St Michael’s 17th May 2015
There’s no doubt that the early chapters of Acts tell a remarkable story of church growth. From one small group of about 120 people bursts forth a thrilling and utterly extraordinary tale of revival. As Peter stands up to preach on the day of Pentecost, three thousand people are converted on a single day. A new community is formed where day by day the believers gather to praise God and receive instruction from the apostles (chapter 2).
And what happens on the day of Pentecost is of course only the beginning. Every day brings new believers. There are amazing testimonies of healing, such as the crippled beggar at the temple gate (chapter 3). There is widespread deliverance from evil spirits (chapter 5, v.16) and many miraculous signs and wonders. The Holy Spirit seems to be at work everywhere, giving this young church a power and impetus that apparently cannot be denied. Not even persecution by the religious authorities (chapter 4) or the wicked deceit of a couple called Ananias and Sapphira (chapter 5) can halt the advance of the gospel.
As we read in chapter 5, verses 41-42: The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. And so with eager expectation we move on to the start of chapter 6, to find out how the story continues. And what do we read? Verse 1: In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
What a complete and utter let-down! Here is the church growing at a rate of knots, with people turning to Christ almost every hour, and what are its members doing? Complaining about the daily allowance of food the widows were receiving and murmuring about some being treated being more equally than others. In fact, the word Luke quite intentionally uses here is the same one we find used in the Old Testament to describe the Israelites grumbling against the Lord in the desert, again precisely over the issue of food. Never mind that the people of God have experienced the wonder of salvation, or that the Holy Spirit is doing a remarkable new thing. There is a spirit of dissatisfaction and discord in the air, and unless it is dealt with quickly, there is a real danger that the progress of the gospel might just come to a grinding halt.
But then again, this passage serves as a sober reminder that so often the biggest threat the church faces comes not from something obvious like persecution or a major heresy, but simply from some practical problem in the day to day running of its affairs. Some apparently small task is not being done, and it develops into a major issue. People grumble; there is a sense of unfairness; maybe even sides are taken, and without anyone realising it, the work of the Holy Spirit ends up being quenched, or at least severely restricted.
So let’s look more closely at the issue threatening the church in Acts chapter 6. On the one level, it was a very simple practical matter. The early church was committed to supporting each and every one of its members. As we read in Acts 4:32: All the believers were one in heart and mind. No-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. That’s why when people who had no practical means of support, such as widows, joined the church, the believers were committed to feeding them. Only now the church had grown and grown and grown, the task of distributing the food and making sure everyone had a fair portion had become more and more complicated.
And as is so often the case, the more the problem increased, the more it exposed a deeper underlying issue. Because, you see, the early church was in essence made up of people from two very different backgrounds. There were the Hebraic Jews who were native to Jerusalem, spoke Aramaic and were deeply immersed in the Old Testament Scriptures. And there were the Grecian Jews who were probably born elsewhere, spoke a different language and were more open to the influences of classical Greek culture. Apart from their faith in Jesus Christ they had little else in common, and the issue with food distribution was threatening to once again bring these divisions out into the open.
I believe it really is so important to realise that practical problems all too frequently have deeper underlying issues. The question of who can place which vase where in a flower festival, for example, isn’t really about which floral display has pride of place. It’s more to do with who believes they wield effective power in the church, and feels they have greater claim. Or the discussion about new forms of worship isn’t actually about the words people are saying. It’s about who gets to shape the identity and tradition of the church, and who has the right to set the vision. Of course the people involved may not even realise these underlying issues are stake, which is why whenever some practical problem comes up, it’s always worth asking the Lord what is actually going on and discover what is the most effective course of action to deal with it.
Now in the case of the food distribution in the early church, the underlying issue was pretty clear – the tension between Grecian and Hebraic Jews. So, why wasn’t it being effectively tackled?
The simple answer is that the wrong people were carrying out the job. Listen to what the apostles say in verse 2: It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Now we don’t know why there was an expectation the apostles should be waiting on tables at the first place. Maybe they took on the task when there were just a few widows, and they hadn’t adjusted to the increasing workload. Maybe the other disciples thought that an important job like that had to be left to the church leaders. Maybe no-one had ever explained to the whole church what the problem was, and how it should be tackled.
But as long as the apostles were waiting at tables, not only was the problem left unresolved, they were also being drawn away from their primary calling as church leaders. They needed to pass on the task of food distribution, not only because there was an issue to be addressed, but as they themselves explained in verse 4 that they could their attention to prayer and ministry of the word. Because that was the gifting that they had receiving from the Lord, and it was vital to the health of the whole church that they were free to exercise that gifting.
You see, the New Testament knows nothing of the omni-competent church leader who can turn his hand to any task, and maybe manages to fit in writing a sermon or leading a small group in between unblocking the drains or clearing the gutters. The image of the church in the New Testament is of the body of Christ where each member is given a ministry to carry out, and where the gift of leadership goes hand in hand with the gifts of prayer and ministry of the word. Of course, a leader is also servant and no task should ever be beneath Him. But it affects the life of the whole church when someone is carrying out a task for which they haven’t been called. Not only is that task probably not being done very well, that person is neglecting the gift which the Lord is given them, while somebody else who could do that task is not being called into that role.
I hope you can start to see how all this applies to our life at St Michael’s, but before we apply this passage to ourselves, let’s see how the problem of food distribution was addressed in the early church and what was the result of a solution being found.
As you can see, in verse 3, the apostles got together a sub-committee to look at the issue of social welfare and after a few months this committee produced a report which was brought back to the whole church. After much deliberation the report was sent back with comments from both the Grecian and Hebraic Jews, neither of whom liked it very much, and the committee continued to debate it until no-one could remember what the problem was in the first place.
No, sorry, that’s not quite right. The apostles decided to strong-arm a few unwilling volunteers and put them on a rota to carry out the task in hand. This worked well for a while until one by one the volunteers discovered some good reason not to carry on the work, and gradually the whole issue descended into chaos once again.
No, that’s not quite right either. Listen carefully to how the problem was in fact solved in verse 3: Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them. In other words, the apostles made sure that the whole church community owned the issue in hand, and made sure everyone played a part in finding a solution. They could have selected seven capable individuals themselves, but if they had done that, they would still ultimately have borne the responsibility for the food distribution. No, they asked the church family who were the best people for the work, and made them responsible for the decision. And because everyone was involved in the decision making process, what was the result?
Listen to verse 5: This proposal pleased the whole group. In fact, from this point on you don’t hear very much at all about divisions between the Grecian and Hebraic Jews. Not only was the issue of the widow’s daily food allowance resolved, but a major split in the early church was avoided. Both the presenting problem and underlying issue were dealt with at one fell swoop.
But there is a little point that we should note from this verse, which is really quite important. The proposal went down so well, because as far as we can tell, everyone happened to be present. The apostles took the time and trouble to gather all the disciples together as verse 2 tells us. It’s something I have said time and time again, that if we are to operate together as the body of Christ, we really do have to meet together. It may take effort and demand some sacrifices of ourselves to be present, but it does mean we don’t miss out on what the Spirit is doing.
And let’s look at the people the church community selected. I guess when we look at the list we tend to focus on the two people we hear more about later: Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit and Philip who later on had a remarkable ministry as an evangelist. But I want to focus on the five other men who are mentioned in verse 6. We hear nothing more about Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism but I reckon that while Stephen and Philip went on to other ministries, these five remained as faithful, unheralded servants carrying on with the distribution of food, at least until the church was scattered following Stephen’s martyrdom at the beginning of chapter 8. Catholic and Orthodox traditions have elaborate tales of their subsequent ministries, but maybe their names are recorded simply to remind us that for every martyr or evangelist the Lord also needs those who work in the background, making sure the tasks of the church actually get done.
So the problem was tackled and a solution was found. With what result? Verse 7 tells us: So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. It was as if a major bottleneck in the life of the church had been removed. The right people were now in place doing the ministries to which they had been called. And because the whole church was functioning effectively as the body of Christ, the word of God was allowed to spread. After all, as we have seen, one major reason why the apostles handed over this task was that they could devote themselves to the ministry of the word. And where people are set free to concentrate on the word, growth follows. It really is as simple as that.
So how do we apply all this to St Michael’s? Well, over the past couple of months I have spent a lot of time talking with the churchwardens and the church council. It’s become fairly clear that our wonderful hardworking churchwardens are in fact doing rather more than their job description entails. They do so willingly out of love for the Lord, and they are being supported by a great team of willing helpers.
But the question this passage asks of us is this: are we really working as the whole body of Christ where everyone feels able and confident to carry out the ministry the Lord has given them? I suspect the answer is, as in every church, there are some who feel they have little to contribute. As our passage reminds us, a ministry needn’t be a big spiritual work. It could just be something as simple as giving out food or making the coffee. Or there may be some who feel they don’t have the permission to get involved. They are not leaders, and they haven’t been church members for long. Actually, we are always looking for more to get involved, and if you are not sure whether a particularly task is right for you or not, the one way to find out is to give it a go! Or there may be some who are concerned about getting involved because of the commitment demanded of them. It’s important to note from this passage that the apostles didn’t appoint just one or two people to do it all. They chose seven people who shared the load, and no doubt made sure each member of the team played their full part.
So today, as we have been making it clear over the past few weeks, is an opportunity for everyone to “get involved”. In fact, it is not just an opportunity. It is a gospel imperative. If we are serious about the kind of growth that we read about in the book of Acts we need to get back to the vision the New Testament gives us of the church to be the body of Christ where each part plays its part, so that our life together powerfully witnesses to the good news of Jesus our Lord and Saviour.
So let’s get practical. In a moment, I will pray. Then I will circulate a list of some of the practical ministries that need doing in our churches. Instead of a prayer time, we will spend some time discussing and reflecting on that list. And let us use the example of the church in Acts as our model so that together we become more and more the church God calls us to be, for the praise and glory of His name.