I preached in church tonight on Acts 6:17. For some reason it didn't record, so here is the full script for those of you who said you'd read it and give me some feedback. Any useful feedback from anyone is much appreciated! It's pretty much copy and pasted so there'll be some weird bits, e.g. the illustrations that I tend now to not use notes for so the notes here might be slightly strange. I've put the illustrations in italics so feel free to skip over them.
Have you ever been part of a team? It's exciting isn't it to be part of a group in whatever context, whether it's a sport or something like a holiday club or at work, when you are working together towards something and you have the same goal and are all excited about and pressing forwards for the same thing.
When I was at university I was involved in the Christian Union. I got involved in loads of different ways and from Feb 2007 to Feb 2008 I was involved in leading it. There was a team of 8 of us that we gave the grand title of the executive committee or the exec, and I was given the title of Chair or President and so I was there to lead the exec in leading the CU. All very pretentious names but it was exciting stuff to be involved in.
One of my main responsibilities as president was ensuring that as a group the Christian Union kept focussed on what we were there to do. We were there to be a mission team, evangelising the other students at the university. So one of my biggest responsibilities was ensuring that what we did as a CU - meetings, events etc. reflected our aim and that we stayed focussed on the task in hand.
This was sometimes an easy thing to do and sometimes not so easy! I remember one time specifically. One of the things that I was keen to do during my time on exec was getting the churches in Manchester to understand the CU a bit better, to see that we work not in competition but compliment each other, and so feel more comfortable in encouraging their students to be involved.
Unfortunately, we once sent out an email to the church leaders about something we were doing as a CU and we managed to really offend one of them. It was a bit of a disaster and it brought a whole load of issues to the surface between the CU and that church in a long, and not always pleasant email. It was a real headache for me and I had to put in a lot of time into talking to people and thinking carefully how to deal with the problems.
One week in our main CU meeting we had a speaker come who was on the staff of UCCF and was really wise and so I thought I'd chat to him about the problem. He was very helpful in lots of ways, but the most helpful thing that he said to me was in reminding me about what we were there for as a CU. I was getting so distracted about this issue with the church that it was consuming my thinking and I was forgetting what CU was all about, and what my role within that was.
This is a potential problem that they're facing here in the early church here in Acts 6 – have a bible open to follow.
The church was growing. The apostles were out preaching and the Spirit was at work and more and more people were being added to the Jerusalem church. It must have been an exciting place to be. But with more people come more problems.
In the church there was beginning to be a bit of a natural divide. On the one side were the Hellenists, and on the other were the Hebrews.
The church in Jerusalem was mainly made up of Jews, but within them there were these two main groups. The Hellenists were the Greek speaking Jews, the Hebrews were the Aramaic speaking Jews.
The Greek speaking Jews, the Hellenists, were those Jews that had been dispersed among the Greek speaking gentile world. As such, not only did they speak the same language as them, but naturally they had been influenced by the Greek culture. They read from a different translation of the Old Testament, and they were shaped by the world that they'd grown up in.
On the other side were the Aramaic speaking Jews, the Hebrews. They were born and bred in Israel, their first language was aramaic and they were inhabitants of the promised land that had been given by God. Traditionally they despised the gentile culture and clung to their Jewish ways. Apparently the rabbis taught 'cursed is he who teaches his son the learning of the Greeks'. They were conservative in their culture and their customs.
Members of these very different cultures had now been brought together into one family by the gospel. But did this mean that they automatically were best of friends? Of course not. Let me read to you a bit from a book by David Jackman on the situation. He says:
“There were deep, strongly held differences, just the kind of situation which Satan always likes to exploit. There was an apparently genuine grievance here. The Hellenistic widows were being overlooked. That was not really surprising because they were probably quite numerous. Many of the Jews of the dispersion who lived outside Israel longed to end their days in Jerusalem. Consequently there were always many widows who, after their husbands had died somewhere in Greece or Cyprus or Syria, came to Jerusalem. And as the number of believers multiplied, so too would the number of Greek speaking widows. Therefore, the task of meeting their needs, because they were immigrants without family homes and often without very much financial support, would become very great and they were especially vulnerable to being overlooked.”
So, that was the situation, and with the tensions that were already there you can imagine what happened. The Greek speaking Jews felt hard done by – why should the Hebrews be well looked after while our widows are forgotten? The apostles are all Aramaic speaking after all – they're on their side!
So the apostles have a bit of a dilemma. The oversight was probably accidental rather than deliberate, but it had the potential to disrupt the unity of the church. God had commissioned the apostles to be specifically praying and spreading the gospel but the issue of caring for those in need was threatening to take all their time and stop them from doing what they've been gifted for, and on top was threatening to fracture the church.
So they use a bit of common sense. They find seven people within the church who have a reputation for being good, who are wise and obviously have the Spirit. As a church they appoint them to oversee the care for those in need, they pray for them and that's it – problem solved! The widows will be cared for and the ministry of the apostles can go on.
So that's the story, that's the situation.
Now, don't you love in the gospels the way that Jesus sometimes uses parables. He's there surrounded by a group of people who he wants to challenge. And so he starts by telling them what appears to be a nice story.
So I think of the time in Luke 15 when Jesus is there with some tax collectors and sinners and along come the pharisees and scribes. They start complaining about Jesus – 'what does he think he's doing sitting down with a bunch of sinners for tea'. So Jesus starts telling them an apparently innocent story. If you had a hundred sheep, and one went missing, would you go looking for it? Of course you would. You'd leave the 99 behind to find the lost one, and when you find it you'd be over the moon and have a party because you've got it back. The pharisees are sat there thinking 'yeah, sure... what's he on about?'. Then comes the slap in the face. The story has a point. Jesus tells them that in heaven they'll rejoice when a lost sheep is found – when one sinner who has wandered away comes back to God. That's why Jesus is having tea with the sinners. He's left the 99 sheep, the pharisees who think they're sorted and think they don't need what Jesus has to offer outside whilst he's searching out those who need him. In your face pharisees.
Now this story in Acts can have a similar effect. Yes, it's there because it actually happened, Luke is just telling us history. But as I've read this passage this week it's been more than just a nice story from history, and i've seen that God has stuff to teach us too through this account of the early church.
So i'm going to whiz through 5 different questions that I think this passage causes us to ask of ourselves in Browning Avenue Baptist church in January 2010.
1.How do we approach problems?
We saw that the Hellenists had a genuine concern. These widows weren't being cared for, so it was right to bring the concern out into the open so that it could be dealt with. But the way they went about making the complaint wasn't helpful. That word complaint in verse one is translated in various ways in the new testament, whispering, complaining and grumbling. The issue came to the surface effectively through people winging among themselves. What should they have done? Those that recognised the problem, or those that felt they weren't being treated properly should have gone to the leadership in a clear and loving manner and pointed out the problem. That is what they failed to do, and that it what Christians today hardly ever do. Winging is one of the devil's best weapons in the church. I know at times and about certain issues this goes on in Browning Avenue with most people.
One of the devil's most powerful weapons is getting Christians to divide. A separation within a church of 'us' and 'them' can spring up so easily, and can be extremely damaging. It can spring up through serious issues and through, in the scheme of things, insignificant ones: the colour of the walls, the way that music is played, the way the church should be laid out, what type of fence we should have. We divide into us and them and the devil has a foothold. Church disunity always has the potential to hinder and even stop the work of the gospel. A fractured church is rarely missionary focussed and evangelistic in orientation. Disunity can drain us emotionally – it makes us so busy fighting fires and being engaged within the fellowship that we have no energy left to be reaching out.
If you have an issue with someone or something, first think whether it should be an issue at all, or if you're making something out of nothing. Then, if you think something does need to change, don't grumble, whisper and complain about it but let's be open with one another. We must share problems face to face and not talk about them behind other people's backs. They must be brought forward lovingly and carefully discussed with the elders so as a church we can understand each other and solve them together.
So the first question that this passage should make us ask ourselves is 'How do we approach problems?"
2.Are the leadership of our church free enough to get on with their job?
The apostles knew that they had a particular responsibility from God and were gifted in a particular way by God, and so they recognised that it was appropriate for someone else to be responsible for the task of caring for the widows. That's why the seven were chosen.
Now, Paul and Ben aren't apostles. But as the leaders of the church they are called to a specific ministry. They have certain responsibilities that are there for them specifically to do, and God has given them certain gifts to use. There's a number of challenges for us here.
Firstly, do we know what Paul and Ben should be doing in their positions? Prayer and the ministry of the word are broad things to say and are probably two of the main things that we expect from them. We expect them to pastor the flock too? What else? Do we have a clear idea of what we expect them to be doing and what they actually are doing? Are we clear about what we think are the specific things that only they can and should be doing?
I think that's really important for two reasons. Firstly so that we can hold them accountable. If there are certain things that really only the leaders of the church can do, then it's important that they are actually doing them. If we don't know what they are, we can't hold them accountable.
The apostles had the danger of being distracted with other ministry that they weren't called to do. They were clear what they should be doing and this enabled them to be getting on with it. We don't want the situation to be that Ben and Paul are so busy doing things that they aren't necessarily called to or gifted in, just because they need doing, that they aren't doing the things that they are uniquely positioned to do. Whether it's their fault in wanting to do everything, or ours in expecting them to do everything, it's still a potential problem.
Instead, we want them to be getting on with doing the work we've called them to using the gifts that God has given them. These areas may be broader than usual in a church as small as ours, because as a small church we're blessed to be able to employ two people. So we should be looking at their weeks and encouraging them to press on with the ministry they're called to. This is something the elders should do and I think are doing, but it's something we should all be aware of. But equally in this, we have a responsibility to make sure that if their weeks are too full to carry out the responsibilities that they need to be doing, then we should do what we can to take work from them, either offering to do the things we can do, or discussing whether there are things that perhaps we need to stop doing as a church.
Practically speaking, perhaps this means that it would be helpful for us to simply have a list of the core, basic things that Ben and Paul between them, or individually are called to do. This will be based on gifting, and what is biblically laid out as a responsibility. Now no doubt they will be doing other things too, but we can then make sure that they're getting on with the essential tasks, and we can do something to help when this isn't happening.
Now linked to this is the third challenge:
3.Do we encourage people to use their gifts in ministry?
How many of you recognise this picture?
Let me read to you an article from the BBC website which might be familiar to you.
“A janitor's hidden talent as a virtuoso pianist has been discovered at a leading Scots university.
Aleksander Kudajczyk, 28, from Katowice in Poland, cleans corridors at Glasgow University but was overheard playing concert-standard pieces.
He had asked to use a piano in the University chapel and staff watched him play using a webcam.
Chaplaincy secretary Joan Keenan said his music was so amazing that colleagues also logged on to watch.
Since the revelation, Aleksander has been allowed to practice for up to six hours a day at the university.
On Tuesday, he will play a concert of Chopin pieces during Glasgow's West End Festival, his second public performance during the event.
Ms Keenan said: "Until Aleksander started playing, no-one had any idea of his ability.
"When I first logged on to hear him, I couldn't believe it - he was playing the most amazing music. He was really nervous playing his first concert, but everybody loved him.
"I am just really happy that this might set him on the right road."
Aleksander, who learned to play the piano when he was four, still works as a cleaner at Glasgow University.
Before arriving in Scotland about six months ago, he worked as a professional musician in Poland.”
This is often the way that gifts work in churches. We happen to stumble across the fact that someone is good at something and we think of it as an interesting and nice surprise which every now and then we might remember and get them to use it.
There tends to be an attitude in churches that ministry is what's done by the people employed for full-time paid ministry. But the fact is that people are gifted in different ways, and we all have different ministries to fulfil. Other jobs that need doing within the church and outside of it are just as much ministries as what pastors do, they're just different forms. And so God gives different people different gifts.
In Acts 6 the apostles recognised their responsibility to the ministry of the word and prayer, and not to caring for widows. It wasn't to say that one was better than the other, but that for the church to fulfil it's mission then different people had to do different things. So they sought people who didn't have their gifting but were instead appropriate for the task of helping the widows.
If we genuinely think that it is important for the ministry of the word and prayer to go on unhindered, and if we think that God gifts people to do the other tasks, then we should actively be trying to recognise our own gifts, and the gifts of others in the church to get them doing the things that they're gifted to do.
That's all well and good you might say, but I have no idea what I'm gifted at! Well, funny you should say that! Starting on Wednesday the 3rd of February is a course for everyone in the church called Network. The aim of the course is to get a better understanding of what the Bible says about gifts, and to help us all to assess what our gifts are and how we might go about using them in the church. So put it in your diaries, get babysitters if you need to and make sure you're there.
God calls different people to different ministries, but all Christians are called to ministry. In Acts 6, the same Greek word is used in reference to both what the 12 apostles are doing as well as what the chosen 7 are doing. Both are necessary to ensure that the ultimate goal is effectively achieved. We do a disservice by calling the pastorate the ministry, as all are called to serve. Full time Christian ministry is what we all do, whether working for a church as a pastor, as a mum, doing social work or nursing, running a children's club or whatever. God calls his people to a wide diversity of ministries.
Note however that when choosing people for the ministry, they don't only think about who'd be good at the job. See verse 3. In whatever form of ministry, they are interested in finding people who are spiritual – getting on with the Christian life and serving God. We need to make sure that we don't divide the spiritual jobs in church from the non-spiritual jobs, given the spiritual jobs to the spiritual people, and the non-spiritual jobs to the people who aren't really engaged with God. Spiritual jobs in church and non-spiritual jobs are for spiritual people.
4.Are there areas that we are guilty of neglecting?
The complaint made by the Hellenists is that their widows are being neglected and not cared for. Whilst recognising that different people are called to different things and encouraging people to use their specific gifts, there are still certain things that we should always be doing as church which we need to make sure we are doing.
Now, the important point here is that we should keep an eye what the Bible calls us to, and be aware of whether or not we are neglecting a particular thing. But, as the problem in the Jerusalem church is caring for widows, I thought that that's an appropriate issue for us to think about briefly. It's fair to say that financially elderly people are probably better looked after now than they were in the first century. The welfare state goes at least some way to ensure that people aren't left financially helpless. There may be times that they need support but usually that's not the issue.
So we can move on. Or can we? See I wonder if we sometimes are guilty of neglecting the elderly members of our congregation in other ways. Though the financial concerns aren't the same, I think as a society we face different problems. In our age of increasing mobility and individuality, there are lots of elderly people who are very lonely, including members of our congregation. I'm not saying that we do nothing as a church to help, but from what I can see our care for the elderly members of the congregation is sporadic at best, and many of them can feel very lonely through the week when they're unable to get out and spend large stretches of time alone at home. This is a genuine need and it's perhaps something that we're sometimes guilty of neglecting.
To apply some of the principles we've looked at already then, could it be that the solution is we find someone with the gift of administration or organisation. They put together a list of people who are gifted in listening and talking to elderly people – i'm sure there are lots of people in this church who you can think of now who are more than able in that. They can put together another list of people who would benefit from a visit. They could then ensure that the lonely eldelrly people in the church are visited more regularly than they are currently.
It might mean 10 people in church giving up an hour a week. But if that means they are using a gift from God, and if that means that we take our responsibility to care for people seriously and we actually go someway to doing it, then great. I know that this happens a bit, but perhaps with a bit of organisation it could be better?
It's a practical solution to a practical problem, but that's exactly what they did in the Jerusalem church. When we are presented with a problem as a church, we need to address it and practically deal with it. I used one example of a problem that I think we face at the moment. It's fair to say that I don't know everything that goes on in the church so I may well be wrong. But what I really wanted to show is that we need to learn a lesson from the Jerusalem church and when we are faced with a problem, we need to openly address it an do what we can to practically deal with it.
5.Are we committed to praying for all ministry?
The Jerusalem church is presented with a practical problem and so they provide a practical solution. But just because they've dealt with things in a practical way, they still recognise that they are dependent on God to work in all things, and so they finish by praying.
Now verse 6 is translated differently in different translations. The NIV says “they presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them”, whereas the ESV says, “These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
The difference looks small, but the changed meaning is important. If the ESV is right, it means that rather than just a few people ruling the roost and everyone else watching from the outside, everyone is involved in commissioning them. Everyone is part of the process, if someone is set aside for a particular role, everyone is involved in choosing them and commissioning them. It means that noone argues with the decision.
It also means that everyone prays for everyone else. All ministry is given by God, and people in all ministry are dependent on God to work through them. So the members of the church aren't just praying for people involved in the spiritual responsibilities, but rather all ministry is seen as important and seen as needing prayer.
Do we ensure that we are praying for all the different things that people are involved in. In our housegroups and church services, and in our personal prayer lives, we need to make sure that we're praying for Paul and Ben. And we need to make sure that we're praying for everyone else – that those doing meet and greet would be warm and welcoming, that those helping at kids cafe or elmers patch would be doing a good job and would be honouring God, that those cooking for Hot Potatoes would be doing it to the glory of God with joy, and that God would use them to be making nice food! And on the list goes. We should be praying for people as they seek to glorify God using their gifts in the workplace. Everything we do is in service of God, and thus dependent on him, so we need to be praying for each other in our different situations.
So there we are, 5 questions that I think this passage should make us ask ourselves.
But finally, when we look at something practical like this passage it's easy to forget what it's all about. The early church is passionately committed to the kingdom of God. They want the word of God to prosper. They want to see new people coming to Christ, and Christians caring for each other and growing in Christ. That's the reason they do this – the ultimately want God to be glorified, so they want the apostles to be able to go on preaching so the gospel spreads, and they want God to be glorified in the way they care for widows, and so they provide a practical solution so that both can happen.
Look at verse 7.
So in the previous few chapters of Acts the apostles have been physically persecuted for the gospel being preached. There's been moral compromise within the church in Ananias and Sapphira which had to be dealt with. There have been threats to unity within the church and practical problems of care which had to be dealt with. But they knew what they were about, and as attacks came, moral, physical or internal distractions, they recognised them and remained focussed on the word of God working in the lives of people to create this new community. God worked through them, and the word of God continued to increase. Let's be committed to the same thing.