The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter – April 15, 2018
Scripture: Acts 6:1-7
Last week we began discovering ourselves anew as the Body of Christ. As the exclamations and proclamations of our Easter Resurrection experience inevitably turn to explanations and demonstrations of what Resurrection, new life, must look like in our lives, we ask some questions. We are Easter people, ours is a resurrection faith. So, what does that mean?
Last week we learned that if our lives are “of God,” if and when they contain harmony, unity, and love for all creation, then one thing is sure: nothing can stop it. If, on the other hand, our lives and the things we “do” are not of God then they will fail. If we don’t act justly and righteously for the “least of those” among us; if we don’t engage with kindness and humility in our dealings with one another, then our undertakings “will fail.” We must order our lives on this premise and build our lives on these foundational affirmations. With the help of a Pharisee named Gamaliel last week, we were given permission to continue to explore, explain, and to expand our love of God and our life of love. We must use this opportunity to show the world that this time, we are “of God.”
Before we turn to our scripture reading and exploration this morning, I need to ask. How many of you slowed down at least once last week to ask yourselves “is what I’m doing, or what I am getting ready to do, of God?” (Rick Fletcher actually said I should take a poll this week to see how many of you experienced me as “an angel” on your shoulder, and how many experienced me as “a devil.” I’m only a little bit worried about what that poll would reveal, so I’ll just ask if you slowed down a bit at all!) That can be a rhetorical question, but if anyone feels like it, you can call out or raise your hand. I did … throughout the week.
On one occasion I found myself in a conversation with three others asking and answering “yes.” And a few other times I asked before engaging, “What would be of God in my action,” and then I proceeded. Every time was evocative, I tell you. I hope at least one or two of you engaged purposefully in this way. If you didn’t, do it this week. In fact, even if you did do it last week, do it again this week. And from now on!
That’s a daily task, even as we move on in our journey toward Pentecost this year. Once again in the Book of Acts, just three and half verses beyond our reading last week. This morning, we’ll learn a bit more about how we do this “God life” in our world. We do it … together.
Listen for the Word of God from the opening verses of the book of Acts, chapter six. Read Acts 6:1-7 … The Word of God. Thanks be to God.
In sharp contrast to the immovable council, those Pharisees and Sadducces of last week who were doing their duty in protecting the faith of their ancestors, this new Jesus-centered, Spirit-led community is on the move. That’s an intimidating thing for conservatives and traditionalists, no less so today. Our own small community right here is a fascinating blend of progressive theology (if you’re listening to my sermons at all!) and traditional liturgy, liberal “God-talk” in a pretty conservative worship style. That’s deliberate, it seems to me. We are trying to balance the requirement to conserve what is “true” with the absolute need to re-discover that truth in our time in new ways. This is precisely what is happening in the opening chapters of the book of Acts.
This new Spirit-led community is ready to move, is moving, and is growing. And in that growth, a new challenge has arisen: new organization and new leadership are needed.
Let me use a bit of my study on this passage to clear up a few things that may be confusing, or even problematic for us. The “Hellenists” that Luke mentions are probably the Greek speaking Jews of the “diaspora,” those Jews living outside of Jerusalem, scattered across Palestine and Asia Minor. There has been a long tradition of taking care of the poor within the Synagogue wherever Jews are living. We know that, in part, because our prophets rail against any who neglect this group. Justice, righteousness, kindness and humility find sacred expression when they are employed in service to the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the “alien.” This new movement, the “Christians,” are continuing this practice … of course. The “Hellenist Jews” in our reading seem to feel that their “widows” are being neglected in the “daily distribution of goods” and they are complaining about it.
We read in verse two that the apostles, in first addressing this situation, say something like “we shouldn’t have to stop preaching to serve tables.” It sounds as though the task of preaching “the Word of God” is the primary apostolic duty, more important than anything else. But this was absolutely not true of the communities in the early centuries, even if it is today for the church. I wish that is wasn’t true. I hope that it isn’t true, at least in our community.
These thirteen, fourteen, fifteen minutes of our Sunday morning that I “preach” – significant as they may be – are no more important that the meal you will prepare for Betty Deibel, the visit you will make to Sis Marker, the mission you are engaging with through disaster assistance, or the education and fellowship that Sunday school or our evening with Shawn in a few weeks are or will be. These first century apostles are not disparaging the work of “the table,” in all its many forms. Rather they are taking it seriously and acting decisively so that these social deeds will be understood “liturgically,” that is, so that they will be understood as part of the life of worship in the community and will continue to happen. They simply realize in this scriptural moment that they, the twelve as it is written, are no longer able to do it all.
Now, I’m not sure this passage has too much to do with the origins of “ordained ministry,” in what would later become the church- priests, ministers, Elders, Deacons, etc. We’ll find those “orderings” in other places later in the book of Acts and in Paul’s writings. But Acts 6 is the first time in Luke’s writings where we see “shared” ministry, what would later be understood in some pretty basic Protestant tenets as “a priesthood of all believers.” And a few conclusions are worth drawing.
First of all, leadership in our communities arises from our fairly “mundane,” but absolutely necessary needs. “The Twelve” are here calling others, “Seven” others in this instance, to be about the needs within the community for certain jobs to be done, namely feeding, visiting, gathering, and caring for those who come together. It’s really easy to imagine that the ordering in the church is “top down.” Even here it seems as though the Apostle’s, seen as those in the highest positions, are telling the rest of the community what they must do. Again, not true! Listen more closely. The congregation is telling the Apostles what is needed and what must be done. “Ordered ministry” is derived from, and accountable to, the congregation as a whole. Leadership, then, arises from below, not from above.
Leadership in this new community called the church doesn’t “dribble down” from God to Jesus, to the Bishop or the Priest, through a human created hierarchy, to the clergy and at last to the laity. The process of “ordering our discipleship” moves in the other direction, arising from the needs of God’s people for guidance, service, and care.
We are a profound example of that reality right here in Pewee Valley in one very provocative way. Every year for the last seven (at least) we have identified and empowered leaders for this community that come not from the ordained hierarchy of the denomination, but from the identified laity of a Seminary. Just this past year, we have been led by three such: Christiaan, Ashia, and Shawn.
Christiaan didn’t come here as an ordained minister of Word and Sacrament, complete with published writings and systematic theologies. He came here as a … what, Christiaan? Twelve year old young boy? He articulated just last Monday at the Session meeting how this community, you – many of you, called him to leadership roles in the church. Helped identify for him a “call” to ministry. I know that Ashia and Shawn have similar stories in congregations of their own. All three of them are students in the Seminary now, leading you even as they learn from you what it means to be a leader of the church.
That is, or it should be – more urgently, it “must be” – true for each and every one of you here. Everyone of you must discern a call to this community. Things don’t get done in ways that guarantee a future for any worshipping community unless everyone who worships in the community takes a leadership role, of some sort. The most transient group of people in any church anywhere in the world are its staff. As a Pastor, even if I’m here twenty years, that’s nothing compared to the ninety years of Sis Marker, or the three generations of Deibels, or to over half of you and your families. Pastors, Seminary students, Youth and Choir Directors, even organists (sorry to say, Matt!) come and go, but the church endures.
The administration of and the daily care for the members of the congregation is the most vital ministry of any church, and it takes all of you, caring for one another and calling one another, and those you choose to lead you in the more “romantic or exciting” functions of communal life. to make this undertaking work, to make it “of God.”
Operating the copy machine, planning Sunday school lessons, preparing food, ministering to divisions between old-timers and newcomers, caring for the elderly, administering church funds, and everything else in-between are services of the Spirit that created the community called the Church in the very beginning and continue to call us into being today. None of us are passive participants in this undertaking. We shape the present church, order it – all together, renewing faith in the capacity of each one of us individually and collectively, in order to ensure the future.
It can’t happen without all of you, all of us. But, with each of us?
“The Word of God will continue to spread; the number of disciples will increase; and more will be guided in the faith.”
So it was. So it is. May it be so. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 15, 2018