Singer Johnny Cash made famous, the words of Shel Silverstein,
“Well, my daddy left home when I was three and he didn’t leave very much to my ma and me except this ole guitar and an empty bottle of booze. Now I don’t blame him ’cause he run and hid but the meanest thing that my daddy ever did was before he left he went and named me Sue.”
Names are an interesting beast, they can be inspirational or they can be a burden. We can let a name doom us or use it can be the power that successfully propels us onto our path.
Marion Robert Morrison, is, among other things, famous for quotes such as, “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway. All battles are fought by scared men who’d rather be some place else.” Nicknamed ‘Duke’ as a child by a local fireman who never saw the boy without his dog ‘Duke’. Marion was grateful that the name stuck His first credited movie role, listed him as ‘Duke Morrison’ and then the studio changed the name to ‘John Wayne.’ While this new name was a good fit, the name ‘The Duke’ nickname stuck with Wayne throughout his life.
Frank and Gail Zappa named their four offspring Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet and Diva. Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Chris Marten named their child Apple. Names such as Rocket, Busy, Cricket, Racer, Gravity, and Rumor, leave most of us scratching our heads. As personalities form, names can be redefined by the named. Nick names are frequently assigned when the name never adequately fits a persona.And, often, names are given out of hatefulness.
When my dad got his first job he had to go to the local Social Security office. When he told the clerk his name was Bobby Gene Anthony, she sternly corrected him saying, ‘You mean Robert!’. To which he said, ‘Okay’.
Groups of people are given names as well, these unofficial names are usually formed from some identifying mark of this group – and, these names are often offensive and hateful. Sometimes, these unflattering or mocking names, meant to be and insult, become a badge of honor to the recipients This was the story in the city of Antioch where the believers were given the condescending name ‘Christian.’
A little history – The Greek Emperor on the throne 300 years before Jesus was named Seleucus I. Selecus built 15 cities and named them all after his dad – ‘Antioch.’ The city of Antioch in Acts 11 was designated the ‘Syrian Antioch,’ and it was located about 300 miles north of Jerusalem. It was here, in this Antioch, that the name Antioch, became synonymous with successful business ventures but carrying a strong taint of immorality.
A couple of weeks ago we looked at the Holy Spirit descending upon a gentile leader named Cornelius, as well as his gentile community. This was a man, and community, who had been diligently seeking God. There was an intense desire in their pursuit of God. However, when the Spirit came to the gentiles in Antioch it was descending on a truly Pagan, immoral, and evil city.
This group of new believers in Antioch began to grow and the pagan community began to notice. There is a familiar thread between the community of believers in in the Holy city of Jerusalem and this new community of faith in Antioch, a city in which even the actual religious practices to worship the false gods was immersed in the identical immorality found elsewhere in the city. In both places believers were not considered ‘acceptable’ so thy kept a low profile, working not to bring attention to themselves individually or as a group. Secondly, in both faith communities there was an underlying love for each other that consistently presented in acts of personal sacrifice and through their attention to the needs present within their faith community. There was also, in both churches, a fervent personal drive to know, understand, and apply truth to their lives, their opinions, and their beliefs.
The differences between the two groups is significant as well. The believers in Jerusalem had a religious foundation that was instrumental in bringing them to an acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. They had absorbed the historical teachings about God from the books of Moses, and, they had the historical and prophetic words from the prophets about the coming Jesus. Basically, they possessed the understanding of the road map that brought them from Creation to Promise to Deliverance to Hope to Redemption to Life. The gentiles, however, had been brought up with the ever changing and constantly evolving worship of false gods, rulers who saw themselves as divine, and religious practices which ranged from fleshly lasciviousness to fearful sacrifices to egotistical mandates to brutal practices. While their religious foundations were very different, both groups had to sort through past traditions, ungodly beliefs, and ingrained institutional manipulation and political agendas in order to find truth.
There was one major difference however that must be said. The gentiles knew the names of all their gods and would learn the names of the new gods as soon as needed. The Jewish believers had no real name for God, there were many references to God usually based on attributes, there were names that were not fully spoken out of reverence, but, when God was asked, ‘What is your name?’ God could only say ‘I Am.’ He was, he is, he has always been, he will forever be – GOD.
Up to this moment in Antioch there had been the Jews and there had been the Gentiles. Now there was the third group, a people who had no name. The religious institution gave them the name ‘annoying and dangerous’, the gentiles saw them as a conundrum. Those that joined the group called them family, the gentile leaders called them suspicious.
Eventually, in Antioch, this pagan city known best for its immorality, the followers of Jesus were given the name Christian. It was a name meant to be derogatory and shameful but to these newly named Christians it was perfect.
In latin, the ‘ian’ ending means ‘the party of…’, adding ‘Ian’ to ‘Christ’ you end up at the word meaning ‘the party of Christ.’ This was meant to be a name intended to be condescending and hateful, but to believers it was the opposite. To have this city – Antioch, recognize this group in reference to Jesus, their Savior, was not only not taken as a slight or insult, but ironically it was seen by the followers as a badge of honor. This title of ‘Jesus People’ was not only accepted by the newly names Christians, it became a self identifier, ‘we are Christians – the party of Christ, Jesus people.’ It was the defining moment, in the defining place, where this people first became a ‘people.’
This people, these followers of the God who had no name because no name could define or fit, this people, now had a perfectly fitting name – ‘Christian.’
A name that…
· Fit the words of the prophets.
· Set the bar for their goals and aspirations.
· Rested on the perfection of their deliverer even in their imperfect state.
· Laid out the nature and character of God.
· Constantly placed mercy, compassion, peace, and hope within their reach.
· Voiced the expectations of a world toward a people immersed in grace.
· It affirmed the work of the Spirit in their lives.
So, what became of this group of people named Christians in a city most in need of the man named Christ? They sought out the former persecutor of Christians and trusted God’s transformation change to work in him. These believers, in this pagan city, heard of a coming famine for the Holy City Jerusalem, and began strategizing how they could help. In the midst of ridicule and dismissal they pursued peace, love, mercy, grace, and hope. This people who were incorrectly defined by this name ‘Antioch’ were correctly labeled – ‘Christian.’ A name that set the bar for their lives in their world, the way they interacted with all, the way they walked the way that responded, the way they cared. A name that defined their mercy, compassion, their hope, their peace, their Savior.
The famous early church historian Eusebius, described a believer named Sanctus from Lyons, France, who was tortured for Jesus. As they tortured him cruelly, they hoped to get him to say something evil or blasphemous. They asked his name, and he only replied, “I am a Christian.” “What nation do you belong to?” He answered, “I am a Christian.” “What city do you live in?” “I am a Christian.” His questioners began to get angry: “Are you a slave or a free man?” “I am a Christian” was his only reply. No matter what they asked about him, he only answered, “I am a Christian.” This made his torturers all the more determined to break him, but they could not, and he died with the words “I am a Christian” on his lips.
Those that were the first to receive the label ‘Christian’ probably embraced the name with a certain honor, humility, fear, and concern. To be labeled is to be identified which was still dangerous. To officially be recognized also usually led to the creation of an institution, the adoption of symbols and icons, and ultimately the corruption of the leaders and people. They were not wrong. Within less than half a century the name of Christianity was used to attack enemies, to manipulate and control minds, and even to force interpretations of God’s word on believers.
But, for that moment in Antioch, this unnamed and unbranded group, was named by those who had watched the ways the members of this group lived. Their single minded focus on the crucified man named Jesus could not be ignored. Their peace in the midst of fear, their unity in the midst of chaos, their mercy in the midst of subjugation, their compassion in the midst of attack, their love in the midst of hatred all revealed their God, the God of grace, the God of love, the God who does not have a name because no name can define or fully describe.
We however have a name, a name given not chosen, a name that carries a huge weight, a weight that Jesus says, in the end, is light and not heavy.
How are you living out your name ‘Christian’?