SERVING GOD’S PEOPLE ACTS 6:1-7
Cultural and linguistic differences are bound to manifest in life and in churches in various ways. We are a collection of quirky personalities each with our own issues and baggage. Some qualities can be helpful and some not in community. I am reminded of a story about 8 men from the British Isles, (two Scotsmen, two Irish, two Welsh and two English) who were on a ship heading to the tropics and because of a storm, were marooned on an island. When a rescue ship arrived a year later they made the following observations. The Scotsmen had opened a bank and were trading shells and other commodities. The Welshmen had formed a choir and were singing their hearts out. The Irishmen had come to blows and had nearly killed each other, while the 2 Englishmen were still waiting to be introduced.
We laugh about these broad generalizations of culture, but we understand that our backgrounds, language and heritage greatly affect how we think and act. Today in our text we come across a story of controversy in the early church centered around cultural and language differences that lead one group of people to believe that they are being neglected. How does the church handle a charge of favoritism? How does the church settle its problems? How does the church organize the body for greater effectiveness in gospel witness?
Read Acts 6:1-7
Invariably in a large and diverse community, situations arise were some people get their feelings hurt. Through conscious effort or unintentionally, people get overlooked, pushed to the side or otherwise ignored. This happened in Jerusalem in the early days of the church in the care of widows. We will look at the situation, that is, how the controversy came to be in the first place. The solution that was proposed and finally the service that is enabled by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of the body of Christ.
Situation—a complaint arose in the Greek speaking community that their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. There are at least two distinct cultural communities in Jerusalem around 34 AD. Aramaic speaking Jews and Greek speaking Jews. Aramaic was the language of the Jews in Judea and Galilee, while Greek was the official language of the Roman Empire. Jewish people had spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond to Persia (through the exile that began around 600 BC). But wherever they went and for whatever reasons, whether forced or voluntary, for education or trade, the Jewish people (at least the tribes of Judah and Levi) retained their spiritual heritage. Alexandria in Egypt became a center of Jewish life and around 200 BC the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (Septuagint) was written for those Jews who no longer understood the Hebrew language. The language of the synagogue was Hebrew and the language in the home and the streets gradually became Greek for this diaspora. But many of this scattered community longed to spend the last years of their lives in Jerusalem. Think of Psalm 137, where the musician writes “we wept when we remembered Zion….if I forget you, Jerusalem let my right hand forget her ability to play the harp, and let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth so that I would not sing or speak”. Even today, in the Passover Seder the words “next year in Jerusalem” reflect the longing and the desire to be reunited in the Promised Land. And so it was that there was a sizeable community of widows both in the Greek speaking community who had come to faith in Christ, as well as (naturally) the native Aramaic speaking community. Whether through oversight, poor management or favoritism, the Greek speakers are getting neglected in the daily distribution of food for the needy. To the credit of the all, the complaint is voiced to the apostles and the apostles call a meeting of the disciples. Application: when you feel like you are being unfairly treated or discriminated against how do you address the issue? Do you go to the person concerned? Do you address the issue with leadership? That is the healthy way, rather than murmuring or gossip. Now we move to the answer.
Solution—the leaders called a general meeting of those concerned. They suggest to the leaders of the Greek speaking community that they choose 7 Spirit filled men, each with a solid testimony of faith in Christ, blessed with common sense and wisdom, to administer the entire feeding program for the church. This is remarkable and brilliant for at least a couple of reasons. They are spreading the mantle of leadership and accountability to more people (which kind of reminds me of the situation of Moses in the OT and how his father-in-law said that he needed to delegate responsibility or he would get burned out.) but also they are showing immense trust by giving this job to 7 Greeks (because all the names of the deacons are definitely Greek—just as surely as if the names were Hans, Helmut and Klaus you would know they were German). They are essentially saying: we trust that you will not discriminate against anyone—you who have been on the receiving end of neglectful favoritism—that you will be fair to all. Everyone thought this was a great idea—this suggestion pleased the entire congregation. In order to be a healthy entity every organization must have healthy trust, communication and boundaries. Honest communication required people speaking truth in a painful situation. Trust was built here because leadership listened and challenged those that brought up the issue to help bring about an equitable solution. The boundaries of leadership were expanded so that the apostles could continue with their original calling of prayer and preaching, while the important practical needs of the community were being addressed. The apostles prayed for these new leaders, laid hands on them, which is a public declaration of ordination and acknowledgement of both authority and Holy Spirit equipping. The early church appointed elders and deacons to carry out the important ministry of teaching, prayer, mercy and benevolence and Paul describes these offices and their respective qualifications needed in 1 Timothy 3. Do you see ways that Providence could become a better church? Do you see areas where we could improve and strengthen our witness, outreach and discipleship? Please join hands with all of us as we serve together. Join us! And this brings out another point: we have this privilege to choose our leaders. As Presbyterians we choose deacons and elders. Let’s take this responsibility seriously as we enter into a new season of discernment. Ask: God who would you put on the diaconate and session these next three years to lead us in what you have for us? Please pray about your involvement. If you’re not a member consider joining. If you have been on the sideline get into the game. Please take your responsibility of choosing seriously. Pray for our nominating committee as they seek wisdom in putting forth a slate of potential officers.
Service—for the end of all of this is greater service to our Master for the sake of the gospel going forth. Over and over the disciples and apostles refer to themselves as servants of the Lord, bond-servants for Christ. This word is diakonia (from which we get the word deacon) and it appears three times in these few verses. Here are the 3 expressions that center on diakonia: daily distribution of food: food service. Waiting on tables: serving people in basic needs. Ministry of the word: service of preaching and prayer. All service is needed and honored in the church. The apostles are not being snarky as though serving tables is “below’ them. They are saying all this work is important and we need to be devoted to our specific calling. Paul makes this point so well when he describes the role and importance of each part of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 “if the foot should say because I am not a hand I am not part of the body, does that make it any less part of the body?”…so each member of the body of Christ has their role and importance. Verse 25 “but God has so arranged the body that there would be harmony, working together and no dissension…” My brothers and sisters there are no “classes” of service in the body and this means the end of talk about small gifts verses big gifts. It is the end of both inferiority andboasting! It is the end of shame or arrogance. Whatever your role and gifting, whether as a deacon, elder, worship leader, musician, SS teacher, usher we are all one body and each is important. Only share your gift with a servant’s heart: in humility and out of joy and gratitude for Jesus.