July 31, 2016 “Organized” – Acts 6:1-7
July 31, 2016 – Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
I drove by my old school a few years ago, Will Rogers Elementary in Santa Monica, California. To my amazement the playground looked pretty much as I remembered, a vast expanse of blacktop bordered by eucalyptus trees, with a tiny island of an elm tree and shrubs right in the center. In fifth grade we called that center bit of greenery the “Oasis.”
Three or four of us gathered regularly at the Oasis at recess. We talked and chased each other around the tree. Then we decided to organize. We formed the “Oasis Club.” Membership was restricted, limited to those within our nerdy little group; no girls. Nonetheless, we felt the need for structure. So each of the three or four of us had a club office, president, vice-president, treasurer. We were organized.
It’s a pretty universal human experience, a drive which afflicts even a handful of children on a playground. No matter how free and chaotic a human endeavor starts out, it eventually gets organized. We see here at the beginning of Acts 6 that it came quickly to the early Christian church.
Until this point, church order had been spontaneous. People knew when and where meetings would be held, who would collect offerings and who would teach and break the bread. The twelve apostles were acknowledged by all as leaders chosen by the Holy Spirit. They handled administration and teaching and, as we heard two weeks ago, the distribution of resources to the poor. With no buildings to maintain, no programs to run, no support staff to supervise, they had little need for organizational structure.
Luke is indefinite about the timing. “Now during those days” is all he says in verse 1. It can’t be more than a few years into the life of the new church. It wasn’t long until compassion developed into a program and conflict arose. From the beginning Christians were concerned for those in need. They continued and extended the Jewish practice of having a regular dole for the poor, especially for widows. A woman whose husband died had no inheritance rights. Those without adult children were destitute with no income. As it always should, the church stepped up to meet that need. They organized a daily distribution of food as we read in verse 1.
The problem shows up in verse 2, discrimination. Even then, the church was a diverse population, even when almost every Christian was Jewish. There were two kinds of Jews. Most of them, like Jesus and His disciples, were “Hebrews” whose first language was Aramaic, which is closely related to Hebrew. But there was another group of Jews who grew up speaking Greek.
Those “Hellenistic” or “Grecian” Jews came from all over the Mediterranean world and farther. They were from Jews deported to Babylon hundreds of years before and whose families never returned to the homeland. They kept their Jewish identity, but their culture and language were very different from those who lived in the heart of Israel. These Jews from other places were called the “dispersed,” the “Diaspora.”
Jerusalem was still the center for all Jews, wherever they were from. They made pilgrimages there on holy days, like the feast of Pentecost which starts out the story of the first church. Jewish couples from the Diaspora would even relocate to Jerusalem in old age so they could die in the holy city. That’s why there were all those “Hellenist” Jewish widows. If a husband went first, his wife was left without family or resources, far from home, in desperate straits. And, much like people still today, the Hebrew Jews, the native-born, wanted to take care of their own first. So the Hellenists complained to the apostles.
If you haven’t made the connection yet, make it. This has everything to do with a Christian response to questions about immigration and relating to people in desperate straits, coming from other places and cultures, and speaking different languages from our own. It has to do with how we respond to our Christian brothers and sisters from Iglesia de Christo Manantia de Vida, Church of Christ, Spring of Life, as they seek a place to worship.
For the first church, the solution was organization. In verse 2 the Twelve recognize that as the church grows, problems like this will arise. If they try to handle it all, try to micro-manage every aspect of the community’s life, they will soon be neglecting their primary task of teaching the word of God. So they did what good leaders do, they delegated. “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
Those words “wait on tables,” are not a bad translation, but it hides something from us in English. To “wait on” tables is the same Greek word used for “distribution” of food in verse 1 and for “serving” the Word in verse 4. It’s the word diakonia, “service,” the word by which we have come to call the people selected in verse 5 “deacons.” But it’s all serving, whether it’s serving the Word or serving tables, whether it seems like “spiritual” work or “social” work. It is all service in the church and service to God.
You can see in verse 3 that it’s not just about a few people to plop food on plates or hand it out while poor widows get in line. The apostles wanted to organize a table service of “men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” If it was just about getting some menial task done, we would not see those requirements. The work of ministering to widows was a spiritual responsibility and needed people full of the Holy Spirit.
The apostles’ organization plan was to select people who were not just good managers, but who would bring resolution, peace and Christian love to a tense situation. Far from being separated, social service and spiritual service were integrated.
Organizing the food service by selecting seven Spirit-filled Christians had another dimension to it. Notice in verse 2 that the apostles called together “the whole community of disciples,” and then in verse 3 told them, “brothers, select from among yourselves…” Now take a look at verse 5 and read the names of those chosen.
Those are all Greek names, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor… You won’t find them in the Old Testament, in the Hebrew Bible. It may have been the wisdom of the apostles and what they meant by “select from among yourselves,” or it could have been the wisdom of the whole gathering, but all the men they chose were Hellenists, Greek-speaking people from the very group that had the gripe, that was being discriminated against.
This is a lesson for white Christians in America and elsewhere. It’s not enough to just say we’re going to treat everyone equally, regardless of race or language. It’s not enough to just open the doors and say, “Come join us.” When God brings us together with people who are different from us, the apostolic response, the Christian thing to do, is to let go of our own control of the situation and put some of those different people in charge, just like the first church did a long time ago.
Organization is the solution. The apostles didn’t just preach sermons about how God loves everyone and so, “Please treat each other nicely.” They did not just ask the Hellenists to be more patient or the Hebrews to be more generous. They structured their church, structured their life together to look and operate more like the kingdom of God which Jesus came to bring to us.
Christian faith starts with believing in Jesus and receiving His forgiveness, but that belief immediately brings you into a community, into the church. And the church is meant to be organized in a way that lives out that belief, where people are constantly behaving like Jesus, serving God and serving each other.
As I mentioned already, we get the idea of “deacons” out of this text. The role of those seven later became an office in Christian churches. In Paul’s writings, in Philippians 1:1 and Romans 16:1 and I Timothy we find people being called deacons, both men and women. They have a specific role, an office in those first century churches.
In churches today we we’re not always clear on what the office of deacon is supposed to be. In Baptist churches like the one I grew up in, deacons are managers of the money and government of the church. They typically leave spiritual life to the pastor. In Catholic church deacons focus on spiritual service while the pastor is often the administrator. But from their qualifications and from what follows in the next couple chapters we see that these seven did both. The first two, Stephen and Philip, both figure in events which mark them as spiritual leaders and preachers as well as administrators of food distribution.
Verse 6 tells us how they were commissioned. The church “had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.” Laying on hands is a way of acknowledging a special role. In Numbers the Israelites laid hands on their Levite priests. Moses laid hands on Joshua. Jesus laid hands on people to heal or bless them. In the book of Acts, the church laid hands on individuals to set them apart for specific ministries. It’s a way of getting organized, of seeking, like Jesus told us, the kingdom of God.
Some of you may rest my whole premise here. Organization, you feel, is not the solution. It’s the enemy. Many folks are inclined today to say something like, “I love Jesus, but I’ve got no use for organized religion, for the institutional church. I want a spiritual life that’s free and spontaneous. Let’s not get hung up on a lot of rules but just do whatever the Holy Spirit says.”
First of all, let me point out that it’s clearly the Holy Spirit speaking through the apostles who told them to get organized. Then let me ask you just what you mean when you worry about the church and Christians being “organized.” Maybe it’s not what you think.
I admit I like the kind of thing I think you may be worried about. I like having all the books in my office lined up and separated into categories and alphabetical by author. I like my fishing rods and tools neatly hanging on racks in my garage. Having everything arranged properly with “a place for everything and everything in its place” is one way to be organized. But trying to do that with people is not only difficult, it can be kind of scary.
Remember the rich man in Jesus’ parable from Luke 12 this morning? He wanted to get organized. He had too much stuff so he set about getting bigger containers for it all, building barns in which it would all line up neatly. But God came and told him he had completely missed the point. That wasn’t the organization God wanted.
Think about the word, “organize.” It’s based on the word “organ,” which originally meant tool or instrument, but now often means a party of the body. So when we talk about church “organization,” instead of picturing neat lines drawn on a chart, picture the way your own physical body fits together. It’s not right angles and clearly delineated functions, but a wonderful, incredibly beautiful relationship of parts that support each other.
That’s exactly the image Paul later used to describe church organization. It’s the Body of Christ. It’s an organic organization, which is all about the relationships which connect it all together, so that every organ, every part is beautiful and important and needed.
That’s why those first deacons were appointed, not because it was more efficient to have tasks divided properly, but so every part of the church, especially those Hellenist widows, could be properly cherished and loved and fulfill their own role in the Body. Go to I Timothy 5 and you will find that widows had their own service of hospitality and helping the afflicted and generally doing good. Church organization is not about being efficient. It’s about keeping the Body of Christ and all its parts healthy and strong.
So don’t worry if “organization” is not your thing, if your desk is a mess or if you couldn’t write and carry out a “to-do” list if your life depended on it. God’s church organization is a living, organic network of relationships with other Christians, with brothers and sisters together in a family. Being organized means living in harmony and love with your friends in Christ, not following a schedule or getting every detail right.
That’s not to say we can be sloppy about it. Being organized as the Body of Christ still takes lots of work, probably more work than it would take to just assign everybody a job and then check off when it gets done. It means the kind of vulnerability and sharing of power which happened when Hebrew Christians let Greek Christians take charge of handing out food. May I suggest it means letting a group of Christians who speak a different language from us take over our building a few times a week without worrying too much about how it will work out. It’s going to take some work, not just picking up hymnals after worship every Sunday, but work on our own attitudes and prejudices.
This might be a good time also to reflect on our deacon ministry here at Valley Covenant. We didn’t have that office for a long time, trusting our church council to function as our spiritual leaders and administrators. But a few years ago we wanted to make sure, like in the first church, that no one in our congregation was overlooked or neglected. So, like they did, we selected seven individuals or couples filled with the Spirit and wisdom. We assigned each of them some people to care for. It worked and was blessed.
Yet now we’re struggling with it. Three of our seven deacon households had to let go of that service for various reasons. Fred died. We haven’t had a deacon meeting in over a year. We don’t know quite how to refresh this ministry and get it going again. Would you pray with your church leadership and me about it? And, maybe, if you hear God speaking to you, consider offering to serve in a role like this, staying in touch with and showing love to some of your brothers and sisters in your church.
As a final word on organization, Holy-Spirit-Body-of-Christ-style organization, let me point you to verse 7. What happened when they appointed deacons and got organized? “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” When they got organized and started taking care of widows better, evangelism and outreach picked up. More people believed. Spiritual ministry was increased by meeting physical needs.
It would be a terrible mistake to neglect the truth of God’s Word in favor of handing out food. But when both are done, when the Word is studied and loving service is offered, faith grows. We need to preach and teach faith in Jesus Christ, but a great many people in this world will not believe it until they see faith lived out by loving faithful service.
There’s a sign on the wall at Courtsports where I work out that talks about being courteous and not getting upset when someone else is using the fitness machine you want to use. It says that a little variation in your routine, using another machine instead of the one you always use, may be just your body needs to grow a little stronger, a little healthier. Something like that is true of a church body.
Most of the church there in Jerusalem were Hebrew Jews. They opened their eyes and hearts to the needs of people who spoke a different language, the Hellenist Jews. The result was a growing church body. Most of us here at Valley Covenant are comfortable, middle class, white people. May God open our eyes and hearts more and more to those who are different from us, other social groups, other races, other cultures. And may that change in vision and routine make our church body stronger.
In God’s kingdom, in His church, no one is meant to be neglected, everyone is an important part of the body. That means you and the person across the aisle from you and the person worshipping across town in different language and different style. We are stronger when we organize with that in mind, when we structure our life together to be a beautiful healthy Body for our Lord.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj