The Church in Antioch
Open Your Bible
Acts 11:1-30, Romans 15:25-28, 1 Peter 4:16-19
There’s a famous experiment from the 1960s called the “blue eyes/brown eyes exercise.” After the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., educator Jane Elliott wanted to help her third-grade class understand the arbitrary nature of discrimination. She divided her all-white classroom into two groups based on eye color but didn’t tell them the purpose behind the experiment. She said that people with blue eyes were smarter and more civilized than brown-eyed people, and gave the blue-eyed students special privileges. The second day, the roles were reversed. On both days, the behavior of the “superior” group of students soured toward their “inferior” classmates. It’s amazing how quickly humans will form our identities around something arbitrary—how fast we embrace the idea of our own superiority.
The early church was not immune to these sins. In Acts 11, we see that while Jewish men and women who had become Christians loved Jesus, they still emphasized their identity as primarily Jews. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit led the apostles to other cities—cities like Antioch, which was full of people who were devoted to their Greek culture and heritage. As more and more Jewish people and more and more non-Jewish people became Christians, the two groups were bound to collide. Concerned that their identity and culture would be watered down, lost, or changed, the Jewish believers began creating litmus tests for new believers, focusing on certain Jewish rites like circumcision and clean eating. You can be a Christian, they said. But first, you have to be Jewish.
With love and gentleness, in today’s reading Peter explains how he came to understand that this was a culturally limited view of what God was doing in the world. He tells them how the Holy Spirit showed him, step by step, that God’s grace is for everyone. New believers do not first have to become Jewish to be followers of Jesus.
Miracles abound in this passage: Peter’s dream, the visitation he had by Conelius, the vast number of people who came to believe in the Lord. But the greatest miracle of all, in my view, was the beautiful response that occurred in the hearts of both Jewish Christians and the non-Jewish Christians in Antioch. The world would have them as enemies. But rather than double-down on their tribal differences, they were called to embrace one another fully.
After hearing Peter’s explanation, Jewish Christians didn’t double down on their beliefs. They became silent, and then “glorified God” (Acts 11:18) Christians in Antioch, when told of the financial and material distress of fellow believers, didn’t sit back idly and let them suffer. They didn’t say “not my people, not my problem.” They moved to action, sending money and food to their Christian brothers and sisters in Judea.
The Lord loves us all, and calls us to love one another without reservation. Praise be to God!