Today marks the last week in my sermon series on the membership vows we take as United Methodist Christians. This series has involved a close look at the early Church seen through the lens of the Book of Acts. Acts presents us with a portrait of the early Church and its development from the time of Jesus’ ascension to Christianity’s spread across the Roman Empire. It is not, however, a “history” in our modern understanding of the genre and so it is difficult, at times, to get a sense of the chronology within this narrative. This week we’re talking about the vow of service as we look at a story in the 6th chapter of Acts. We get a little better understanding of the problem presented in this chapter by going back and examining the circumstances of the Church’s birth at Pentecost. Now, before it became – for us – the birthday of the Church, Pentecost was an important Jewish festival. The Jews had three annual religious festivals that called for a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem. But, truth be told, it was pretty uncommon for the average Jew, devout thought they may be, to make three trips a year to Jerusalem. Travel was difficult, dangerous and expensive. Yet, even so, the population of Jerusalem would explode with pilgrims at festival times. That is why, when we read about Pentecost, we’re told that the city is filled with Jews from all over the place. Acts, chapter 2, tells us that 3,000 people became followers of Jesus after hearing Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Now, without a doubt, it would not have been feasible for all of them to remain in Jerusalem from that day forward. However, it is likely that many did remain. Interestingly, one bible scholar I read this week purposed that, as Jews got “up in years” many would use a festival occasion as an opportunity for relocation. It would be their desire, as a devout Jew, to end their life in the holy city and to be buried there. And that background, you may have just realized, provides a plausible explanation for this morning’s scripture about this superabundance of widows in need in the early Jerusalem Church. If, in fact, many elderly Jews with their wives would have made a final festival to Jerusalem near the end of their life and they did, in fact, proceed their wives in death, Jerusalem would have more than its fair share of widows to care for. And, if some of those who traveled late in life to Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost, heard Peter’s sermon about Jesus and became converts in “The Way,” the term Luke uses for the early Church, you can now see why this young Church is being strained by the need to care for widows who, if they did not have adult sons in Jerusalem, would have been entirely, completely dependent upon the Church. Care for widows was a mandate within the laws God provided to the Jewish people and so it should be no surprise that the early Christians, continuing to identify themselves as Jews, take this responsibility very seriously. It would have, no doubt, been important to the apostles and yet, despite their best efforts, the mission is running into trouble. In fact, it has become a source of divisiveness and conflict within this nascent Church. And, whether accurate or note, we all know that “perception is reality” and these Jewish Christians who are relative newcomers to the Jerusalem scene, believe they are getting the short end of the stick.
Now one of the things that has surprised me about this sermon series is that I have noticed some things about the Book of Acts that I’d never really noticed before. On the second Sunday of this series, I spoke about our promise to support the Church with our prayers and I looked at a story out of the third chapter of Acts in which the apostles, after being questioned and detained by the religious authorities, pray to God to give them increased boldness to proclaim the gospel even in the face of persecution. It was that week that I realized that, in all my years of leading church membership classes, as I have talked with new members about the need to support the church by praying for members who are ill or in need, the church’s ministries and leaders, etc., I had never instructed new members that, they ought – that we ought – to be praying for God to embolden us in our witness and ministry, even – and particularly – when we face challenges or opposition.
And this morning’s text also brought some surprise to me when I realized what a dramatic difference there is between the interpretation and presentation of Christian service in most Methodist Churches today and the interpretation and presentation of the ministry of service in the first-century Church. We talk an enormous amount about service as something we do for those who are NOT a part of our congregation; that is, we often define service as “service projects for the needy of our city or in rural Appalachia or African nations suffering drought and war.” Likewise, we often generate a great deal of hoopla around the topic of spiritual gifts and spiritual gift inventories. I had a member once who was just completely fascinated with wanting to take spiritual gifts inventories. I don’t know; she may have had the spiritual gift of taking spiritual gifts inventories. Now, don’t misunderstand me, God has made each of us uniquely with unique gifts and abilities and, certainly the Church functions more effectively in its mission, when we discover our spiritual gifts and put them to use. I would have to say that one of my greatest joys in ministry is to help someone discover their spiritual gifts and put them into practice. It’s exciting; it’s energizing; it’s sheer joy.
And yet, our service to the Church does not – cannot – stop with our spiritual gifts. And, if we take the stories we find in Acts seriously, service is, primarily, to be shown to those already in the Church. Now, that does not mean that we don’t care about people outside the Church or try to help them. But what it means is that, the early Church cared so effectively for its members that that fact, in and of itself, became their greatest evangelism asset. Their faithful, compassionate, passionate care for one another across ethnic and cultural boundaries was like a blazing neon sign that drew everyone’s attention.
And no story, perhaps, makes that point more clear than the passage I presented this morning from Acts, chapter 6.
The early Church has many widows to care for and, as I’ve mentioned, whether reality or not, those who have come from Greek dominated geographical regions perceive that their widows are not receiving the same level of care as the native widows; particularly when it comes to food. Now, the first interesting thing to notice is that the apostles take this complaint seriously. They don’t ignore it; they don’t try to sweep it under the rug; they don’t become defensive in the face of this criticism. They respond; and they do so in a wise way. They call forth leadership to meet this ministry need from within the current congregation. They don’t launch a search committee for a paid professional or post a job description on ministryjobs.com. They recruit leadership from among their own membership. They call the community together – kind of the ancient version of a Methodist Church Conference, we might imagine – and they make a proposal. The congregation is challenged to assess, for themselves, and to select from among its members men who can relieve the apostles of this responsibility and who can carry out and manage this important ministry. The apostles give the congregation three criterion for selection: 1) they must be men who are well thought of by the faith community; 2) it must be clear that they are filled with the Holy Spirit; and 3) they must be individuals who demonstrate wisdom. In other words, they don’t need a culinary degree but, along with empowering of the Spirit, they must be wise about making decisions for developing and implementing this food distribution, as well as being people whose decisions will be respected by others. And, one more thing, although we’re not told it was a condition the apostles named, these men that are chosen, based on their names, appear to come from the ranks of the very people who feel prejudiced against. They don’t choose leadership from among the establishment. They choose leadership from the ranks of those whose concerns are being addressed.
But here is an interesting appendix to this story. Immediately, as soon as this scene closes, our bible narrator begins to tell us about the ministry work of one of these seven men, Stephen. And, although he was commissioned for food distribution, that is but a portion of his ministry. He performs wonders and signs just like Peter and John and the other apostles. He’s a powerful preacher and evangelist. And those ministry strengths will put him at odd with the authorities and Stephen, this newly commissioned minister of food distribution soon becomes the first Christian martyr. Just before he is stoned to death, he will deliver the longest sermon recorded in the Book of Acts. (Now, let me just add, his being brought before the authorities precedes the sermon; it’s the impetus for the sermon. The length of the sermon has nothing to do with the stoning. I just wanted to make that clear.) But my point it, although Stephen was commissioned to distribute food, he is ready, willing and able to proclaim the gospel in powerful ways, even under the very worst of circumstances.
Now friends, I have to tell you, although I didn’t realize it weeks ago when I selected this scripture, I am really excited that it is our final text for this series because it is a passage that has enormous significance for Trinity Church.
As all of you know, we are hoping to grow. We are working to grow. We’ve been working with a consultant. We’ve been assessing our strengths and our challenges. We’ve been attending seminars and reading articles and getting out into the community. We want to grow. And this text has enormous wisdom for us in that pursuit.
First, it tells us that – with growth – comes the need for more ministers. Now, not ordained clergy, mind you. Rather, as we see in Acts, ministers or servants who are raised up from the ranks to meet the ministry need at hand. Trinity, if we are going to grow, we must all be ready to dig in to the work of ministry. With growth comes greater need. And it will take all of us – not just paid ministry staff, not just current lay leadership – but all of us to meet that increased need because when our community sees how well we care for one another – both those who have been in this church for decades and those who haven’t even been here a year – that will captivate them. That will further enhance our ability to grow the Church. That will be the loudest gospel proclamation we can make.
Secondly, this morning’s story teaches us that, as new people arrive, we need to engage them not only in the ministry, but also in the conversation about the ministry. They will need a say in how new ministry is developed, how priorities are set, and how needs are addressed. Sometimes those of us who’ve been in leadership awhile can be anxious about letting go of the reins. We don’t know people very well and we get nervous. What if they don’t follow through? What if they don’t understand how important something is? What if they don’t understand how we’ve been doing it all these years? And so we think we’ll just give them one small thing to help with… and there’s nothing wrong with that. All of us need to be ready to step up and help where help is needed, even in the small stuff. But new folks also need to be engaged in the big stuff. And when we engage them in the ministry – the development, the plans, the strategy, along with the execution – we’ll be amazed at all the gifts we see emerge. Who knows? It might have never crossed Peter’s mind to turn the pulpit over to Stephen. But wow, could that guy preach!
Friends, serving the Church means a willingness for all of us to do what needs to be done and to share our ministry authority and control with others.
I think these are exciting times in the life of Trinity Church. I’m excited about our future and what our ministry will become. But we’ll only get there if we all are willing not only to do what we enjoy or what we’re good at; but to roll up our sleeves and work alongside one another and do whatever needs to be done so that the proclaiming of the gospel and the living out of its truth can grow and flourish. So that the Word of God will continue to spread and the number of disciples will increase greatly here in Lafayette.
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