The Two Antiochs

St Stephens, 13/05/01

If you go by road to Oxford, you may be surprised to see a signpost, not far from Oxford itself, which points to somewhere called "Sydenham". A mile or so afterwards there's another sign which points to a place called "Forest Hill".

Don't worry! Two bits of Lewisham haven't suddenly been miraculously transported into rural Oxfordshire. There just happens to be two places of the same name there. Not at all unusual in fact. There are at least half a dozen different Newports and twice as many Whitchurches scattered randomly about the United Kingdom.

Did you notice that there were two different Antiochs mentioned in the first reading this morning? One was Antioch in Pisidia where Paul and Barnabas went on their first Missionary Journey. That Antioch lies about a hundred miles north of the Mediterranean coastline in what is now called Turkey.

The other Antioch mentioned in the lesson is the one in Syria, which lies right on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, and it was from that Antioch that the two apostles, Paul and Barnabas set out on their first missionary journey, and it was back to that Antioch, as we heard at the end of this morning's reading that they came home to "give an account of all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith to the pagans". So there's nothing at all odd about the fact that Paul and Barnabas set out from one Antioch, travelled to another and returned to Antioch at the end of their journey, even though the two Antiochs were the best part of four hundred miles apart from each other as the crow flies and a good deal further by road and sea.

However, Antioch in Syria and Antioch in Pisidia weren't just two different places. Their respective Christian Churches were very different from each other too.

The older of the two, the Church at Syrian Antioch had existed for many years before Paul and Barnabas arrived on the scene. There had been a flourishing Church there from very early times, and it was there, you may remember, that the disciples were first called "Christians".

By contrast, Antioch in Pisidia was very, very new. It had come into being as a result of Paul and Barnabas visiting that city a few weeks before and, as we heard in last Sunday's reading from Acts, how their preaching had been so decisively rejected by the Jews in the local synagogue that they decided as a matter of policy to waste no more time on them but to turn their attention to the non-Jews, or Gentiles, as they were called.

Whereupon, St Luke tells us in Acts, the Jews worked on some of the devout women of the upper classes and the leading men of the city and persuaded them to expel Paul and Barnabas. Following Jesus's instructions they shook the dust of that city off their feet and went off elsewhere.

So the churches in the two Antiochs could hardly have been more different from each other. Syrian Antioch's church was secure, well-known, its members were called Christ-people or Christians, and it was wealthy and go-ahead enough to be able to pay for Paul and Barnabas to go on their first missionary journey as the Holy Spirit directed them.

Pisidian Antioch, on the other hand, was very, very new. It was in constant danger of being persecuted out of existence, and we may be quite sure that the persecutions didn't cease just because Paul and Barnabas had gone away. When they returned, a few weeks or months later, St Luke tells us that "they put fresh heart into the disciples, encouraging them to persevere in the faith. "We all have to experience many hardships" they said "before we enter the kingdom of God". And "in each of these churches Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, and with prayer and fasting they commended them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe".

But now, having noted the difference between the two Antioch churches, let us look at their striking similarities.

In both places the Book of Acts tells us, those who were regular worshippers did three things: They prayed, they fasted, and they commissioned people to be elders, paying their expenses to do the work which they had chosen them to do. In other words, they practised what is sometimes called the Three Notable Duties of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving.

There isn't time this morning to go into any detail of how we should practise these three Notable Duties. But it needs to be said that those churches where such things are taken seriously there will tend to be lively and growing parts of the Body of Christ on Earth.

Where these duties are neglected or practised only in a haphazard way, one of two things will happen.

In such places as Pisidian Antioch, where there is open persecution of Christians, the people who have given up on practising the three Notable Duties will simply give up everything else as well, abandon the struggle, throw in the towel and stop going to Church altogether.

In places like comfortable, suburban, well-heeled Syrian Antioch, when the Notable Duties start to be neglected, the church will become just another social club for those who enjoy religion in the way that others like playing golf or bridge or cricket. It will produce neither ordinands, missionaries nor martyrs and, more seriously, if persecution should fall upon it, its people will disappear even quicker than they will from their daughter church in Pisidian Antioch. Why? Because they never expected that they would have to "suffer many things before they entered the kingdom of God". Grace that has been obtained cheaply is never valued as much as that which has been won through costly self-sacrifice.

So in the two Antiochs we have examples of different kinds of Church. There's no reason for supposing that God the Holy Spirit is any less or more involved with wealthy, secure, confident Syrian Antiochs of this world than with the relatively new and materially less well-to-do mission church in Pidisia, or vice versa.

The truth is that by steadfastly persevering with the Three Notable Duties of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving, and by being ready to suffer patiently under whatever persecutions might happen to them, both the two Antiochene churches grew in numbers, in confidence and in holiness, to the extent that, within a few years everyone both in Pisidia and Syria knew perfectly well what Christians believe (whether or not they believed it themselves), but also could tell at a glance which of their neighbours was upholding the "faith once delivered to the saints" and which was not.

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