…it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’ (Acts 11:19)
Perhaps the order of events in these passages is significant. First, Peter is led by the Holy Spirit to welcome Gentiles into the church. Arguably, Cornelius is not the first Gentile Christian – that honour belongs to the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch. But this is still a key moment in the spread of the gospel. Through Philip, some Samaritans have already come to faith, and Peter and John have helped to teach them. But the Samaritans were seen as heretical Jews more than as Gentiles. Now God is taking the church a step further, and he has to make it very clear to Peter that this is the way things are to be. The vision of all foods being declared clean has to come to him four times before he’s ready for the knock on the door from Cornelius’ servants.
It’s hard for us to imagine now what a momentous step this was for Peter. His whole religious background before meeting Jesus was based on the special status of Israel, and the need to keep her boundaries strong. Now he found that God accepts and loves people of all nations who fear him and do what is right. Admittedly this is early in the developing understanding of the gospel, but the natural reading of the text seems to imply a very broad vision of God’s accepting love, not one that depends on particular belief.
Anyway, we never find out, because God sends the Holy Spirit before Peter has finished the sermon, and the gospel is now moving out to the nations – and to most of us.
Saul may have changed completely since he held the coats of those who killed Stephen, but the effects of that day are still ringing out – Christians have scattered, and though they fled for safety, they carried with them a message of God’s love through Jesus.
When that message takes root in Antioch, Barnabas brings Saul to teach with him there. And there the disciples are first called by the name we are honoured to bear – ‘Christians’. The church is no longer a Jewish sect. It is now a community open to all, in the name of Jesus. And we bear his name with pride, not just because we follow him, but because we share in his life and relationship to God. We are not just those who remember and honour Jesus, we are, together, Christ to the world.
We are Christians. And we delight in that name!