Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Sermon on Acts 6:1-7 - The First Deacons are Chosen

From the Becoming Beloved Episcopal community 
https://dsobeloved.org/acts-61-7-the-first-order-of-ministry/

Acts 6:1-7.

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So, the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."


Today's reading has always been special to me, because it introduces St Stephen, my namesake, into the Bible. Every Boxing Day, after Christmas, I take pleasure in wishing people a Blessed St Stephen's Day, and take pride in my name coming from the first Christian martyr: the man who died as Jesus died, only later in this chapter, praying, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them", and so setting an example for all of us who come after. And still today, sadly, Christians around the world face martyrdom, not here in Britain, thankfully, but in Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, China, North Korea, India, Burma, and elsewhere. And we should never forget it. When I hear how Christians in North Korea, or Pakistan, or Somalia, carry on today in the face of the danger they live with, I remember the courage Stephen showed at the end, and I know the same Holy Spirit that was with him, is still with Christians today. 

I have sometimes thought, how would I react, if I was threatened with death for my faith, the faith I have lived with these last 30 years. I don't know, I really don't know, I don't think anyone can, truly, definitely, unless they ever find themselves in that situation, and I pray we never do. But we certainly will be faced with many smaller, more mundane situations in our day-to-day lives, where it still takes courage to stand up and do what is right. I pray that when faced with these at least, I will pass the test, and so, in my small, insufficient way, be worthy of those ordinary Saints who face far greater challenges for the name of Jesus Christ, and remain faithful.

Which brings us back to our reading today: it may seem small, mundane, administrative, but it reflects the same courage that the Apostles show throughout the Book of Acts and the life of the early Church. These are people who have seen the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, and because of that, they are not afraid. I strongly believe that courage, the courage to have good principles, and stand by them, is something we must cultivate, and apply, in situations large and small. It's very hard to develop courage, to develop integrity, when you're really challenged, if you don't make it something you have already developed in situations large and small, day after day.

So, what courage did the Apostles show here? First, we must understand the situation, which isn't as easy as it could be, because the account is so short of detail. When you have a very small group, one already united around a shared cause, consensus is easier, but once that group starts growing, you start to get subgroups form, you start to have problems with communication: and that is when you start to need more structures and organisation. The believers in Christ are just reaching this point. They are still in Jerusalem, they are still almost all Jews at this point, but the community is large and diverse enough that two distinct groups are becoming visible. 

The Hebrew Jews here, would refer to those Jews who lived in the Holy Land itself, like Jesus, maybe from Galilee itself, or elsewhere. They would have come from Jewish majority areas, and lived a life immersed in Jewish religion, culture and assumptions. They would have spoken Aramaic, not Hebrew itself actually, which had become a language purely of scholarship and religious tradition at this time, like Latin in medieval Europe. They would also have taken pride in the fact they lived in the Land that God gave their ancestors, a Holy Land indeed, their homeland, the old-country.

The Hellenistic Jews were those Jews whose families had lived out in the Diaspora, the world outside the Holy Land: in Syria, in Egypt, in what is now Turkey, in Greece, and beyond, all areas, at that time, where Greek formed the shared language, and were heavily affected by Greek culture and civilisation, as well as native influences. These Jews would have grown up as a minority surrounded by Gentile culture, and so while still very much Jews and devoted to their religion, inevitably they were more influenced by Greek philosophy and ideas. You see this influence in the New Testament itself, which is written in Greek, and which, particularly in the Gospel of John, displays a fusion of ideas from Greek Philosophy and the Hebrew Old Testament. For these Jews the Holy Land was a distant idea, something they revered, but not somewhere they lived. There are many obvious comparisons to minority communities like British-Indians or Irish-Americans, or many others, who still, of course, retain an attachment to the culture, religion, food, language, etc, of their native or ancestral homeland. And there are British communities scattered abroad, as well, who remember Old Blighty, particularly in places like France or Spain or Australia.

At this time in Acts, before the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Hellenistic Jews would still have tried to travel to Jerusalem to the Temple for the major festivals when they could, in a similar way that Muslims today go on pilgrimage to Mecca. And indeed, some having grown up in the Diaspora would move back to the Holy Land permanently, hoping to die and be buried there, which, if you still follow me, is how we find a community of Hellenistic Jews, by culture and background and language, but living back in Jerusalem, and becoming part of the community of the very first Christians.

The problem then is that there was clearly still a cultural divide between Jews of the two different backgrounds, which even the fact they had both come to faith in Christ, had not resolved. This first Christian community is inspirational, but it still faced problems, squabbles, divisions, like we do, because it was made of human beings, like us. And though we must always struggle to do better, to learn, to change, we will not be made perfect until we come before Christ in his Kingdom. That this first Christian community had problems like this is not surprising then, but what is inspirational, what is a lesson for us today, is the courage with which they faced up to it.

When there are problems and divisions in a community, and there will be, it is easy to try to ignore them, to sweep it under the carpet. It is easy to pretend it isn't there, and to hope it goes away; after all, who needs another problem. And it might go away on its own, sometimes it does. But if we take that route there is a risk that the problem will fester, and worsen, and because of that, people become discouraged and disheartened. They may even drift away. After all, who wants to be part of a community that does not listen to their problems, that does not take their concerns seriously? That's not good in a family, it's not good in a marriage, and it's not good in a community.

It takes courage, just to speak up about a problem. It takes courage to challenge those in positions of authority and leadership, rather than just sitting on an unhappiness, or maybe drifting away without ever speaking out. And it takes courage for leaders to listen, to try to understand rather than just becoming defensive, to give the situation the consideration it deserves, and to respond. It can always be tempting to barrel on with what we already think is important, and so miss the concerns and warnings around us, but if we do that we build our house on sand.

The Apostles are faced by complaints of an unhappiness, an injustice, and they act decisively to solve it. And they don't just say, "well, stop doing that then, stop overlooking those widows", they act imaginatively, creatively, to change and adapt the structures of their community to solve the problem permanently, and ensure all the people are being served. They prioritise, they don't give up their position of leadership, they don't allow themselves to get distracted from the most important work they have: sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with anyone who will listen, but neither do they hoard power or responsibility. 

They immediately widen the circle of leadership (on a secondary level); they don't even keep the right to select the men who will be placed in charge of this important ministry. No, they trust their community: they empower the people who are unhappy, and the rest of the community as well, to select people to put the situation right. That takes courage, real courage, giving control always does, but it can be rewarding, if it empowers new ideas and new individuals in a community; it can release a lot of energy. It is how communities grow and develop, and raise up new leaders who then have the chance to excel themselves.

I think this is also the point to remember the cultural divide that I described earlier, between the Hellenistic and Hebrew Jews. This isn't my thought, I read it online, but I thought it was very insightful. You've got to remember the Twelve Apostles were all, or almost all, Galileans like Jesus. That made them Hebrew Jews, the community who dominated leadership up until now, and who were being complained about, basically. The men picked by the community as Deacons, the first Deacons, all have Greek names, they were probably all Hellenistic Jews, the community who were complaining they were being treated unfairly. 

It would have been easy for the Twelve Apostles to have taken umbrage on behalf of their sub-community. They could have said that Jesus was a Hebrew Jew, that he appointed Hebrew Jews as Apostles, that the Hellenistic Jews were lucky to even be accepted into their community. But they didn't. They didn't just hand away power and responsibility by accepting other leaders, they didn't just give the choice of those leaders away to the community; they put people of the unhappy, discriminated-against sub-community, in charge of putting it right. That takes even more courage, and indeed leadership.

When you put trust in more people you give those people the chance to repay that trust, with interest, and Stephen certainly did: his dignity in the face of death, his grace towards his persecutors, was an eloquent testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit that had set him free, and still sets people free today. Trust people in small things and they may go on to great things. Of course, these lessons do not only apply to people in formal leadership in churches, but everywhere: at work, at home, at school, in our charities and our community groups. Leadership is not just something for a few people at the top, but something for everyone to show in small ways. If you propose a new idea, if you speak out on behalf of other people who are unhappy, if you take initiative to support even one person who is struggling or being treated unfairly, that is leadership. The people complaining in this passage are anonymous, but being the first person to point out something isn't right, to put your head above the parapet, that takes real leadership, and courage too.    

It takes courage to give away responsibility to others, and it also takes courage to take on responsibility, to put yourself forward, to lead and serve your community. Courage is best rewarded by more courage in response. When people raise a complaint, listen to them fairly, really listen, and consider what they have to say. It doesn't mean you have to agree with them, but you owe them a decent explanation. When existing leaders ask for help, step forward, take responsibility, like Stephen and the other Deacons in our passage today; give whatever you have to give. God gave us all something: some strength, some skill, some energy, and you only know what you're capable of, if you have the courage to stretch yourself, and risk failing.

The Apostles were faced with a problem in their community, a complaint, an unhappiness. They could have denied it was a problem, they could have been defensive about their identity, they could have prioritised hoarding power, decision-making or responsibility. But they didn't: they dealt with it rapidly, openly, structurally and generously. And in doing so, they unleased the energy of their community to go from strength to strength, to reach more people, and "so the word of God spread". This is a great passage here; I wish I could take it to work, and hold a Bible study with all my layers of managers and bosses, then we might really see some progress. 

I pray we will have the same courage to adapt and change to the new challenges we face as the world, and our community, change ever more rapidly around us. I pray we will continue to prioritise reaching people with the word of God, in all the different ways we can imagine; but that we will also ensure we are serving the physical, mundane needs of our community, making sure nobody feels left behind. I pray that we will have the courage to step forward to take responsibility for our community, to offer our gifts of time, money and dedication, and lessen the burden by sharing it around. I pray for all these things through the same Holy Spirit who dwelt in the Apostles, and in Stephen; who dwells in our Brothers and Sisters facing danger around the world today, who will dwell in us if we will just let him; and through our Lord Jesus Christ, who was Lord then and is Lord now, and will share his courage, if you ask him.

Amen.

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