Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to none except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Greeks also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number that believed turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad; and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a large company was added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians. Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world; and this took place in the days of Claudius. And the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brethren who lived in Judea; and they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
Acts 11: 19-30 (Epistle of the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman)
Christ is Risen!
We know that the Gospels chronicle the earthly ministry and teachings of Jesus Christ. A reading from one of the four Gospels is offered at almost every Divine Service because the ministry and teachings of Christ are the center of our Christian faith.
The Epistles of St. Paul, as well as the other Epistles (James, Peter, John, Jude) are letters to the early churches, with pastoral exhortation, encouragement, and advice for troubleshooting problems. The same issues that have plagued society since the time of the Fall continue to plague our society today. Love was a challenge in the early church—it is still a challenge in the modern church. That’s why we still read from I Corinthians 13 about love, as an example.
The Book of Revelation was placed in the Canon of New Testament Scripture with the provision that it would not be read aloud in church. Centuries ago, before people couldn’t read, no one read this book. Now that people have learned how to read, we see the wisdom of the early church that this book not be read in services, as it is very confusing to most readers.
Which brings us to the Book of Acts. This book was written by St. Luke, as a continuation of his Gospel. It chronicles the establishment of the early church, beginning with the Ascension and Pentecost, and following the ministry of St. Peter (the leader of the Apostles) and later of St. Paul, who was converted to the faith and who with St. Peter is held to be the Paramount of the Apostles.
Much of what is written in Acts gives us not only an insight into the early Church, but a foundation on which our modern churches should conduct themselves. It is no coincidence that the book of Acts is read during the Paschal season. In the season of renewal of our faith, the book of Acts reinforces renewal of our purpose as a church. In the readings from Acts of the previous Sundays of the Paschal season, we read about trust and faith, the basic work of the church, and how God can work through each person. Today brings several new lessons.
The passage begins by recounting the fear that rose over the stoning to death of St. Stephen, and who were now afraid to speak the Word of God to anyone except the Jews. They feared the reaction of the Gentiles. This is a natural reaction to fear is to not take chances. The passage continues that there were certain people from Cyprus and Cyrene who courageously preached the Good News to the Greek as well. God’s hand was with them and protected them from hostility, allowing for the message to take root with them, so that many were believing. The lesson here is the God’s hand goes with those who faithfully teach the Word of God, providing protection and encouragement. And that we should take changes and preach the Word of God to everyone, whether we think they will receive it or reject it.
Word of conversion of Gentiles reached Jerusalem and the Apostles dispatched Barnabas (one of the Seventy Apostles) to Antioch. Barnabas was glad when he came and saw the grace of God at work, and that a large number of people was added to the Lord. One sad lesson from church history is that newcomers to the faith haven’t always been well-received. In fact, in some Orthodox church communities, especially ones that are heavily ethnic, people outside of the dominant ethnic group (Greek, Romanian, Russian, etc.) are not received well. It is feared that outsiders will “dilute the ethnicity.” This comment was actually made to me in the last few weeks, and I serve a community that is not very heavily Greek. So, it is a reality in some of our communities, a sad reality at that. The lesson here is that we should rejoice when people come to Christ, whatever ethnic group they come from. And if non-Greeks join a Greek Orthodox Church, or non-Romanians join a Romanian Orthodox Church, this should be met with joy, not with consternation.
Barnabas, we are told, spend a whole year in this new church community, teaching a large number of people. The lesson here is that we don’t just bring people in for the sake of bringing them in, but we take time to teach them, and people who join the church take time to learn. There have been countless examples of people who have been part of the church for years and lack basic knowledge of the faith. There have also been countless examples of people who have joined the church but have left quickly because they were not embraced. We must embrace visitors and make teaching and learning a priority for everyone, regardless of how long they have been a member.
Finally, when Agabus stood up and foretold that a great famine was going to come over all the world, the disciples got together and organized a relief effort, each one according to his ability. The lesson here is that our church communities are not islands or entities unto themselves. We are part of a greater network of Christian churches, we are part of the city in which our church is located, we are part of a country, and we are connected indeed with all people. Our churches therefore should be set up with ample funds to be sent outside the community—across town or across the world—to help those who are in need.
Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered, and let those who hate Him flee from before His face. Today a sacred Pascha has been revealed to us; a Pascha new and holy, a Pascha mystical, a Pascha all-venerable, Pascha, the Redeemer Christ himself; a Pascha that is blameless, a Pascha that is great, a Pascha of believers, a Pascha that has opened for us the gates of Paradise, a Pascha that sanctifies believers all. (First Praise, Pascha, Trans. by Fr. Seraphim Dedes)
There are many lessons to be learned about church history from the Book of Acts. Let us take those lessons and apply them to our church communities and our Christian lives!