Raise your hand if you are, or have been, married before. And if you haven’t been married before, think about your first boyfriend or girlfriend. When you first start dating someone, there’s something magical about that time. The same is true for those of us who have gone through that relationship phase and have made it to the other side and gotten married. There’s something remarkable about standing there before your bride or groom as they look into your eyes and make you feel like you’re the only thing in the world that matters. There’s something wonderful and beautiful about that glorious moment in the sun when all is right with the world and the person before us is perfect. But shortly after, it starts to happen…
It starts small; Your spouse starts stealing all the covers in the middle of the night. They start using all the hot water before you get a chance to shower. They expect you to act as a heat rock so that they can rest their frozen tootsies on you in the middle of the night. And then, before you know it, they’re buying off-brand, organic Pop-tarts and making kale soup.
Look, the point I’m trying to make, the news I’m trying to break to you, is that that perfect person who stood before you at your wedding or at the beginning of your relationship, you’re never going to see that person again. Because the second you start living life together, you realize very quickly that they’re not perfect, they’re not the exception to the rule. Now, this phenomenon isn’t exclusive to romantic relationships. This happens whenever people start a new job or move to a new city or when a church changes either in makeup or leadership. One of the greatest temptations for churches and pastors is to believe that one another is perfect, because it’s extremely painful when that illusion is shattered.
Our text this morning is a testament to the fact that the early church, for as innovative and charismatic and grassroots-driven as it was, was not immune to this kind of “honeymoon phase.” It’s worth noting the shift in the attitude of this book. If we go back less than two chapters, we see amazing unity happening. Acts 4:32 says “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common…”, over to 34 & 35, “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
What is being described here is nothing short of a miracle in the life of the church. Everything held in common, everyone taken care of by the community, no one lacking -- that’s a vision of the new heaven and new earth right there. And yet, we get to chapter 6 and see there to be conflict threatening the unity which has been built amongst the community, and it’s a conflict over how the community is stewarding its service. That’s what we’re talking about today in this third installment of our series: stewardship of service – what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, why we’re doing it.
Now, our context is extremely different from the context present in this text, but it’s worth examining what’s going on here and seeing how it’s resolved. The first thing to notice is the division being driven into the community: the Hellenists and the Hebrews. So, what’s basically going on here is a division of language and background. The “Hellenists” are Greek-speaking with a pagan background, while the “Hebrews” are the Aramaic-speaking with a Jewish background. They both fall under the same umbrella of Jesus-followers, but there is a perceived hierarchy as to whether or not the Hebraic believers are in some way purer, or more superior, for having been Jewish and not gentile. It would be the equivalent of us discriminating between those who those who were raised in the church and those who came to the Christian faith from outside the church. And this isn’t the only time we see this happening. Another famous example is in Galatians 2 when Paul says he “opposes Peter to his face” because he favors the Hebrews over the Hellenists.
The case here, though, is that this discrimination is manifesting itself around the table, as the Hellenic widows are being neglected during the daily distribution of food. Now, there is no evidence in the text as to whythe widows are being neglected. It’s possible the language barrier between the two is posing a problem or something like that, but the likelier reason is that those who are distributing the food are favoring the Hebrews over the Hellenists.
Now, I guaranteeI know what probably kept happening to the twelve apostles. They were probably all in their offices with their computers open and their bibles and their theology books and their language books all open on their desks, and they were just pouring over them, mining their hearts and souls to discern what God wanted them to speak to the community of believers. And then someone walks in and sees this happening and just says, “oh good, you’re not busy”, and they sit down and talk for like an hour. I know this all too well. But it’s important to note what they apostles do when they gather the community together. They say, “it’s not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to wait on tables.” In other words, these are the twelve who have been entrusted to care for the church, to carry on Jesus’ radical ethic of love and grace and mercy and patience and yet, when push comes to shove, they’re not afraid to say, “man…that ain’t my job.”
Now, I say this not because we can necessarily draw hard-and-fast lines between responsibilities in ministry and who should be doing what, but because it illustrates the fact that religious leaders, like pastors, are not hired and brought into a church in order to do ministry foryou. That ain’t our job. We’re the lead visionaries, the casters of the vision, the resident theologians and lead preachers and teachers. I am not here to do ministry so that you don’t have to. I’m here to look at the forest and encourage and empower and lead other people to look at the trees. That’s what’s happening here. The apostles are saying that they’ve been allotted their role in the ministry of the church, and they should not be having to neglect that role in order to perform other logistic and housekeeping functions of the community.
So, they give an imperative to the people: “pick out from among you seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But for our part, we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Now, let’s look at this. First, they are told to pick seven men. When I came across this, I looked at the Greek and this isn’t exactly one of those words we can translate into “peoples” or “persons.” Luke has other words for those and he doesn’t choose to use them here – here, he uses the word for “men.” We can speculate about that, but, for now, there’s nothing which leads me to believe this is something meant to be normative about the roles of men vs. women in ministry, etc., especially because this book was written by Luke, who is by far the most generous and egalitarian of the four evangelists. I think it has more to do with those who were likely available and able to fulfill the role, since this is still in a time where women were expected to manage the household, children, etc. It was probably much easier to find 7 men than 7 women to fulfill this function.
But the real crux of this is the qualifications, “of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Notice that they’re not just asking for seven warm bodies. That’s the problem with most church administrations – it’s more about just getting enough people on the paperwork to make the higher-ups happy, and less about getting the right people into leadership. That’s one of the reasons we, as a church, are moving to the new administrative structure that we’ll be talking about later today – so we can get the right people into leadership to make decisions efficiently and effectively just like the 12 apostles do here.
Also, notice how little attention is paid to process and procedure. Churches love to idolize process and procedure because it feels like we’re doing ministry when we really aren’t. Meetings aren’t ministry. If there’s a problem that needs to be addressed, like there is in our text, we should address it and get on with it; not agonize over it and push it through 10 layers of needless process and procedure. The process didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai; it didn’t become incarnate in Jesus Christ. Those are the things we’re beholden to; not the process. The twelve tell them to choose seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom to fix a problem and they did it and, as we can see, the problem was resolved.
And this is kind of lost in the English translation, but it’s worth noting that, when we look at the Greek, all seven of the men have Hellenistic names, meaning that the problem needing to be addressed was that the Hellenistic widows were being neglected, so the community chose men alsofrom that background to address it. In other words, they’re affording responsibility and authority to the part of the community which, traditionally, had been underrepresented. And we’re told that, just as in verse 1 beforethe conflict started, the “number of disciples were increasing greatly.”
Now, there’s a lot going on here and it’s happening in a context wildly different from our own. But I think there are a couple take-aways from this text. First: the twelve apostles put the mission of the church before the structure of the church. Had they allowed the structure to control the mission, they would have pushed back against this conflict because it would be threatening the current organization of the community. But instead, they allowed the mission of the church to control and drive the structure. They were willing to rearrange and change anything and everything in order to keep moving the gospel forward. We’ll talk about mission more next week, but at this point it’s important to note that the number 1 thing being serviced here is the mission; not peoples’ feelings, not peoples’ comforts, not the tradition or the process or procedure.
The second thing we can take away is that people in the community were willing to be called upon to fulfill a task and do a job. The church doesn’t exist because I’m here; it exists because you’re here. And if you’re here to just take and take and take and never give anything back, then you and I should probably have a conversation. Because if you hadn’t noticed, this sermon series is centered on the vows we take when we become members: we commit to share our time, gifts, service, and witness. If you’re not willing to serve and help continue the building of this spiritual cathedral, then there’s probably more going on under the surface that we should address. Now, let me be clear: I’m not saying that you need to quit your job and put your family on the backburner. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is you need to simply, simply try. Help out with coffee hour, teach a Sunday school class, offer to start up a small group during the week. I’ve said this before: if we do what we’ve always done, we’ll be what we’ve always been. And the last time I checked, Jesus’ imperative to us in Matthew 28 isn’t to be super careful so as to not rock the boat. No, it’s to make disciples of Jesus anywhere and everywhere, and that requires a relentless focus on the mission of the church, and the willingness of our laity to offer up what they have in service to that mission. That’s ministry, guys. That’s all it is.