About the Journey 6 - from Kerry

About the Journey 6 - Acts 6:1-15 - from Kerry Flemington

But as the believers rapidly multiplied, there were rumblings of discontent. The Greek-speaking believers complained about the Hebrew-speaking believers, saying that their widows were being discriminated against in the daily distribution of food.
So the Twelve called a meeting of all the believers. They said, “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program. And so, brothers, select seven men who are well respected and are full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will give them this responsibility. Then we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.”
Everyone liked this idea, and they chose the following: Stephen (a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit), Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas of Antioch (an earlier convert to the Jewish faith). These seven were presented to the apostles, who prayed for them as they laid their hands on them.
So God’s message continued to spread. The number of believers greatly increased in Jerusalem, and many of the Jewish priests were converted, too.
Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia. None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.” This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.
The lying witnesses said, “This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.
Acts 6:1-15

As I was studying this chapter, I gave myself a one question quiz: name all 12 apostles. I could easily name five: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Judas. Turns out, I know even less than I thought...apparently Mark and Luke aren’t even apostles.  So where do they come from?  
As a church lifer, I know I take a lot of things for granted about the Bible and what I think it says. The truth is, that bleeds into how we do church and what it looks like.  I’ve attended all my life and for the most part, including the house church we went to when I was a kid, it follows the same pattern: Sunday morning service, Bible study during the week, Pioneer girls on Wednesday nights, youth group on Friday nights, etc.  We all could have a list like this and although there may be different events listed on different days, they would probably be more similar than not.  Even for those who didn’t grow up in the church, that is probably the pattern that has now become familiar to you as well.
As I read chapter 6 of Acts, it wasn’t immediately apparent to me what I should take from it.  There are the obvious dynamics of how to make an organization more efficient in the first part of the chapter.  The second part of the chapter suddenly shifts and introduces us to Stephen.  But as I read it through and asked myself questions, an unlikely thought came to me: this is perhaps what the pattern of the church should look like and it’s not the pattern I’m used to.
First, not unlike modern day churches, the group of believers are faced with problems and in this particular chapter, they are not theologically related, they are practical in nature.  The non-Jewish widows are not being treated the same as the Jewish widows.  People are being mistreated and it needs to be addressed.
Second, the 12 apostles are busy doing other work; they can’t oversee the food bank to make sure that people are behaving themselves i.e. distributing the food equally.  What work are they busy with?  Prayer and teaching.  So they gather everyone together, they choose seven people to take this on so that it’s done properly, and they pray for them.  The criteria for the job was that they are well respected, wise, and spirit filled.  All of this is efficient and God ordained, problems are being addressed as they arise, and therefore this is an excellent example of how we should run our churches.
If this is where I had stopped, I would have missed the point completely.  Those twelve apostles were busy.  They had walked with Jesus, and learned from him themselves, directly.  And they felt an urgent need to carry on with his work.  Because of their unique experience, it makes sense that they wouldn’t want to take on food distribution.  There are three things that struck me and this is the first: I thought, because of the central importance of the gospel books, that those four people had to be apostles.  Only two were.  Peter and James, who are also apostles, end up writing their own books too.  But that leaves seven others whose names I have never bothered to remember.  And I catch myself thinking about who’s important and why, and really, who’s not important.  We tend to watch for leadership and legacy and we gravitate towards that.  If we aren’t creating legacy, aren’t a part of leadership, then at the very least, we attach ourselves to people who are, both in church and in life in general.  Getting stuff done in obscurity is less appealing though.  And perhaps because it’s happening in obscurity, we perceive it as less important.  But that’s the majority of the apostles.  There was no less vigour or importance to how those seven did their work than those of their counterparts whose names are easy for us to recall.  They saw a need, they saw how they could meet it, and they just got on with it.
This is the second thing that struck me: nobody thought the work of food distribution to be any less important than the work of the apostles.  The apostles were too busy to oversee it themselves but they took care in choosing seven people who could do the work.  The character of those seven people mattered because the work they were doing mattered.  My own self-absorption and insecurities would have compelled me to want what I perceive to be a more important job.  But there-in lies my preconceived notions about what is church work and what is important church work.
The last thing that struck me was this: while the seven were chosen to do the food distribution, that wasn’t now their singular focus.  They didn’t just leave the teaching and prayer to the apostles - they all did it. It wasn’t ensuring equal portion sizes that got Stephen into trouble with the religious elite.  He got into the same trouble that Peter and John kept getting into - none of them would stop talking about the risen Christ.  In the end, it’s what they all got into trouble for, apostles whose names we know and don’t know, the food distributors, and recent converts, and everyone in between.  While they might have had specific tasks to take care of, they didn’t compartmentalize their lives into church work and non-church work.  Everything within and about their lives was about amplifying the truth of who Christ was and what he did to reconcile humanity to God through the cross.
When I take an honest look at church today, I see nothing of this short, little, seemingly inconsequential chapter in Acts.  While they tasked people with different things to look after, they didn’t see some as more important than others, it was all worthwhile.  But just as critical was that they were all involved in the work of telling the world around them the most important and urgent thing they knew - that Christ wants all of us, not just some of us.  Not only does he want all of us to be reconciled into a relationship with him, but he wants to use all of us (not just some of us) to continue to spread that important and urgent message.  It’s not just the work of the pastor or the preacher or the worship leader or the food bank organizers or the inner city missions or the overseas missions.  It’s not just Sunday morning or Wednesday evenings, or Friday nights. It’s for you and for me, wherever we are, whatever we’ve been tasked with, all the time.  
But most importantly, it’s not meant to remain among us.  Many of us live in a Christian echo chamber, surrounded by Christians and Christian activity.  Indeed, there is something wonderful and life giving about the fellowship of believers and that is an important aspect of our lives.  But I think that fellowship is meant to be where we rest, refuel spiritually, and feed one another IN BETWEEN going back out to engage fully with the rest of the world to relentlessly bring them the message of God’s love and his desire to be reconciled with them through Christ’s death and resurrection.  Otherwise, what’s the point?  Nobody would’ve been imprisoned or martyred in the Bible if they had just looked after one another, worshipped together, and preached to each other.  Yes, they did all those things but that’s not what got them into trouble.  They insisted on taking their message to a hostile world, which included non-believers (Gentiles) and the established church structure (Jews) that was woefully ignorant of the truth that had come from within its walls.  And I believe that’s where we are called to go too.  The people gathered at our tables, sharing our food, sharing our lives, sharing our pews need to be more diverse than currently are.  How do non-believers come to Christ if Christians are too busy taking care of themselves and each other?  That is not what Stephen was doing when he got hauled in front of the religious elite.  That’s not what made his face shine so strangely that everyone stopped and stared.  Yes, feed one another.  But feed one another so that we are fueled to go out and feed a spiritually and physically starved world.

you can connect directly with Kerry at kerry@arnuthill.com

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