups, if you’ll just let him, stop trying so hard, stop beating yourself up and talk to the man.
A little time spent with the Lord now and then goes a long ways, much farther than sheer will power no matter how disciplined and determined, ever will. Because be honest, the flesh wins out much more than any of us would like to admit and my will power lasts about as long as it take to say the words, will power.
But if I set my eyes on Jesus, if I spend time in his word, talking to him in prayer, worshiping him in song with the congregation of the saints, seeking those whom I can bless and not seeking to be blessed, if I stop and listen, believing that he will speak to me and acknowledge when he does, when I am seeking his face, I forget about the flesh and find that I didn’t need will power, I just needed Jesus. Because I don’t have a religion.
A religion is a set of disciplines that are supposed to bring us closer to godliness by earning his favor. A relationship is becoming disciplined because we have his favor, and he walks with us and directs our steps, one step at a time, and helps us up when we stumble, because that’s what a Father does.
I Am HereNovember 15th, 1978. I am 17 years old and sitting on a Greyhound bus looking out the window at the Montana winter landscape as I head west to the far away mountains near Anaconda. I am scared to death, leaving behind my family, my school, my dog, my childhood. I am headed to Job Corps to learn a trade and I will spend the next 18 months with two hundred other guys from all over the country and a handful of crotchety old guys who are trying to mold me into a productive member of society.
But on this bus trip I don’t have any idea what I am getting into, all I know is that I am going far from home to learn how to run heavy equipment in a place that will force me to figure out who I am real quickly as I am no longer the big brother to my two sisters and a son to my mother, I am now just ‘Swaningson from Billings’, a place most in the Anaconda Job Corps have never been. Actually I was more often called “Swanigen.”
I remember clearly the thought that consoled me and gave me courage as I watched the landscape fly by taking me farther and farther from home. I thought, ‘I am not alone, I have Jesus in my heart and I know he is watching over me.’ I knew that, I had long since gotten over wondering what religion I was, turns out I was not a Methodist after all, I was not a Lutheran nor was I whatever that crazy church was that my uncle had brought me to a couple times where they sat in folding chairs in an empty store space in a strip mall and sang really loud repetitive songs led by 3 piece band with guitars and a drum set and who seemed way too enthusiastic about finding out all about me.
I was now just a Christian. I had found Jesus, by reading about him in the Bible when I was 14. It just clicked one day as I was reading the through the gospels that Jesus was real, not just a myth—one of many crazy Bible story characters made up to scare kids into being good—and somehow I just knew that I was going to heaven when I died. Later I was coerced into asking Jesus into my heart by another uncle who dragged me on stage at the end of a Lowell Lundstrum concert, but I knew I was asking Jesus to do something he had already done, to forgive my sins and come into my heart.
But though I knew that Jesus knew me, I didn’t really know him, I didn’t have a relationship with him, and certainly not with the Father. Then, a year or so after that bus rude, lying in bed in the middle of a cold dark Anaconda night surrounded by a dorm room full of sleeping guys, I was having a meltdown. I had survived these last many months here in this place, establishing and discovering myself and I had the respect of my peers. I was now Swany; I was doing well in the welding and Heavy Equipment programs and had set a record high score on my GED test— but I was melting down.
I had never felt so alone, so anxious, so out of sorts and desperate, feelings I know now were a full frontal assault of the clinical depression I had inherited from my mother, at the time I didn’t know what it was, and it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I did, naming a feeling or a malady doesn’t make it go away.
So I laid there in bed on the cold dark winter night unable to sleep and desperately praying in my mind to the God whom just a few weeks earlier I had asked to baptize me with the Holy Spirit after I had heard about that in a bible study group I had latched on to, I wasn’t really sure what that was about but I had received a prayer language and that proved to me that God really was with me. But I still didn’t really know him.
So I prayed, no doubt in my new tongue as well, I was praying for something to change, something to give, I didn’t know what it was or what I needed but I knew I needed something and I needed it now or I was going to explode, just little pieces of me all over the walls that hemmed me in in this frozen wasteland.
Then I heard, in my mind, a voice, a gentle voice that sounded like my own thoughts but I knew didn’t come from me: “I am your Father, and I am here with you.” Let me tell you, at that point my life changed forever. I grew up mostly removed from my dad by divorce and distance, and I had always sought out the attention of any man who would give me any as I longed for a father, as any child does, especially a boy.
But not only did I realize at that moment that I had a father who was with me, at that very moment, he was God, and he cared enough about me to speak to me, and because he had baptized me with his Spirit, I was able to hear him. I don’t know how or why it works that way but it does and thank you Jesus for that.
At that point I no longer had a religion, I was not just a Christian, I was a son, I now had a relationship with the Father though his Son Jesus Christ facilitated by his Spirit. Now you can spend the rest of your life trying to understand all the theology behind that or you can just realize as I did at that instant in my darkest hour— I am not alone, I am truly not alone, nor will I ever be.
I do not have a religion, I have a relationship.
I slept the sleep of the righteous that night and woke up with a peace like I had never known. The Lord saved me from my own mind that night, overriding whatever had short circuited, tweaking whatever chemical imbalance or deceptions of the enemy were messing with me and gave me a peace that passes all understanding. Nothing changed in my circumstance, I was still stuck in this institution that was run like a cross between a prison and boot camp, but I was free and full of joy.
I wish I could say that I continued walking in the freedom and the joy he gave me that night for the rest of my life but I used my freedom to get ensnared by drugs and alcohol, eventually falling back into despair. But this time there was something different, all the time the Lord was talking to me, ‘come back, this is not the way to live, I have something so much better.’ I didn’t believe him, what could be better than partying and being the cool guy, he just wants to ruin my fun.
At 23 I found out, when I cried out again to my Father on another desperate winter night and he ran to me, embraced me, and set me free, this time asking me to not only know him, but to also trust him. I did and I do. I am far from perfect but I am never far from my God and he has never left me nor forsaken me.
I am Christian. I am home.
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. Luke 15:20