April 18, 2021
Acts 6:1-7:2a; 44-60
It had been more than a few years since Jesus was crucified and rose form the tomb and the early church is struggling to find its footing.
The Book of Acts … which some consider the sequel to the Gospel of Luke … covers the time following the resurrection as the early church begins to grow.
The Book of Acts is about welcoming and inclusion … acts that sometime lead to conflict.
People from different groups .. Jews and Gentiles … are joining the community of faith. There is so much going on … so many new faces … that some important ministries are being ignored. In this morning’s passage from Acts, Luke shares that food distribution to the community’s widows had not been working as well as it could have.
Essentially, there’s a conflict in the church kitchen and it is affecting the relationship between members … and the church’s relationship with the world.
It appears that the widows who spoke Greek received less food than the widows who spoke Aramaic. Even though they were all Jews, the widows represented different ethnic backgrounds and favourites were being played.
So, seven more disciples are anointed and charged with serving the tables of the disadvantaged … serving the Word and through service to others bearing witness to God’s activities in the world.
These seven had to meet three criteria:
They had to be of good repute.
They had to be “full of the Spirit”
And they had to be “full of wisdom,” which means that they have knowledge and practical skills necessary for the task at hand.
These seven disciples are to be leaders of the early church movement … the equivalent of a modern-day mission team. The addition of these disciples solves the conflict in the kitchen … but gives rise to another conflict.
One of the members of the early church mission team is Stephen and he checks all the right boxes.
He is of good repute.
He is “full of wisdom,”
He is “full of the Spirit” … so much so that it gets him in trouble.
Stephen takes things a step farther than expected … imbued with the Spirit … he begins to preach … he makes an assertion about the dwelling place of God.
Theologian Craig Koester points out that “the single most subversive element in the whole Book of Acts is the Holy Spirit.”
For the powers that be … for those anchored in the past … Stephen represented a threat because he pointed out that things were changing for society and for the community of believers.
In a sense, Stephen calls on the elders and the congregation to adapt to the new reality.
The world around Jerusalem is changing … and in this world, the community of faith is beginning to separate … as the experience of the widows demonstrates. Through the work of the apostles and the seven anointed leaders … the number of disciples began to quickly grow as the word of God began to spread farther into the countryside.
The movement attracts people from a diverse backgrounds and experiences and sometimes they didn’t mesh as well as they could have.
The community of believers finds itself with people who speak different languages … Greek and Aramaic … who look different … who come from different social circles … from the city and the wilderness … there are those who want to stick to traditional worship and look after their own people … and others who want worship to move away from strict adherence to tradition and want things to be reinterpreted for the current world and changing community.
During what is known as the Diaspora, people were scattered across the region and … because they were … there wasn’t as much contact with the temple … because …. well … the Romans had destroyed the temple.
The Romans believed that without the temple, the faith community would wither and die and the people’s tendency for rebellion would fade into the past. But they were wrong.
There were some who, no doubt, had been brought up in the temple and whose identity was anchored in the traditions they had embraced in their younger days. They would have felt the loss of the temple most profoundly.
And living in such uncertainty, they would have little patience for the new stuff or the influence of the newcomers … such as the recently anointed Stephen.
Stephen reminds the faith leaders … the Sanherdrin … the ones whose lives should be anchored in Scripture … that God never wanted a house … that God … through the prophet Nathan … told David that a tent was the preferred structure.
Nathan had pointed out to David that God has been content moving amongst the people … in tents and tabernacles … being felt intimately in their lives and fostering loving and faith-filled acts.
Stephen reminds the church elders of times in the past when God moved forward and the people pushed back against the change these steps necessitated.
This is the focus of the second part of the Book of Acts … God’s work continuing by means of the Holy Spirit through the work of the church.
Stephen points to the Scriptures that God’s power and actions are not tied to one building or to a specific way of doing things. It never has been, and never will be. God … through the Holy Spirit … works through a variety of people in a variety of places, including outside of the church building.
Stephen points out the inconsistency of the Sanherdrin by denying the Holy Spirit’s working in the world.
Today’s story has its anchor within an early church’s struggle to determine its identity … about discerning a way to best use the gifts that are present and how to resolve differences and address prejudices that arise within that community.
The people attracted to the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection … of the promise and hope of new life it offers … these people are looking for their place … their voice … within the community of believers … just as that community is looking for its voice in the world.
Just as the community in Stephen’s story is struggling with establishing its values and identity, churches today … in the face of the pandemic and its far-reaching effects … are grappling with the same questions.
What does the future hold for our faith community? Where is the Spirit calling us?
The pandemic has pushed us into a contemporary Diaspora … health necessities have resulted in people being scattered and isolated. We are searching for connections to our faith communities and our communities in general … we are faced with overwhelming need and challenges and trying to discern how to meet them.
And, let’s face it, the uncertainty of the pandemic has made all of us more than a little weary and a bit leery and more than a little change-adverse.
But today’s passage from Acts calls us out complacency and the comfort the past offers and into a life of service to others … into a life of active welcoming and inclusion and allowing the Spirit to shape our identities of faith rather than allow a building to do it.
And to recognize the hope that is carried amongst us by an unbridled Spirit.
May it ever be so