The Acts of the Apostles
The Experimental Church: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Shared Leadership” Click here for audio
Pastors Donna Buell
This fall we are exploring selected passages from The Acts of the Apostles in a sermon series we are calling “The Experimental Church – Powered by the Spirit.” When we introduced the series last week we read these words from Acts, chapter 2.
“Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
This description of life among the earliest followers of Christ sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it? And yet, we barely scratched the surface of the story of the early church before it happens. Someone has a complaint! In chapter 4 we read that the Sadducees were concerned because the apostles were teaching about this man named Jesus in the temple courts, and healing in his name. So the apostles were ordered to appear before the high priest and elders of the community to answer for their actions. And though they were allowed to go free, they were ordered not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. With great courage, Peter and John responded, “Whether it is right in God’s sight to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
But it wasn’t only from the Jewish authorities that the apostles were hearing complaints. In this morning’s passage we heard about complaints that were coming from within the community of those who were followers of Christ.
I’m reminded of a quote from a novel. In the story a character is telling about something his rabbi father always used to say: “…God created the world in six days. On the seventh day, he rested. On the eighth day, he started getting complaints. And it hasn’t stopped since.” (James Scott Bell, Sins of the Fathers). One of Lily Tomlin’s characters in the play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe put it this way: “It’s my belief we developed language because of our deep inner need to complain.” Complaints seem to be built in to the human condition. I suspect it has something to do with our tendency to view the world primarily from our own self-centered perspective. But what’s going on here in today’s reading? Who are these people and what are they complaining about? And what can we learn from this story about our life together as a church?
To answer those questions, I first need to explain who the various characters are. The use of the term disciples in this passage refers to all the Jews who responded to the good news about Jesus Christ, were baptized, and became a part of the community of those who were followers of Jesus. Some of them had responded to Jesus himself and others had responded to the witness of those who had been empowered by the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. It’s probably too early to call them “the church” at this point. And they aren’t being called Christians yet, either, but they are all disciples.
The twelve in this passage refers to the original twelve disciples who were called by Jesus, with the exception of Judas who had betrayed Jesus into the hands of the authorities, and later took his own life. In the first chapter of Acts you can read about how Matthias was chosen by the other eleven from among those who had been with them from the time of Jesus’ baptism. These twelve, sometimes called the apostles, were original witnesses to the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. And through the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, these twelve were empowered to become leaders among the followers of Christ, teaching and preaching and performing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name.
The term Hebrews in this passage refers to disciples who were Aramaic-speaking Jews of Jerusalem and the surrounding region of Judea. The term Hellenists refers to disciples who were Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora. I should define that, too. Centuries before, when the Northern and Southern Kingdoms were conquered, many of the Jewish people were forced to live in exile, in other lands among other peoples and cultures. So these Hellenists were Jews who were descended from those who had lived among the Greeks. You may recall in the story of the Day of Pentecost that “there were Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” These were the Jews of the Diaspora who had returned to their ancestral homeland. And as they gathered to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, they heard the disciples speaking in their own languages about Jesus Christ, and some of them responded to this good news and became followers of Christ.
Now if it’s helpful to you in understanding this passage, think of the Hebrews as the townies, the old timers, the insiders and think of the Hellenists as the foreigners, the newcomers, the outsiders. And remember that all of the people mentioned in today’s reading were faithful Jews who had responded to the good news about Christ, becoming his disciples.
So now that we have our cast of characters, let’s find out what was going on. We are told that the Hellenists, the Greek-speaking Jews, were “complaining against the Hebrews” because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. In that passage I read from chapter 2 as I began the sermon we heard that part of what those early followers of Jesus did was pool their resources and distribute to any as they had need. They wanted to be sure that the basic needs of everyone in the community were being met. In that day widows were often among the most vulnerable in society, and unless they had other relatives who provided for their needs, they would likely have been among those who received part of this distribution.
Now we don’t know if there was intentional discrimination happening, or if it was a matter of language and cultural barriers making it more difficult for the Hellenists to access the system. I imagine that both of those things were occurring to some degree. But I think there was another important factor involved here, as well. Just think about what was happening in those earliest days. We are told that with every passing day, more and more people were responding to the good news of Christ, being baptized and becoming part of this community of Christ-followers. We’re no long just talking about Jesus and twelve disciples traveling from town to town, though even that required a support system to address needs for food, and shelter, and the periodic replacement of worn out sandals.
So I think that part of what this community was experiencing was growing pains. As a pastor I know that it is hard enough to effectively lead a relatively stable community, I can hardly imagine what a logistical nightmare the twelve faced as leaders of this rapidly growing movement. So it’s no wonder that there were complaints.
I wonder how word got to the twelve. Did some of the Hellenists come directly to them to voice their complaints or did this complaining happen behind the scenes, in the bathroom or the parking lot or on the streets, spreading more and more so that eventually the twelve couldn’t help but hear about it. Or was there some well-meaning person who came to the twelve saying, “you probably ought to know that the Hellenists are upset.” However it came to be, the twelve became aware of this concern. Actually, I’d be surprised if they didn’t already recognized that things were getting out of hand and that they needed to find some way of bringing greater order to their shared life and ministry. So you see, even before we were called the church, we followers of Christ had to start getting organized. And there are some who think that was the beginning of the end for the church. You know, the folks who have no interest in “organized religion.” But seriously, would they prefer disorganized religion? Whenever two or more are gathered in the name of Christ, some decisions are going to have to be made about where they will gather and when and for how long, and how they will organize themselves to accomplish whatever it is they hope to accomplish, and who’s going to bring the hot dish, and who’s going to stick around long enough to make sure everything has been cleaned up? And this isn’t just the case for the church. This is a reality for any ongoing group we may be part of.
Now the twelve could have handled this complaint in any number of ways. They could have said “This is the way we do it; this is the way we’ve always done it, even when we were with Jesus, so just deal with it.”
They could have said, “We are too busy being Apostles and too important to bother with such things; you figure it out for yourselves.”
They could have taken over responsibility for the distribution program, micromanaging it with a sort of “if you want something done right you have to do it yourself” mentality.
They could have complained among themselves about how much work they had to do and how much was expected of them and how no one appreciated them.
Now maybe the disciples were tempted to respond in all of these ways, at least among themselves, they were human after all. But fortunately they had enough of what we call emotional intelligence to handle it differently in public.
So what did they do? Well, they formed a committee, of course! Well actually it was more of a ministry team in modern day church parlance. But they didn’t just create this team, handpicking their best friends. No, they called all the people together, they named the issue and the need to address it, and they suggested a way forward that would enable the community to carry out this important ministry more effectively. When the people gathered they said to them, “It isn’t right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” Okay, so they could have said it more diplomatically, but they were right that they needed to focus on the things that the Spirit had called and equipped them to do. As the first disciples, they needed to focus on bearing witness to the word of God in Christ – what they had seen and heard. So they told the people, “select from among yourselves 7 “men” of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.”
This isn’t the first time someone proposed this kind of solution to address the growing needs of the faith community. There’s a great story in the book of Exodus, chapter 18, where Moses’ father-in-law Jethro comes to visit the Hebrew people while they are out in the wilderness. He observes Moses sitting all day in his tent as the people come to him, one after another, with every concern, every problem, and every dispute that needs to be resolved. After watching this for a whole day Jethro asks Moses “what are you doing? This isn’t good for you or for the people. You will wear yourself out and everyone else if you keep doing things this way.” And then he gives Moses some very sound advice about a way that he could organize the people so that there was shared leadership, and only the most important concerns would be brought to Moses. And this, too, involved calling forth well-respected, trustworthy, wise leaders from among the people.
In today’s story, the twelve wisely recognized that they couldn’t do it all themselves. But they also recognized that something had to be done – there needed to be someone or some group to take responsibility for developing and carrying out this important ministry if they were to effectively address the growing needs of the community. Now the scripture says that everyone liked this plan, so that’s what they did. And it is interesting to note that among the list of names that Chuck got to read for us this morning are some Greek names, so it is clear that some of those 7 men were from the Hellenist group that had first identified the problem. That was a wise decision on the part of the people, to include those who understood what the issues were and had a vested interest in coming up with a real, workable solution. Once the seven were chosen by the people, the twelve laid hands upon them, they prayed for them, they blessed them, they commissioned them for this important ministry of caring for the basic needs of the whole community.
Now if you are tempted to add the phrase “and they all lived happily ever after,” please stop yourself and make sure you read the rest of chapter 6 and chapter 7 because life among even the earliest followers of Christ was never idyllic. It was always real, it was always complicated, it was always messy. It always was and it still is.
This morning, as we continue this series we are calling The Experimental Church, we see that the church has always had to experiment, in a sense, with how it would organize itself in order to bear witness to the love and the grace, the compassion and the justice of God made known in Jesus Christ.
That has always been true. It was true ‘flat guy’ John Wesley and his brother Charles. As priests in the Church of England during a time of great social dislocation, they felt a need within the church for a deeper personal engagement with the faith as well as a need to reach out more widely to respond to the basic needs of people in the community. The Wesley brothers believed that the church needed to care not only about a person’s soul, but about their body and their mind, so the early Methodist movement responded to those basic needs for adequate food and shelter and health care and education. And as that Methodist movement grew and eventually separated from the Church of England, becoming its own denomination, it too had to develop a structure that reflected its values and facilitated its ministry.
Now I know, structure and organization is not all that exciting, and some people have no patience for it. But a well-known United Methodist preacher, William Willimon, writes these words about today’s passage in his Commentary on the Book of Acts.
Luke reminds us that administration of and daily care for the internal needs of the congregation is also vital ministry, not something to be disparaged or devalued in the midst of other more exciting and outward acts of witness. Operating the copy machine, planning next Sunday’s worship, ministering to divisions between old timers (Hebrews) and new arrivals (Hellenists), caring for elderly widows, and faithfully administering church funds are also aspects of service to the Spirit.
It is important to note, however, that there is no one way to organize the church. Each denomination has created a form of governance that grows out of its’ own theological emphasis, and local congregations express those forms in their own particular contexts. Though all churches have some basic things in common, as we talked about last week, there is no one right way to do church or to be church. All church is contextual or it ought to be if it is to be authentic.
But there are some things that emerge from today’s passage that we would be wise to keep in mind when we think about the life of the church. First, it is important to remember that being a follower of Christ has always been a communal venture. Jesus did not call people to go and do their own thing. He said, come and follow me. And when they chose to do that, they very quickly discovered that there were others who had also been called to follow Jesus, and that they had been called into a community.
Secondly, it is important to remember that this communal project needs to have some order or structure if it is to serve any useful purpose. Like any group or organization – a government, a workplace, a service club, a social group, even a family – the church has always needed to order its life together in such a way that facilitates its ministry and mission. The best structures are flexible enough to adapt to changing needs and circumstances. And they are always at their best when they involve shared leadership.
And thirdly, it is also important to remember that we don’t do this on our own steam. Not only are we part of a community that functions together, we are empowered by the Spirit who works within each one of us as well as among us and through us as a community, so that we are able to draw upon and benefit from our collective wisdom and understanding, our varied gifts and talents, our diverse experiences and perspectives. And together, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are then able to accomplish abundantly far more than anything we could ever accomplish by our own individual effort.
I think Paul really got it right when he wrote about the church being the Body of Christ. The church is not a machine that functions in exactly the same mechanical way over and over again in every place or time. No, it is a living organism, made up of human beings, empowered by the breath of the Spirit. And because of that, it is able to grow and to change as it addresses the ever changing needs of its own people, of its community, and of the world beyond, which are always in need of the transforming power of God’s love made known in Jesus Christ. And for that, thanks be to God. Let us pray.
Gracious and loving God, we give you thanks that you have called us into the fellowship of those who are seeking to be followers of Jesus Christ. And we are grateful to be part of the Body of Christ as it has existed across the world for over two thousand years. We are grateful for the witness of those first disciples, who by the power of the Spirit were able to continue the ministry which Jesus began when he walked the earth. We are grateful for all our brothers and sisters in Christ across the world. We are grateful for our United Methodist Church, with its rich history and tradition, its particular emphases, its commitment to cultivate both inward depth and outward service. We are grateful for the unique expression of the Body of Christ that is this congregation. For the grace and love that bind us together, and for our commitment to grow in love of You, to grow in love of neighbors near and far, and to grow in our stewardship of all that You have entrusted to our care. We are grateful for those who share in leadership and for all who share their wisdom and understanding, their gifts and talents, their experiences and perspectives to help make us who we are. And we’re even grateful for those complaints that force us to see ourselves more clearly and push us to find ways to more fully and faithfully serve you and our neighbors. We pray especially today for those who are in particular need within our congregation and beyond. And we pray that you would empower us by your Spirit to give of ourselves in support of the work of your kingdom coming in our community and across our world. All this we pray in the name of the one whose name we claim, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.