A sermon drawn from Acts 6:1-8
During the Easter season, the lectionary turns our attention – in addition to Jesus’ resurrection appearances – to images of the earliest days of the church. Probably because, as different as that time is from our own, we still take that earliest community as our model, for who and what we’re supposed to be, ourselves, as the Church, the Body of Christ, the disciples of the Risen One.
Last week, the lectionary showed us a picture of the church at its best – in the heady first days following the Day of Pentecost, when day after day, thousands of people are embracing the apostles’ inspired preaching, and the new believers in Jesus Christ are sharing everything they have and have everything in common, and are breaking bread with “glad and generous hearts” and seem to be living in this idyllic calm right before the end times …
So, reading the story today, we might think to ourselves, well, that didn’t last long, did it?
Because we seem to be hearing about a church that has some of the same issues and problems as the real life churches people know – and complain about – these days. “Thems” and “us-es.” Complaints. Power struggles, even. Difficulties and … dare we say it, “politics.”
But. That description of Stephen as “full of grace and power” gives us a clue to something else going on in the church … that this early church is growing in grace and power – and since that is still, we hope, a description of the church, maybe we can learn something from this story from the book of Acts, which is really all about the practical politics and the daily life of the early church – as having some practical advice for us, too.
We might say this story is about “growing pains” – the kind of tensions that arise when an organization, any organization grows that rapidly, has to change that much that fast …
Because know the church in these first few chapters in Acts has been growing in numbers every day – chapter 2 tells us 3,000, a later chapter tells us 5,000, and a couple of other places we hear that people are being added to the community every day, so we get the picture, this movement is just exploding …
But remember, this is a group isn’t just getting bigger. This is a group that is trying to teach, and to practice, a different way of life from the world around it, as a witness to their experience of Jesus Christ. The church as a whole and its individual members are meant to be, and honestly, seem to be, growing in “grace and power” as well. Growing in its responsiveness to the Spirit, growing in wisdom. What makes Stephen and the others named in this story role models, people to look up to, is that they’re good examples of this for the others … and one thing this story does is give us an example of what it means to grow in grace and power.
Because … the church in v1 is not exactly painting an ideal image of grace and power, not exactly exhibiting the kingdom of heaven to the world. The Hellenists are complaining. And if we know anything about people, the Hebrews are probably rolling their eyes and saying, “of course, those Hellenists, so negative, …” “there they go again.”
A little background: at this point in the story of the church, everyone is Jewish. Everyone has grown up learning there’s a God, who rescued them – their ancestors – from Egypt and gave them the Torah, and now they worship God in the Temple in Jerusalem, and also, probably, hear scriptures read in synagogue in their hometowns, and they’re more or less consistent about some practices that they understand to be “their” special way of life – sabbath, avoiding some foods they think of as unclean or impure, praying a certain way, circumcising their sons … Everyone in this group, this Jesus group, is on the same page with all that at this point.
Except that everyone isn’t on the same page, even at this early date, because some of these folks are what we might describe as “traditional” – the “Hebrews” – who are from around around here, the local area, they speak Aramaic, they know all the local customs – the Apostles would have belonged to this group, in fact, as would Jesus if he were still on earth.
While others are these “Hellenists,” these Greek-speaking Jews, likely newcomers to the area, from other parts of the Roman empire, like Alexandria or Antioch one of the other big cities, maybe they’re so they have some different customs. Who knows why they’re in Jerusalem, business maybe, or one of the other reasons people move around within the empire … but they’re there, too, they’ve become part of this movement, too …
Now someone has had the bright idea – and it is a bright idea – that since we all know we’re supposed to be taking care of widows and orphans – that’s something God wants us to do, that’s in the Torah, we haven’t stopped believing that – and since as followers of Jesus we’re sharing and sharing alike, and taking care of everyone’s needs, we’ll make sure that we get food to the widows in the group … very practical … very much in the spirit of Christ’s teachings, see a need, do something about it … love in action. People growing in grace – kindness, and extending the free welcome of God – and power – literally, ability – being able to get something done, make something happen.
Except. There’s this division in the community, this linguistic and cultural difference, and whoever is taking care of the food distribution is evidently a lot more aware of which of the Hebrews’ group are widows and could use a casserole than which of the Hellenists’ women are widows in the same boat …
And the Hellenists start noticing this … and now, I admit, I’m reading between the lines, just on the basis of my experience in the present … I imagine the Hellenists have started saying to each other things like “Hey, did you notice that Penelope was missed. Again.” and “They’re still not getting to the women in our neighborhood, notice.” And “What does it take to get on that list anyway?” and “What’s up with that??” and “Yeah, right, bear one another’s burdens, unless you don’t speak Hebrew …” Grumbling. Kvetching.
I don’t know if it was exactly like that. But the word for “complained” in Greek very strongly connotes something happening on the down low, under the radar, simmering resentment … that is, it’s not out in the open, not simply brought directly to the attention of whoever can do something about the situation – hey, you all, we have a problem here – let’s look at it, and fix it.
So right away – at least the way Luke tells the story – the Apostles invervene. Because this is not the direction of grace and power – of love in action. So they pull the complainers back from the brink, they get everyone together, they say, “look, yes, this is a problem … and what’s more, we cannot fix it.”
They don’t use those words, exactly, but that’s what they seem to mean – because they say, you all, we have our hands and our plates full with this job we have of spreading the word. Which we think we really need to keep doing. And we are definitely not saying serving food to people who need it doesn’t matter. It does. But – someone else is going to need to do that, someone who isn’t us.
Who should that be? Well … some of the Hellenists. [And here we might infer, in other words, someone whose familiar with that part of the community, who people will talk to and keep up to date … people who have the relevant experience and skills and relationship.]
And who are full of the Spirit, and wisdom. That is, people who are living the life, walking the walk, listening and acting in the Spirit of Christ, and who listen, and make good decisions – who know the different situations are different, who don’t just treat everyone “the same,” but know how to ask the right questions, take people’s feelings into account, when to insist and when to suggest … practical skills. Powers.
Identify those people, say the apostles. We’ll get them to do this important work, and we’ll keep doing the work we’re already doing.
Because there’s more work around here than there used to be. The community is growing. And that includes growing in grace – wanting to address human needs – and in power – the ability to address those needs.
And one practical sign of that growth was being able to do some creative problem solving. Even to the point of creating this new office – that’s how we think of it today – but for them, it was simply – something they hadn’t done before, but that seemed called for by the needs of the situation.
Now the Bible says Everyone was pleased with this proposal. That may have been the first and last time in the history of the church when everyone was happy about some decision …
If we can’t always expect that everyone will be happy with the decisions that we make in our congregations, there are still some practical lessons we learn from this early example.
They address the issue directly, out in the open, and take practical steps to resolve the problem as it presents itself.
They don’t cover it up. They don’t have a secret meeting with the Hellenists – at least, not as far as we know – to say, hey, you all need to settle down, and stop making trouble.
They don’t waste time getting defensive – hey, we were trying to do our best! And look where that’s getting us!
They don’t blame the Hellenists for noticing something that isn’t going the way they think it should be.
And they don’t blame the Hebrews, either, for being oblivious or not being woke enough to treat the Hellenists in a fully inclusive and less discriminatory way. Because they know … everyone is still learning. This is the beginning. No one really knows what they’re doing. There’s grace all the way around.
They look at the problem, they say, OK, how can we fix this, so we keep doing what we need to be doing: serving God, and one another, and the world around us, by sharing the word, and by sharing food? One person can’t do it all. Twelve people can’t do it all. But together, we can do everything God calls us to do.
And if we think of grace as kindness and of making life more possible and comfortable for someone else – and this is one way to think of it – this simple, but significant, step in the life of the church is a practical example of that.
And if we think of “power” as ability, to make things happen, things that people may not believe possible … and this is, honestly, one good way to think about power … this is a practical example of that, too. It may not look exactly like a miracle, not like walking on water or changing water into wine, but it’s something like a miracle. An intervention in the situation that changes peril to praise, discontent to delight, distance to closeness, hostility to hospitality, antagonism to cooperation.
Growing in that kind of grace and power is still an ongoing task of the church, the body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Stretching our capacity to show kindness and to extend welcome and aid to others; building our powers, in the sense of our ability to work with others to accomplish things, to meet needs and make good things happen.
Because that is what it means to grow up in every way into him who is the head, as the letter to the Ephesians puts it – to share in the grace and power that we see in Jesus, to exhibit the way of life of the kingdom of heaven, to the world – starting with one another, and radiating out to the wider world, the way light radiates from a lamp.
Christians, all of us, are on this path of growth in grace and power, together. That process isn’t effortless, and certainly not always painless … but it’s always promising.
It’s what we come here for … and what we keep signing up for as we take on specific tasks in the group … and what we continue to gain skill and wisdom in as we keep living this life day after day, day by day, listening for the movement of the Holy Spirit, trying to notice the needs around us, and respond to those with practical gestures of kindness and care, and recognizing that in the church, we share the work of extending God’s grace and power to one another, and to those still outside.
It’s one of the reasons we gather at Christ’s table, to be nourished by the grace and power of Jesus Christ – for the sake of growing in grace and power, as members of the body of Christ, alive and at work in the world.
The Easter season seems like a particularly good time to remember that.
Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons