June 5, 2016

Pentecost 3 June 5, 2016   Luke 6:12-16, Acts 1:12-26, Acts 6:1-7

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Today we’re listening-in, as disciples are called and chosen…

First, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus prays all night before choosing his original twelve apostles… Who now become his starting team all through the gospels and on into the book of Acts. (Luke’s gospel, volume two.)

Next, in our reading from chapter one of Acts, we hear again the names of the twelve, minus Judas Iscariot. Immediately after Jesus has ascended into heaven, his disciples gather again in an upper room, just as they did during Jesus’ last week on earth. And just as Jesus prayed in Luke’s gospel before choosing the apostles, now apostles pray before selecting the one to take the place of Judas. In this upper room scene we see how they’ve learned from Jesus, the importance of getting away from busyness and distractions… As they pray and practice discernment together before making the decision…

And there’s no shortage of decisions to make…following Jesus.

Just a little while ago in Acts, the whole church was “all of one heart and soul,” sharing all things in common.’ (Acts 4 tells us.) Now division seems to be popping up for the first time in Acts. Requiring new decisions.

Now in our last reading today, from Acts 6… The Greek-speaking Jewish Christian community complains that the majority “Hebraic” Aramaic-speaking church is short-changing their widows in the church’s daily feeding program. We don’t know the details – the original language actually only says “in the daily distribution” or “in the daily ministration…” Translations like ours today add words indicating distribution of food or meals, based on Peter’s response about prioritizing serving the word of God over waiting on tables…We don’t know if the church was serving sit-down meals or running an early version of meals-on-wheels or perhaps providing money to buy food where people lived.

We do know taking care of widows is something inherited from our Jewish ancestors in faith. Jewish communities of the time had various ways of providing for needs of widows, of whom there were many. Women typically were married to older men, who often passed away before their wives… The law of Moses (Ex 22:22 etc) and the prophets (Isaiah 10:1-2 etc)  command the whole community to take care of widows. And – it’s important to notice – no one seems to doubt the Hellenistic community’s complaint has merit.

So the apostles gather the whole community of believers together. Peter, probably remembering what Jesus did when he sent first, the twelve, then seventy more disciples, out on mission – Now the apostles commission the whole church community to choose seven men to serve the identified need.

We’ve been told several times now, the church is growing like topsy. Probably the apostles are a bit maxed-out from serving the gospel, day and night, to more and more people. Probably they’re excited but also tired and stressed. Probably they know they need help, need to delegate. But someone has to push that envelope to get it started…. Which now the Greek-speaking community does…

And now apostles delegate to the whole church. Saying, ‘choose seven from among you, full of the Spirit and wisdom.’ Everyone agrees. Seven are picked. Hands are laid-on in prayer. The Holy Spirit is powerfully working. Seven guys, all with Greek names, are chosen for the hands-on ministry of caring for the vulnerable. Reminding us – those who perceive the problem should be willing to help resolve it. Reminding us also –

When we’re tired and or stressed, we tend to forget things we know. At first the apostles seem to be saying ‘we can’t wait on tables – because our job is serving up the word of God…’ But surely the apostles, when they slow down and pray remember – Jesus told us all along – taking care of the needy is part of the discipleship 101 job description – right up there with preaching and teaching. Jesus told us he himself is among us as one who waits on tables. (Luke 22.) He himself will put on an apron and wait on table for those who have been faithful, when he returns…(Luke 12.) (And…when we pray we remember… Not to be too sure we know… Where God is leading… )

Interestingly enough… As we read on we never even hear of any of this new group of seven waiting on tables…(though I’m sure they all do that…) But we do soon hear of Stephen, first-named among the seven, witnessing to the powers -that-be as a Spirit-filled-prophet-of-the-church…. Which soon makes him also the first martyr of the church… As an angry mob stones him to death – and he prays, just like Jesus, for his murderers to be forgiven…. And reading on we’ll also soon see…

Philip, second-named among the seven, becoming the first evangelist to take  the gospel on the road – heading out from Jerusalem into Samaria, where Jesus said to go, sparking a great revival…And…  What begins as commissioning helpers for a hot lunch program…. turns out to be nothing less than anointing the next generation of church leadership…

Good delegating – Spirit-led sharing in the work of God – makes healthy churches. Which always starts with much prayer… and good listening…

Small groups that feature prayer and bible study and service… were at the roots of the early Methodist movement also…  Decentralizing leadership and involving everyone in ministry is a basic principle and building block of healthy church formation….

And according to Acts, healthy churches aren’t built on individual heroes of faith. True, God does signs and wonders through the apostles – but it’s God who does this, not the apostles (and very soon God will be doing signs and wonders through others who are not apostles)… And from here on in the story, the apostles actually appear only in supporting roles… We never hear another word about either the chosen substitute twelfth disciple, Matthias, or the runner up apostolic-nominee…Nor do we hear anything more about the other five chosen to serve on the new team of seven waiters.

Acts really isn’t about the individual actors. Not even about the ones who look a bit like stars in the story – Peter and John, the apostles named most often – and St Paul, who we’ll be meeting soon, all of whom feature prominently… It’s really not about us, either… The story of the church continuing to do all Jesus began to do and teach is the story of God who made the universe – still at work – Continuing the Acts of God…

Yet the story is also about all those who make up the early church…Now at the cusp of dramatic turning points in the life of the church.

Jesus told disciples, remember, just before his ascension – you will be my witnesses, starting here in Jerusalem, going out into nearby Judea, neighboring Samaria, then to the ends of the earth.

Geographically we’re still in Jerusalem – but now the gospel’s moving into less familiar cultural territory. This still-all-Jewish but now also Greek-speaking minority Christian community… again reminds us… the first manifestation of the Spirit is the gift of communication across cultural barriers…

Now believers from a different culture with a different language have become part of the church. Now, already, where we are – the word of God is forming a new community… Anticipating the words the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians, where we’re told – in Christ we are no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, woman or man – Now in Christ we are all one….

And as the story continues… The story still is not really about us – it’s still about God’s mighty acts. Yet, the story is still about us… As God continues to employ us… in the living and teaching of God’s story…

All the specifics of our challenges and opportunities, just as long ago, today are still ever-changing. And the principles still don’t change. Our call to be sharing in God’s ministry isn’t anything new. It’s something we know how to do. But like Peter and the first apostles, we too often find it easier to keep doing what we’ve been doing… rather than training, teaching, empowering others to share in the work… I understand why… I know it’s often slower, sometimes messier, at least at first, to share with others the work we know how to do ourselves…

But sharing is how the church grows. Sharing is how the church adapts to changing circumstances…  And as we pray and listen, like the early church, we too will notice more and more opportunities to be involved in what God is doing…

(For example:)

Just a few days ago, a convener of a 12-step group that meets in one of our churches let me know they’d like to take us up on our offer of childcare that our Outreach Committee made a few weeks ago…

Can we pray about this – And as the Spirit leads – anoint and lay hands on those called to help?

Our existing small groups also continue to be seed beds for mission. Our bible study group always welcomes new participants… Our choir’s always looking for new singers. (‘Every voice is beautiful…’) Our Trustees, Worship, Finance, Thrift Shop, and Outreach teams welcome your prayers, your time given in helping…

And in every ministry, small or large – Whenever we’re praying and listening for God…. Opportunities abound to bear witness to what God is doing in our lives…in God’s church… in the life of the world…

Opportunities abound  for sharing a word, a prayer, a helping hand in the name of Jesus…

And what can be better than helping Jesus? As we follow, as he calls us… to love and serve him, and his people… Altogether… in his name.

Thanks be to God. Amen.