Learning together to discern the will of God”: the first Christians were confronted with this challenge from the beginning. Indeed, “learning together to discern the will of God” is not mere wishful thinking! It is not a comfortable process. In fact, it is the major challenge of Christian life; of our personal lives as well as those of our local congregations.
To consider this challenge, I suggest returning to a fundamental moment in time, an original moment: the time when the disciples were called Christians: “The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch” (Acts 11:26).
To my great surprise, reading and meditating on this episode in the history of the church would force me to question what I believed I knew. This shift came when I observed that the period in which the name “Christian” was given to believers was anything but idyllic. It was not so much the context of persecution – or “distress” as described in the text – that was the most dangerous threat to the emerging Christian church. No, the most surprising thing for me was to realize that this beautiful moment, this moment when they received a “name,” moreover including the name of Christ, corresponded in reality to a situation wherein the major threat for the new believers was one of division, that of internal division.
On one hand, there is the community of Jerusalem, the mother community, the oldest and culturally Jewish. On the other, there is the Antioch community: culturally Greek and a younger and more dynamic community with greater growth and more visible fruit! So, on one side there are those who proclaim the Word exclusively to the Jews, and on the other side, those who proclaim the good news to the pagans, the Greeks.
Two styles: the elders close to tradition, and the younger ones, without a doubt more inventive and with greater freedom!
Thus, two ways of being and two evangelistic projects. In such a situation, how can they continue to learn together? How can they discern the will of God together?
From the beginning, the first Christians were painfully confronted with this challenge. We can apply this to our situation today: What do the Mennonites of present-day Europe – where Anabaptism first got started – have in common with the Mennonites of other continents, with the younger and more dynamic churches?
Let’s return to our story of the Acts of the Apostles: what are the reasons that schism did not take place, at least not at that moment, even though all the ingredients of division were present? What were the steps taken in the process of discernment?
First, we notice that the mother church (that of Jerusalem) chooses to send a man, Barnabas, who is not a high-profile individual, at least not then. It is the attitude of this man that is the decisive factor and will make the bonds unity possible: “When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all…” (Acts 11:23)
So, Barnabas first begins by taking time to observe, not scrutinizing with judgment, but rather with a gaze of amazement. He is not afraid of newness! Without a doubt he saw all the risks that this young, dynamic community was facing, all the potential deviations, and rightly so, since otherwise Jerusalem would not have sent him. But his first impression is one of amazement of what he sees the other is experiencing, giving thanks for the fruits others are bearing.
This is the first step in the process: to have a vision of kindness and admiring the good in the other, the good in the church of the other. Wouldn’t the relationships between our countries and different cultures change if we dared to admire the other? Are Westerners ready to appreciate what is happening elsewhere and learn from others? Are we ready for this conversion of our perspectives?
Once again, let us return to our story! Barnabas is not blissfully optimistic for what is bearing fruit! True kindness, genuine goodness does not exclude the task of examining the truth which makes things firm. And so, in a second step, we see how Barnabas takes the initiative to go find Paul and bring him back to Antioch so that the two of them can teach this new, young community for one year.
There is, however, a small detail, which, in reality, is not a small one: Paul and Barnabas do not only have the role of teachers. It is said that they “met with the church” (Acts 11:26) They are not afraid to be “one among others”, to be on equal footing in a relationship of reciprocity where everyone takes part in the conversation. This happens over time; a one-year period, allowing them to build relationships and become familiar with the situation from the inside. This is the second step in the process.
Let us go back to the young church in Antioch. It is not afraid to welcome someone sent by the mother church, to accept being taught by a person coming from a community that is much less dynamic and apparently bearing less fruit. It is not afraid of accepting others.
But the story is not finished. The young church would, in turn, take care of the mother church. During a time of famine, it would organize a fundraiser and send money to Judea (Acts 11:27- 30). There is genuine reciprocity in this concrete care of one another
The moment when the believers receive the beautiful name “Christian,” is therefore the moment when they accept not to remain in their way of seeing, only depending on their ethnicity, their culture, or their local reality. “To learn together” is accepting the risk of crossing boundaries, because we belong to one and very same body, because “we are members one of another” (Romans 12:5).
We are of the same flesh, that of the Body of Christ.
—Anne-Cathy Graber is a Mennonite pastor and theologian and a consecrated sister in the Chemin Neuf community in Paris, France. She serves the MWC Faith and Life Commission as representative to the Global Christian Forum and the World Council of Church Faith and Order.
This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2022.