Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
July 26, 2015
Last week, I was on study leave and stayed at my grandmother’s home in Pinehurst while I read and did planning for the upcoming year. On Sunday, I attended church at Culdee Presbyterian, the church of my Scottish ancestors. The preacher, whom I’d not met before, preached from the Prodigal son. I liked the way he pulled us into the story, saying that some of us use our gifts for the kingdom (like the older son) and others use them selfishly (like the younger son), but sooner or later, like both, we fall into sin and have to depend on the mercy of our gracious Father in heaven. Something to think about…
After the service, I spent some time wandering around in the cemetery there, where several generations of my kinfolk have been laid to rest. In pondering that, and while reading a book about funerals, I wrote a blog post for which there will be a link to in my weekly newsletter. I encourage you to read it and am curious about your own thoughts and experiences on death and grieving. How we handle the dead, just as how we deal with those who are different from us (as we’re going to see today), says something about our lives in Christ.
Today, we’re back in the book of Acts. As we’ve gone through this important look at the life of the early church, I hope you understand the tensions felt in the early church are still with us. There were times the church’s fellowship was described as idyllic and other times, they struggle. We’ve seen that there were days when the church grew exponentially and others when people were reluctant to join. There were periods of peace and then there were periods of persecution. There were times when people did what was expected and times when people sinned and threatened the foundation of the church. There were times when things went smoothly and times they had to overcome great obstacles. Today, there is another obstacle, from within, that threatens the life of the early church. Let’s see what it is and how the Apostles handled the challenge. Read Acts 6:1-7
I am sure that you know this: “How do you eat an elephant?” (One bite at a time.)
Certainly it would take us a while to consume an elephant but haven’t we all been involved in something akin to that, in which the task before us seemed overwhelming? The task of building the church and spreading it through the world was enough to overwhelm anyone, including the Apostles. Where do you start? Of course, it is impossible and as I’ve said a number of times, “Acts of the Apostles” really should have been titled, “Acts of God through the Apostles.” As humans, we’re are finite, we have our limitations, but when God works through us and we use the talents given to us, amazing things can happen. We need to believe this!
In our reading today we see how a simple thing threatens to pull the early church apart. Variations of this situation still plague the church 2000 years later. One group within the community feels that another group is receiving favorable treatment or that they are being slighted. As a pastor, I’ve been where the Apostles are at many times. One group feels you spend too much time with another and are ignoring them… You feel torn apart. One of the issues the church always has to deal with is that ultimately church isn’t about us. As N. T. Wright says, “[T]he message ought never to be simply about ‘me and my salvation.’ It ought to be about God and God’s kingdom.” That said, there are real issues here and they need to be addressed.
There have been a lot made about just who the “Hellenists” were. The church, at this stage, is still in Jerusalem. It hasn’t yet broken out and begun spreading across the world, so it is unlikely the Hellenist are full-blooded Greeks (as their name implies). Most likely, they are Jews, but who have lived out of Israel. We know that after Babylon, you had pockets of Jews all over the Mediterranean world. Approximately 200 years before Christ, the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) was translated into Greek so these people would be able to read their Bibles. So their primary language is Greek, even though they are Jewish, which is why Luke make the distinction between them and the “Hebrews.” The latter would have been those who have lived their lives in Israel and spoke, by this point in history, Aramaic.
There seems to be something in human nature that causes us to look out for our own kind and to ignore others. But Jesus came for everyone so this type of behavior (although common) is especially problematic within the church. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians are feeling that the Hebrew or Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians are not taking the same kind of care for their widows as they are they are their own. Such feelings can split a congregation apart, so something has to be done to preserve the peace and unity of the fellowship.
In verse two, we see that the 12 Apostles jump right on this issue and call together the whole community. They say something that I wish Luke would have omitted from this book: “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables…” This sounds as if the Apostles think that they are too important and shouldn’t have to wait on tables in order to make sure that everyone gets fed an equally. Understanding this passage this way goes against Jesus’ example. As Luke showed in his gospel, Jesus was not above serving others and calls on his followers to become servants.
What appears to be happening here is that the church has grown to where it is beyond the ability of the Apostles to take care of every detail. They are like Moses, who you may remember, became overwhelmed and had to have help. It is not that one type of work is more or less important than another, but that they were called to a particular task and others within the fellowship also needs to be helping out. Membership comes with responsibility and no one within the church should be responsible for everything. But everyone should be responsible for something. Work is to be share. There is something that every one of you can do to build up the kingdom (that’s what we’re to be about), but none of us can do it all.
I remember from my time in seminary when I had an opportunity to meet one of the leaders of World Vision. This man had a heart for the poorest of the poor in the world, and you could see it in come through his message as he told stories about the work of this mission. After his presentation, there was time for questions and I began to roll my eyes as fellow students tried to pin him down on their favorite topics. A conservative student brought up abortion and more liberal students asked about women pastors and gay rights. (Remember what I said earlier. Let me expand it a bit, the gospel isn’t about us and OUR agendas). This man wisely saw what was up (he’d been through these minefields before) and said something very wise: “God called me to help the poor. These other issues are very important, but they are not my issues and I have to trust that God has called others to address them, just as he called me.” I learned something that day. We can’t do it all, we have to discern where we can be most useful, where God is calling.
The community to whom the Apostles were addressing realized the wisdom of what was being proposed and they quickly recommended a number of men to serve in the task of assuring that all the widows were cared for. The list starts out with Stephen, who we will soon learn became the first Christian martyr. Following him was Philip, who took the Gospel to an Ethiopian who became the first African Christian. The other five we don’t anything about, except that the last one is said to be a proselyte from Antioch. This means he wasn’t Jewish, he’d converted then became a Christian. Since he is from Antioch, we are left to wonder if he was a part of that vibrant early church there.
The Apostles have these men come forward and they pray over them as they lay hands upon them. The act of laying hands on those called to a particular service has ancient roots, having been done early in Israel’s history and on up to the present day. We did this last January with new Elders. Interestingly, the original text is a bit ambiguous as to whether it was the Apostles or all the community who laid hands on the seven. It could be read either way, and as we see here, the selection process involved both the Apostles and the congregation. Both groups are important in fulfilling this task. It takes everyone.
Our reading ends with a report that after this potential conflict was aborted, more people are drawn into the ranks of disciples including a number of priests. When a problem is handled appropriately, it open up new channels for people to be drawn into the fellowship. The early church continues to grow!
Will Willimon, in his commentary on Acts, reminds us of a couple things we should learn from this text. First, the needs of the community often require rather mundane task to be completed, such as waiting on tables. But these tasks are important and honorable as are all jobs within God’s kingdom. Actually, as we’ve seen, several of these men who were called to “wait on tables” went on to do important things for the kingdom. Secondly, the leadership doesn’t come from above, but from within the church. You all are needed and are being called to do a particular tasks that is important for God’s kingdom to expand. Finally, the present form of our ordained leadership evolved from need of the community, as we see here in this story. There was a need and the leadership and people got together to work out a solution.
Tyler Wigg-Stevenson was involved in some very important peacemaking work that was becoming overwhelming. At this point, God heard God say: “The world is not yours, not to save or to damn. Only serve the one whose it is.” We’re not called to be heroes. We’re called to do our part and to be faithful. Where in the Kingdom is God calling you? Where might you be of use? Pray about it for there is something that each and every one of you can do to strengthen God’s work in the world. Amen.
N. T. Wright, Surprised by Scripture (HarperCollins, 2014), 40.
 Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 111-113.
 Luke 22:24-27
 Exodus 18.
 Antioch was where the term “Christian” was first used. See Acts 11:19-26.
 Numbers 27:18-23
 Gaventa, 115,
 William H. Willimon, Acts: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (1988, Louisville, JKP, 2010), 59.
 Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, The World is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to Do Good (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2013), 18.