Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Painting by Carpaccio of the consecration of St Stephen

“… full of the spirit and of wisdom …”

[Something a little less than a sermon on the Uniform Series text for this Sunday, Acts 6:1-8:]

As we look in on this episode from Acts, this story of the life of the early Church, here’s what we see: a conflict is taking shape. That’s the first thing. These early Christians do their best to treat everyone – literally, everyone who’s part of the group – like family. They share and share alike; maybe someone doesn’t have a great place to live, and someone who does will take them in; maybe a woman’s husband dies, and she can’t provide for herself – because in those days, it wasn’t that easy for a single woman to support herself financially, there weren’t that many paying occupations women could have, and not all of those were really even thinkable – so the other Christians would see to it that the widow’s needs were met, and presumably the widows helped those people out in what way or ways they could. Thus, it seems to have come about that, in a group that was growing by leaps and bounds, by thousands on the first day of Pentecost, as we read in the second chapter of Acts, someone hit on the idea of making a list of all the widows and making sure that every day they got food around to those women. Paul makes a reference to the “list” in use in Corinth in the letter to the Corinthians, for instance. Great idea! Whoever came up with it, it was an effort to meet the growing demand of living in this new kind of community.

But then, as the group keeps growing, and the differences within this diverse group begin to have the usual effects that differences do have in groups, the Greek-speaking Jews – because all of these Christians at this point are Jews, by the way, they haven’t started to get the idea that they could begin to live this way with Gentiles, for goodness sake – anyway, the Greek¬speaking Jews start to notice that the Greek-speaking widows are getting left out of this sharing, sometimes, or lots of the time, or all the time … so there starts to be a whispering undercurrent of complaint – we might have run into something like that ourselves … we might have seen something like that in a club or a church ourselves … Maybe yours was “what are we paying our cleaning service for, if they can’t even …” Or maybe it was something to do with the way decisions were being made about worship. Or whatever; but we know how these kind of whisper campaigns can take off …

And evidently these whispers get loud enough for the Twelve, the old inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, the ones we also call the apostles, the “sent ones” (because Jesus specifically “sent” them to preach the good news of the kingdom of God back in the gospels), anyway, the Twelve get wind of this, and they call a big meeting of all the disciples. And their solution to the problem is NOT to say “we’ll be a lot more careful about this in future.” No, their solution is to say: “It is not right for us to neglect the word to perform this other service.” In other words, look, we have a job, and we need to do that job, the job Jesus gave to us. So we – actually, you all – need to find some other people that we can appoint to do this other job. So … pick out some people.”

Which the community does. They find seven guys, and the Twelve duly authorize and equip them – by praying over them, and laying hands on them – to handle this daily distribution of food, and who knows, a couple of other tasks might have gotten folded into that job over time. But apparently this takes care of the problem, and the next thing we learn, the Word of God is spreading and the community is growing, and it sounds like it happens as a consequence of this creation of new church officers.

So what did just happen? Can we extract any general principles for our own lives, for the lives of our own congregations, from this primal church story?

I think maybe we can.

For one thing, we notice that the Twelve take the problem seriously. The grumbling or whispering or talking in secret starts up, and the Twelve call a meeting of the whole membership. We might imagine that they have some conversation among themselves first, we might assume they pray about their course of action first, we might guess that they were at least as smart as community leaders these days, who wouldn’t go into a big important meeting with no idea of what they were going to propose to the membership – I guess that, myself, so I suppose I read this as a story about the Twelve coming up with an idea first, and then calling that meeting and making the proposal. That’s how I imagine it going down. But whether that bit of it is correct or incorrect, what’s explicit in the text is that they take the situation seriously enough to communicate about it, and to have a proposal for dealing with it.

So, they deal with the conflict promptly, directly, openly, and practically – they address the practical matter of solving the root problem that’s giving rise to the complaining. We don’t see or hear them taking up any particular accusations; there’s nothing about personalities or motivations or prejudice or liking or disliking. The concrete problem is that some widows are getting neglected, and that’s the problem that has to be addressed.

What would happen if we were that proactive and direct about conflicts that arise in our congregations? I suspect it would be a good thing.

The Twelve’s willingness to address this problem, this problem of the neglect of some widows, in this fashion probably ought to show us that they don’t consider this daily distribution of food “unimportant” or any less important than what they’re already committed to doing, any less important than the “service of the word.” We can tell they think it’s important, because they recognize it as a matter that properly comes before a meeting of the entire congregation (we’ll come back to this, btw) – they make it known that this concerns everyone, it’s a big deal. And then the treatment they recommend is precisely a proposal for taking the daily food distribution seriously, for making sure that it is properly administered, for solving whatever logistical or practical problems have arisen in its performance. Because they treat this as a community responsibility, they don’t suggest it’s something individuals or small groups need to handle on their own as best they can; and they treat it as something that needs to be handled well, even if that means making some changes, even to the point of instituting some new officers; and they make clear that those officers need to be capable, which we’ll come back to, too. In other words, they treat this mission, of sharing food, the means of sustenance, as an essential part of the work or life of the community. The Twelve don’t suggest that there’s any kind of “trade-off” between the ministry of the word and the ministry of tables. Both kinds of service are integral to the life of the community, and they both need to be fully attended to, there’s no “worship vs. mission” mentality on display in this story.

We noticed they treat it as a matter for everyone – in other words, not just the Greek speaking members, who are having the neglect issue; and not just the Hebrew speaking members, who might be tagged as the neglectors; but a matter for everyone. So, there’s a line of difference that runs through the community, but it doesn’t create a line that marks off “your problem” from “not my problem,” it’s all of our problem. That’s another principle here, too: that different as we are, these matters of our common life are matters for all of us; if some of us are having a problem, we are all having a problem; if some of us are having a problem, we are all called upon to participate in the solution. As Christians, we don’t have the luxury of seeing “those” Christians over there as “not my circus, not my monkeys.”

And then we noticed, too, that the apostles identify some criteria for these new officers – I know, I keep calling them that. I know they don’t call them that, they call them people who have been appointed to this particular task, appointees. Still, they identify some criteria that are going to ensure that they are … the appropriate people; and the criteria are spirit, and wisdom. They are supposed to be full of the spirit, and full of wisdom. These are the main things: that they have the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and that they have God’s guidance, since wisdom is understood to come from God and to be that quality that allows people to discern what it means to walk in God’s ways, and how to do it in particular situations as they arise. So they have God’s power, and God’s guidance. This is what makes these people capable. And it’s the community that is responsible for noticing the presence of these qualifications, and for calling it out, for identifying these signs.

But perhaps the biggest thing we notice in this whole episode is that there really are no comparisons being made here at all. The Twelve are not appealing to their special expertise or their better preaching or anything like that for why they need to stick with the service of the word. They simply point out that Jesus gave them that job, and what’s right is that they continue to do that job.

And then no one says anything like “Stephen is so good with people,” or “Phillip is so caring,” or “Nicanor knows all the widows in the south sector of town, so …” We might suppose those things might have been on people’s minds, but if they were, that’s not what the Bible tells us. What the Bible tells us is that these are the people the church called, and they were supposed to have met the tests of being full of the spirit, and of wisdom, and then they get prayer and laying on of hands, that touch, and now they have a job. We don’t know that they’re the best food distributors; maybe the Twelve were really good at that, too, but in the end that wasn’t their job. It was someone else’s job.

There’s something powerful in this. When we know we have a job, when that job has been given to us, when we’ve been called to do some specific work, to know that the first thing we need to do is that … it helps us make a lot of decisions. It helps us say “yes” to the things we need to do. It helps us say “no” to things that are not what we need to be doing, if those things keep us from doing the job that is ours. It allows us to recognize that other people in the community, other people in the church, can do things, and need to do things, if this way of life is going to flourish.

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About HAT

Heather Thiessen (HAT) is a happily married 60-ish, Bible-reading, Presbyterian Church Sunday School teaching and choir singing, small fuel efficient car driving, still pretty much 2nd wave feminist and generally out lesbian Hoosier mom. (There are no monochrome states.) From time to time she teaches religious studies to students at a small liberal arts college in Louisville, Kentucky.
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