What did the church in Antioch look like? We get a picture from the Didache - or The Teaching of the Apostles - originating, some think, around the years AD 50-70.
Welcoming Gentiles to table fellowship
The intentional welcoming of Gentiles to table fellowship in a house church setting was one of the remarkable actions of these Jewish Christians. It was unheard of in the Mediterranean world, where food and meal-sharing were used to draw strict lines of separation, not only between Jews and non-Jews, but between the various class and ethnic divisions in Greco-Roman society. For Jews especially, a meal with a Gentile would have been a contaminating experience!
But the Antiochene Christians overcame their fears and prejudices in order to provide hospitality to the strangers in their midst. While ensuring that the food they ate had no connections with idolatry, they sat at table with individuals who had never been circumcised and
with just and lowly people [they] dwelled.
Once the Jerusalem Council gave its authorisation, they did what Jesus had often done himself. Quite scandalously, he had associated with some of the most marginal and, yes, sinful of people, going so far as to actually dine with them, whether in their homes or in banquet halls.
The Antiochenes knew that sharing a domestic meal with their Gentile neighbours was a personal way of expressing what life was like in the kingdom of God. For their part, the guests would have experienced a family-like atmosphere, with new brothers and sisters in a loving, caring fellowship - perhaps compensating for the loss of family that some had suffered as a result of their conversion from pagan religions.
Instruction and mentoring
This new way of life began with instruction and mentoring in preparation for baptism. This was a time of forming deep and lasting relationships and, no doubt, meals were a regular expression of the spiritual bonds that developed as the newcomers became more fully initiated into the community, culminating in baptism and their first Eucharist.
It was often the case in the early house church that the Eucharist was celebrated within the context of an ordinary meal, so we might imagine what it would have been like to have reached the point where the newly baptised were invited to share the consecrated bread and wine - with the 'real presence' of the Lord modelled in the fellowship of believers they had already tasted and seen.
A new way to practice the presence of God
This was a radically new way to practice the presence of God; nothing quite like it had ever been recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. Here was an act of hospitality that communicated who Jesus was and what his mission was about at many different levels —a fresh expression, indeed! Let's think about these levels of communication.
There was a definite pattern in the life of the Didache community
There was a progression of stages and events that led each person into ever deeper and more meaningful experiences of life with God. One would get the sense, fairly quickly, that this life was a matter of continued growth in all sorts of directions - especially in love and trust towards God and neighbour, and in understanding what life was about and where it was headed according to the mission of God. At each point, basic human needs were addressed - the need to eat and drink, for example, but also the need for friendship and community.
Here an individual learned the importance of co-operation
Especially in the preparation of meals and other aspects of hospitality. Each meal that was shared would have been a major communal undertaking, requiring leadership and co-ordination by deacons and deaconesses. Resources would have to be gathered from members throughout the church membership (not just from the wealthy patrons) and put to the best use.
The community also had to practice family love
Doing what families do at meal time in a domestic setting. Among the instructions given to each member of the community was that they would
not turn away the one in need and not say that things are your own.
To enter into the atmosphere of this family would have been a profound experience of sharing, acceptance and participation.
There was also a sense of God's unfolding mission
What some might call a realised eschatology, a sense of what life is like in God's kingdom. The gathering of such a mixed assembly, especially at a common table, defied social norms and overcame shameful status. It signalled a new way of being together, not unlike that anticipated in the eternal banquet with Jesus. The Didache says,
In this way, may your church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom
So how did this fresh expression come about?
What enabled the early Christians to adjust so quickly to a new culture, a new people? Perhaps the scattered quotations from the prophets that we see in the book of Acts - the first history book of the church - provide a clue.
The Antiochenes seemed to be convinced that they were part of an age-old story that was now being fulfilled in a rather strange and marvellous way. They may have heard about the apostle Peter's startling declaration on Solomon's Porch:
You are the descendants of the prophets and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, 'And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed'
But they also, as it were, drank the story when - at the Eucharist - they said the words:
We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of your servant David which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus
In other words, the Antiochenes had immersed themselves in the narrative world of the Bible and imagined themselves to be participating in the mission of God - from Abraham, through David, and now sat at a table where Jesus was host. Fresh expressions always put this sort of imagination to work!
What can we learn?
First, we see how the church came to recognise its missionary identity
The apostle James, who led the Jerusalem church, addressed this head-on when he recalled the prophet Amos's words about all those who would someday 'seek the Lord', including 'all the Gentiles over whom [the Lord's] name has been called' (Acts 15.16-17). This was the work of a missionary God, now defined by the redemptive mission of his Son to the whole world and proclaimed by a new people, who were anointed and energised by the Spirit to continue that mission.
Secondly, the church continued Christ's mission according to his incarnational principle
That is, the newly formed Christian community moved into each and every local community it encountered and, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer's words, became 'contemporary'. The church was the new body of Christ, making him known 'in the flesh' of time and place, in love and service, in word and deed. In the case of Antioch, all this happened in a non-Jewish culture and in the diverse cosmopolitan environment of a great capital city for the whole of the eastern Roman empire. That is why the Antiochene Christians had to do things differently to the church in Jerusalem.
Thirdly, the wall of separation created by the Jewish law came down
The emerging church at Antioch began to welcome an entirely new population to the faith. As it did so, it underwent a startling transformation. We learn from Peter's report at the Jerusalem Council that the Holy Spirit had been given to those who had first heard the gospel and a deep spiritual change had begun. The fact that the church at Antioch became so important to the missionary work of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14.26-28; 15.31-35) shows how it became a church that served others, even those in faraway places.
Fourthly, making disciples was a priority
The missionary church at Antioch was made of folk like Nicolaus - a Gentile who had converted to Judaism and was 'full of the Spirit and of wisdom' (Acts 6.3-5). They eagerly spread the word about Jesus and turned the word 'disciple' into a verb. Over the next twenty-or-so years, Antiochene Christians built up a strong, enduring mission outpost that featured prominently every time Paul launched a new missionary journey. It must have been a very lively community, engaging the culture at home and abroad, sending its own members to serve wherever needed, and adding exponentially to the numbers of disciples that would eventually blanket the entire Roman Empire.
Finally, relationships between Christians made all this possible
Paul, for one, seems to have spent a great deal of time in Antioch, sharing his missionary reports, preaching and teaching, advocating for the fledgling community against the Jerusalem traditionalists, and perhaps finding rest and restoration in the midst of his extensive travels. No longer the centre of conflict, Antioch became the centre of welcome and hospitality to the Christian movement, for ever witnessing to the freedom of the gospel from the law (in addition to Acts 14.26-28 and 15.31-35, see 18.22-23).