Tag Archives: Learning

First in Antioch


Ancient Roman road in Syria which connected Antioch and Chalcis. Credit: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia

Ancient Roman road in Syria which connected Antioch and Chalcis
Credit: Bernard Gagnon via Wikimedia

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch. Acts 11: 26.

I have referred more than once to my early ministry on the Moray Firth. One of my first discoveries: menfolk are better known by their nickname than by their Christian name. I was told that the community in which I lived was known for miles around for its ingenious way of giving boys “tee-names” by which they were known to their dying day. A tradition that could never surpass that of another place with a fondness for nicknames. The city of Antioch in the days of the early church enjoyed the reputation of being rather clever in the way they doled them out. And it was at Antioch that the disciples first received the name of Christian. A name that was used in contemptuous ridicule. Literally, it means these Christ-people. But to appreciate the impact of it we have to imagine it spat out, venomously, as the words were spoken, “these Christ-people! “ A name we are proud to own today, often maligned but transformed by the lives and witness of Christians – from contempt to respect.

The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch, but it was Jesus who named them Disciples! In the gospels it is the word most commonly used for a follower of Jesus. He said, “whoever does not come after me cannot be my disciple”, and to be a disciple is to be a Learner. Jesus called them to follow Him and named them disciples; learners. We are followers, not hangers-on…Jesus leads us on a pilgrimage like the one on which Abram the Old Testament patriarch embarked when, at God’s call, he left home not knowing where or how the journey would end, but ever pressing onward, constantly looking for new directions. If that is the road we take, it requires in us a humility and obedience which accepts that until the journey’s end we may not have all the answers and so we can never stop learning. It does not mean there are no circumstances in which we can be certain. We are close to heresy if, for example, we relegate the teaching of Jesus to mere speculation, or stumbling and faltering guesswork. Jesus prefaced his teaching with the words, “truly I say to you” and those who heard were amazed and overwhelmed by the marvellous assurance of it. “The people,” says Matthew, “were astonished because he spoke with such authority.” No point in following if we are not prepared to believe what Jesus says about life, about love, about God, aye, about sin! But it does require in us a respect and tolerance (a scarce commodity in some circles) to accept that sometimes, because discipleship is an ongoing learning experience, we have to acknowledge that some of our fellow travellers with a different understanding may be right and we may be wrong! Blind dogmatism is too often mistaken for assurance and certainty. “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch,” but it was Jesus who called them disciples = learners. Living with him every day, watching how he handled all sorts of situations, listening to his private conversations and his public utterances, being privy to his dreams and aspirations, witnessing his tears and marvelling at his love for his heavenly father, those disciples would come to know and understand to what they were committed and what was expected of them to become like him, true men of God.

So the followers of Jesus were nicknamed in Antioch. It is a name that has stuck, a name that is honoured in spite of some very clever people’s endeavours to eradicate Christianity (and all other religions) and to establish a secular and humanist society in which the kingdom of God is a mere fairy tale. Why has this nickname, given all those years ago, survived the onslaughts of opposition and persecution? When Ignatius, an early Christian father, was on his way to Rome to be martyred he wrote, “Let me not merely be called a Christian, but be found as one.” The answer to our question, our prayer and promise for today and tomorrow.

That was yesterday

Traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset 1999 Image credit: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia

Traditional qamutik (sled), Cape Dorset 1999
Image credit: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia

He had a story to tell. Our minister thought the youth fellowship should hear it. After all, you did not often get the chance to meet someone who has lived and worked with Eskimo people. When our guest concluded his story, he took questions. An opportunity not to be missed and the inevitable question: “Is it true the Eskimos rub noses instead of kissing?” Yes! They actually press the tip of their noses together. What other option was there? In the extreme cold climate only the eyes and the nose were exposed to the elements – Americans resorted to the same custom during the big freeze at the turn of the year. One important lesson – many of the people would be insulted to be called Eskimo today. They are the Inuit people and it is important to remember it.

We learned something else that evening. The Inuit people lived by the principle of never carrying the day’s evil experiences, its troubles or its quarrels, over into the next day. Two of them might be engaged in a violent dispute, heated words spoken and blows exchanged. And if it took place late into the evening, the night would usually erase the quarrel, and next day they greeted each other like lost brothers. If someone were to exclaim, “I thought you were enemies – you were fighting last night!” back would come the answer: “But that was yesterday!” There is a challenge for us, a great way to meet life – to be able to say, “but that is past; that is forgotten; that belongs to yesterday.” Early in a New Year could be an opportune time to examine the pattern our lives have taken in the light of the Inuit’s daunting philosophy. What a wonderful and tremendous difference it would make if we were capable and willing to follow the Inuit dictum: that was yesterday. Think globally; think nationally; think personally; it is mind-blowing – “forgetting what is behind and straining to what is ahead, I press on . . . .”

Of course there are things we cannot forget, things we must not forget however much we would rather forget them. It gets my back up and I get tired of hearing it, that statement so often made by news-readers, police, government ministers, chief executives. There are lessons to be learned. Sometimes it appears to slip off the tongue with professional ease! A statement which attempts to respond to criticism, by public, media or politicians, of an unhappy state of affairs, of mistakes made in the public domain, etc. Now I cannot disagree that mistakes are made, that events can take an unsatisfactory twist requiring an assurance that the confession is more than an attempt to get off the hook, more than an empty promise. And in every avenue of life, personal or collective, there will be things we must not forget until the lessons they contain are well and truly learned. The Christian and the church are not excluded.

What I say is this, forgetting what is behind and straining to what is ahead, I press towards the finishing line to win the heavenly prize to which God has called me in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:13-14