Another Kind of Rising - thrive UMC Official Blog

Another Kind of Rising

Acts 6:1-7

            Since the middle of June, we’ve been reading from a book in the Bible called The Acts of the Apostles (Luke, part II).  And this book is filled with miracles.  The first miracle we shared about was the Pentecost miracle: where suddenly the disciples of Jesus were able to speak new, intelligible languages, in order to share God’s word.  Then, about two weeks ago, we read a story about a miraculous healing.  A grown man was able to walk on his own two feet for the first time in his life, because of the invitation on the apostles Peter and John, in the name of Jesus Christ.  Today we’re going to read about another miracle –but this one may not sound so spectacular to most of us. 

            But before we get right to it, I want you to know that we’re skipping ahead a little. Peter and John were released after their trial by the temple authorities, but they were scolded and told to stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus.  Of course they don’t do that!  But instead, the scolding of the authorities seems to embolden them even further!  And the community of disciples they are leading grows. It grows both in number, and also in the ways that they are sharing together.   

            But it turns out that all of this sharing is difficult and challenging work!  And in chapter 5 we’ll find a married couple drops dead at the feet of Peter –apparently because  they exaggerated the gift they were giving to the community.  And then, as we get into chapter 6, yet another new challenge comes to face the newborn church.  Please turn with me in Acts, chapter 6, verses 1-7.

About that time, while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables. Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word.” This proposal pleased the entire community. They selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The community presented these seven to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. God’s word continued to grow. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly. Even a large group of priests embraced the faith.

            So the new challenge the apostles are facing is… a complaint!  Can you believe it –even in the very earliest days of the church, people were complaining!   Were they complaining about the sermon being too long, or that the songs they were singing together were either too old or too new?  No, they were complaining because some of the Greek-speaking widows in their midst were being overlooked at meal-time.

            In other words, when the food is being distributed around the community at meal-time, a group of widows aren’t getting their share.  They are missing out on their portion of food.  And does anyone remember, from our last series, what it’s called when someone ‘misses out on their share?’  There’s a word for it, and we love to talk about it in church.

            Sin!  To miss out on your share or your portion is sin!  So this is an example of what sin looks like: it looks like hungry widows in the church community! The community of disciples is supposed to share so that no one goes without, but somehow this specific group of people is going overlooked. But this problem gets even more complicated because, it turns out, the widows who are getting left out are the Greek widows.

            Now, to get a clearer sense of what might have been going on here, let’s put this problem in a more contemporary context: imagine there’s a church in the metro area.  Say it’s a church full of mostly English-speaking white people –which I know might be hard to imagine here in Iowa.  And the Holy Spirit is moving through this church –they’re reaching out to the community, they’re incredibly generous, and they’re sharing what they have with the needy and raising them up.  Then, it turns out that, as they’re growing, people who aren’t white, and for whom English is not their first language start showing up.  And they’re welcome and people are friendly enough to them… but then somehow it turns out that once the time for the potluck rolls around, there is a whole group of Spanish-speaking ladies who aren’t getting fed. 

            This. Is. A. Problem.  Right?  All the old white ladies are getting food –in fact, they’re getting seconds and taking food home in doggie bags.  So a few Spanish-speaking folks raise a complaint –right?  Of course they do! ‘Hey, we’re all supposed to be sharing here, but we can’t help but notice all the white people are eating, but some of our Latina-ladies back here aren’t! What’s going on?’ 

            One of the things that’s interesting about this story in the Bible is that it never addresses the reason that these widow’s weren’t getting fed.  Maybe it was a simple oversight –maybe there were some deep-seeded issues of prejudice or entitlement that were going on.  We don’t know.  But let’s jump back to our scripture story to look at how the apostles solve the problem. 

            First of all, let’s notice what they don’t do.  The apostles don’t just ignore the problem or try to explain it away. Instead, they take action.  Notice too: they also don’t simply whisper into the ears of the food servers or distributors: ‘hey, let’s make sure we don’t miss that group of Greek-speaking widows next time, okay?’  Instead, they call a meeting of everyone. And remember, “all the disciples” means about 5,000 people.  And this detail is super important: because if some specific group of people is getting left out, then it is the whole community’s problem.  It’s not just a problem for those widows, or for some particular food servers, or for the leaders at the top.  This oversight –this missing out– of some people has implications for everyone.  If you don’t hear anything else I have to say today –take that one home with you: if a few people are missing out, it’s a problem for everyone.

            Anyways, they call everybody together, and they immediately make an announcement –which in effect amounts to: ‘we don’t have time for this!’  Which has to be abotu the best way to start out a huge meeting, right?  Make everyone stop what they’re doing, call everybody together, wait for all of the 5,000 people to arrive and then finally lead things off with: ‘We as your leaders have better things to do!’  Of course, there are a bunch of other ways to interpret that line –but for me, this response sounds so real, and so human, and so smart.  Because the 12 apostles are being invited to become the food-managers for the community, aren’t they?  And this incident is going to set a precedent, isn’t it?  So if the apostles stop going out and proclaiming God’s word here to make sure the food gets doled out properly, then they’re going to be the de facto food-managers from here on out.  And then what happens to their ministry to the rest of Jerusalem as apostles?  It dies and the church stops growing!

            So look what the apostles do, and see how brilliant it is: they invite the whole community to select seven people to be responsible for this issue. Pick seven people who are well-respected and endowed with wisdom from the Holy Spirit!  “We will put them in charge of this concern!” they say. It’s going to be their responsibility to make sure these Greek-speaking widows get fed.

            And that’s what the people do, they select seven men, and the text goes through the trouble to naming them all.  Now, many of these characters don’t end up showing up again in Acts –so we should be wondering: why did the tellers of this story go through the trouble of naming these random dudes?  Because it needs to show you that their names are all –every single one of them- Greek names. And the last guy wasn’t even born Jewish.

            Do we see what’s going on here?  Most of the leading apostles had been among the 12 disciples who were closest to Jesus, right?  And most of them had come from Galilee. They all spoke Aramaic. But their group is getting bigger, and it’s becoming more diverse.  So what do they do?  They invite the community to select a few people to take responsibility over local affairs.  In other words, they are raising up new leaders –and not just any leaders –not leaders just like them- but they’re raising up leaders who can best represent the population that’s being overlooked and underserved.

            So then the text tells us, the community brought these seven new leaders to the apostles, and the apostles prayed and laid hands on them. Back then, this is how leaders would transfer authority –they believed the Holy Spirit, which empowered their ministry, could be passed from person to person by touch.  And it was also a sign to the whole community that the apostles were passing on –they were sharing- their power with the leaders the community had selected.  

            Then, at last, the text culminates in the final verse of our reading; it says: “God’s word continued to grow.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased significantly.  Even a large group of priests embraced the faith.”

            Now, all of us have seen leaders who like to keep power to themselves, right?  They’re people who try to do everything themselves, and nothing gets done without them. I’ve heard people tell stories of pastors who had to run all the meetings, and preach every Sunday, and be the one to visit everyone in the hospital, and lead all the classes, and tell everyone which missions and service the church would do, and even what color the new church carpet should be.  And the result is that the ministry of the church is smaller because of it.  And the same thing can be said for micromanaging bosses: they’re not satisfied with giving their team a sense of direction and equipping them to do their job –they have to look over people’s shoulders as they work and criticize them every step of the way.   That is unholy leadership, brothers and sisters!  When any leader keeps power to themselves and neglects to pass it on to others, the whole body suffers for it.  And the end result is always that the power of the community they lead is diminished.

            That is not the example of leadership we have in our scriptures: leaders raise up new leaders.  And when leaders raise up new leaders, God’s word will continue to grow. 

            Now, before we get to this morning’s call to action, I want to draw your attention for one minute to back to that sentence in verse 7, where it says, “God’s word continued to grow.”  Most of us, when we hear anyone talk about ‘God’s word’ what do we think of? 

            We think of the bible, right?  We talk about the bible as being God’s word, because it shows us what God has said and done.  But that’s not the only example we have of God’s word, is it?  Can anyone else give me an example of God’s word being something other than scripture? 

            Think of the opening of the bible: God speaks and what happens?  Creation!  The material world, all of nature –us!  We’re all the product of God’s word.

            And what else?  What about the gospel of John?  What does the gospel of John tell us about God’s word?  It became flesh! Right?  God’s word became flesh in Jesus! 

            Now, what’s interesting (and maybe a little distressing) about each of those examples, is that they’re all finished, right?  The bible is complete and no one is proposing new additions.  No new forms of matter have been brought into being since the initial event of creation. The total number of atoms in the universe isn’t increasing.  And Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ –he was a one-time deal, right?  And he went up to heaven.  So if that’s all God has had to say, then God’s word sounds pretty static and stagnant, doesn’t it?

            But here the scriptures themselves tell us: God’s word continues to grow!  That means that the mouth of God has not closed on us!  God is still speaking –the word is fluid and alive, and it can increase! And the place that it can increase –is in people!  The venue of its growth is us!

            That’s what’s at stake in our gathering here today: we come together so that God’s word can grow in the world.  We’re here so that God’s word can come alive in us –so we can become empowered in knowledge and compassion and service.  And we’re here so we can then leave this place and pass the  gift we have received on to others. And if we want that to happen, then we have to be ready to raise up new leaders.  We have to be prepared to put responsibility into the hands of others, and to give them the authority to work it out. And then we have to step back and let them work.

            So this is our call to action this morning: let us open our eyes, and ears, and hearts and ask: is anyone being overlooked?  Are there needs of people in our community here that are going unmet?  Is there a group of people that’s missing out on their portion?  Is there a group that’s being systematically left in sin? 

            That’s the first part: just being observant.  Just notice what’s missing.  Notice who is missing –and by the way, if our community in here doesn’t look like our community out there, then we have a problem, don’t we?  We are missing the fullness of our call if our church doesn’t reflect the world around us. And we need to sit and pray about that.  We need to pray to change so that we have hearts for the people who aren’t with us or like us.

            And second, once we’ve noticed who is missing out, we need to gather and raise up new leaders.  Who in our midst is best equipped –with our respect and the Holy Spirit’s wisdom- to be in charge of that concern?  Which of our neighbors in the pews around us could make sure our current oversights are seen and cared for?  Who might be the new budding leaders in our midst? 

            Brothers and sisters in Christ: this is our task as a church in the days ahead: we need to do everything we can to make sure our blessings are spread around and shared!  We need to pass on not only our resources, but also our authority.  For that is the heart of our Easter calling: to rise up!  And to bring others along with us.  As we rise, we need to reach out our hands and bring our neighbors up with us! That means new leaders for a more powerful ministry.  So that God’s word can continue to grow.

            Let’s pray.