Today, the title Christian comes with all sorts of preconceptions. It comes with baggage and blessings and no small amount of controversy over who can and can’t or should and shouldn’t be called Christian. Before all of that, a group of disciples were called Christians in Antioch. We find it here at the end of the first reading from Acts, “And it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.” It seems a little crazy that there had been mass conversions, people had been persecuted, and Stephen had even been martyred for the faith, and yet, they were only just now being called Christian. Moreover, the passage gives the impression that they didn’t create the name, but were given it by others. As we reflect on this, let’s take some time to consider what Christian would have meant to those who first heard it.
To our ears, Christ sounds like a name. We can truly empathize with the person who thinks Jesus was the son of Mary and Joseph Christ as if it was his last name. We forget that it is a title and a title with significant meaning. To a 1st Century Jewish person, the Christ was the anointed one, the Messiah. The Christ was the ointment to soothe Israel’s centuries of longing and waiting. The fulfillment of the desires of the prophets. The early Church professed this fulfillment so adamantly that they were called Christians. They were identified by their belief that God kept his promises, that fulfillment was more than possible, it was a reality. That our longing has an answer. That answer, they professed, is Jesus.
To the Gentile, unfamiliar with Judaism, to call someone a Christian would mean “someone who belongs to the anointed one”. Anointing has its own significance, and I have no intention of guessing what each culture makes of it, but it seems worth noting that they were not described as belonging to Jesus, but instead to this “anointed one”. This might get at the subversive nature of the Gospel. These are people who don’t belong to Caesar, but to Christos. That is merely a guess, but the idea exists that we belong not to our nation or even this world in the same way that we belong to Christ. When Christ is our life, the factions and identities of this world seem so fleeting.
Finally, we should not forget that Acts tells us “the disciples were first called Christians.” Before they were called Christians they were called the disciples, and disciples are always known by who their master is. Too often today, people can know we are Christians without a shred of evidence that Christ is our master.
Maybe we need the reminder of what it meant for the first Christians to be called that. Are we a people professing fulfillment in Christ? Do we belong to him more than our nations, political parties, and other factions? Like disciples who only make sense if you know the master, do we only make sense if you know Jesus?