READ AND PRAY, ADAPT AND OBEY
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Our widows matter too. This was the message that the Hellenistic Jews had for the Palestinian Jews. We’re only in chapter 6 of Acts and we’ve seen the birth of the church and the beauty of the church functioning harmoniously. We went from the honeymoon period when the Spirit arrived and empowered the church and everyone had everything in common to seeing problems begin to arise. Last week, we saw the oneness of the church threatened when one family decided they didn’t want to share everything they had. This week in our passage, we see racial tensions begin to arise as a group of people feel they are being neglected by the leaders of the church. Any Jew would have understood the importance of caring for widows and so they get a little testy when they see their own widows being ignored.
This group of people are called Hellenists. They were likely Jews of Greek descent. Some scholars believe that these women were married to men who lived their lives in Greek cities and then came to Jerusalem to die so they could be buried in the Holy City. As such, there is a whole group of immigrants who have buried their husbands and then find themselves in a new city without any family. The church has been responsible for the care of widows and making sure that they are not forgotten or neglected but for some reason, this group has not been added to the list. So, as is the case whenever a church problem arises, the offended party begins to complain. The word used here for “complain” is reminiscent of the Israelites complaining against Moses in the desert because they are hungry. The whole community grumbles against Moses and says that it would have been better for them to die in Egypt with full stomachs than to starve to death in the desert. The Israelites were questioning Moses’ leadership ability and in the same way, the people of the newly formed church are questioning their leaders.
The apostles give us an example of how the Spirit-filled church deals with complaints. They don’t get defensive. They don’t look for explanations as to why this problem is occurring. They don’t add it to a list of items and promptly forget about it. Instead, they come up with a creative and timely solution to the problem. They adapt and they delegate.
Adapt and delegate. I wonder if Luke had Moses on the mind as he wrote this story because again, this scenario is reminiscent of another one that happened back in Exodus when the people came to Moses with their problems and he was getting worn out. Jethro asks Moses why he alone sits as judge while everyone else stands around. Moses replies “because the people come to me to seek God’s will.'' Seems like a good answer but Jethro responds “what you are doing is not good... you cannot handle it alone”. He tells him to recruit help and Moses does. Jethro’s advice turns out to be very timely because the next thing we read is that Moses arrives at Mount Sinai and goes up so he can listen to God.
The task of a Christian leader has not changed since the time of Acts nor has it changed since the time of Moses. The task of a Christian leader is to listen to God so that God’s words can then be shared with the people that he or she is leading.
This helps us understand why the apostles respond the way they do. Their reply might seem a little rude. It’s not that the work is beneath them or that feeding widows isn’t an important task for the church, but the apostles know that the most important thing they can do is to preach and pray. Why? Because this is how the church grows; by prayer and by preaching the word of God. The two inform each other. As we read the Bible, we learn about God and we learn about ourselves and the condition of our hearts. As we pray, we come to rest in the presence of our Father and we enter into his transforming work.
Understanding this, the apostles call together the larger group of disciples and put the responsibility into their hands. They assemble a nominating committee as it were, and say, here are the criteria for leaders that will address this crisis we have, you choose who they should be. The twelve apostles get to stay focused on their first calling and the group appoints seven men to be in charge of the distribution to the Hellenistic widows. We are given the names of the men that are chosen, the first of whom is Stephen, who we will hear about next week, and we read that the whole church is pleased. The disciples lay their hands on these newly selected leaders to pray for them and the word of God spreads.
The disciples set an example for how Christian leaders should spend their time but prayer and bible study isn’t only for pastors. It’s for all of us because we are all called to be ministers of God’s Word. This is what Paul calls the “equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” in Ephesians 4. The qualifications for these early church leaders was that they were known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. It might seem like overkill given that all they had to do was hand out food to widows. Realistically, anyone could do that. But there was an understanding that mission isn’t just about what you do, but that it spills over from one’s relationship with God. Mission flows out of being filled by the Spirit and by the attainment of wisdom. Let’s break those two down.
Full of the Spirit
We saw back in Acts chapter 2 that when the Spirit came at Pentecost, the believers received two gifts; they were able to proclaim the gospel and they were united as a group. The obvious distinction that had been between them was that they spoke different languages, and that barrier was miraculously removed. So how do we become filled with the Spirit? We pray and we read God’s word. If we skip on over to Ephesians five, we read
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, 16 making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17 So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18 Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19 as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, 20 giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
There again is that comparison of being filled with the Spirit to being drunk. As we see in the passage above, being filled with the Spirit means we exude joy, we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs and we are thankful for everything. And of course, there’s the boldness that the Spirit births in us so we can confidently and effectively communicate the gospel to others when we are called to do so. This joy that the newly appointed seven showed would have been quite a contrast to those who were grumbling about this problem. So it makes sense that these men would be chosen to serve this population. They weren’t simply serving food, they were spreading joy.
I think it can be easy to underestimate the power of joy. I was reminded of this at our last Wednesday drop-in. I was scolded by a few of our guests because last month, I had a picture out on the table of Miles smiling wide. This month I only had the sign up sheet. While most people only asked where the picture was, one gentleman stopped and said, I don’t think you realize how much of a difference seeing that picture made for some of us. So next month, I will have more pictures on the table. Seeing someone else’s joy can transform a grumbling heart. Joy, gratitude and praise speak volumes to people about who we serve.
The second requirement for the seven is that they are full of wisdom. So how do we get wisdom? The word wisdom appears in our NRSV bibles 216 times so God has a lot to say about it. One verse that I learned at a young age is Proverbs 9:10 - The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. When we hear that phrase “The fear of the Lord” it refers to giving God the reverence and respect he deserves, but also recognizing that no threat or power or person is equal to God. An author and theologian named William Eisenhower puts it this way:
Unfortunately, many of us presume that the world is the ultimate threat and that God's function is to offset it. How different this is from the biblical position that God is far scarier than the world …. When we assume that the world is the ultimate threat, we give it unwarranted power, for in truth, the world's threats are temporary. When we expect God to balance the stress of the world, we reduce him to the world's equal …. As I walk with the Lord, I discover that God poses an ominous threat to my ego, but not to me. He rescues me from my delusions, so he may reveal the truth that sets me free. He casts me down, only to lift me up again. He sits in judgment of my sin, but forgives me nevertheless. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but love from the Lord is its completion.
It’s not about being afraid of God, but it’s understanding that God, who is working for our good, is the ultimate power, authority and lover of our souls. When we start to develop this biblical fear, we start to become wise. And what better way to do this than through his word and by prayer.
These two qualities of being filled by the Spirit and being wise, were present among the seven men before they were chosen for mission. This passage teaches us that our participation in mission stems from our understanding of God and is led by the Spirit.
Let’s take some time to look at their mission.
As John mentioned in our foreWord, widows were the most vulnerable in ancient society. They had no one to care for them and no way of supporting themselves. It doesn’t take long when reading the Bible to see that God has a heart for widows. We can take this further today and say that we are to care for widows and for those who have no one else to care for them. Despite all the wonderful things that were happening in the early church, it seems there was still a tendency to care for one’s own community over and above others. Keep it in the family. Yet we are called to expand our understanding of family. It’s not just about bloodlines or a common language. God’s view of family is one that is free from barriers and where everyone, including the most vulnerable, are taken care of. And that view of family should be reflected in our churches. It seems that the early church hadn’t quite caught on to this vision.
This “family first” mentality had worked before but now, it wasn’t enough. The cultural context in which the early church existed was changing. The vulnerable population they had effectively cared for was changing. It had expanded to include a new culture. I think the lack of questioning on their part shows that the apostles understood that if they were restricted in their ability to serve, it was because God was calling something else into being. They had reached their limits and so it was time for something new. We have heard Pastor David say this before that the Chinese word for Crisis contains two symbols - one means danger and the other means opportunity. This was a crisis that became an opportunity for the church to grow.
One interesting thing about the mission of these newly elected leaders is that they were chosen to distribute food but we don’t actually read about the Seven doing any food distribution. We can assume they did, but in the next passage we have Stephen doing signs and wonders and later on we see Philip embarking on a missionary journey. Again, at some point in their ministry, the needs change and these two men adapt and obey. One theologian said it this way: To be fully Biblical is to be constantly engaged in adapting traditional methods and structures to meet existing situations. I hope and pray that as we face crises and look for ways to engage a changing culture, we too can adapt and obey.
This passage calls us to take a look at our own lives and at how we engage in God’s mission. I know that spending time in God’s Word can be a challenge for a lot of us. Life doesn’t stop and finding quiet and mental clarity to sit down and read the bible just doesn’t happen unless we make it happen. We are to read it when it’s exciting, when it’s boring, when our minds keep wandering because this is how God reveals himself to us, day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment.
By studying the word and by seeking God, we enter into mission in a new way.
A way that reveals that heart of God to others. A way that might surprise us. A way that will transform this broken world into a reflection of heaven. God calls his people to step out in new and creative ways. This is something for us to ponder as a church. I trust that as you take time to read God’s word and to pray, that you will be filled with the Spirit and with wisdom and that our church family will find new ways of engaging in the mission of God.