*This is an excerpt from last Sunday’s sermon. You can read the entire sermon text here.
So, did you get what happened here? Some people in the church went to the pastors and said, “Hey. The care, the charity of the church, is not being distributed fairly. You Hebrews aren’t giving our Hellenist widows their fair share.”
And the pastors’ response does not seem very Christian. Certainly not very Mennonite: “Well, we’re busy doing the important work of preaching. It’s not our job to wait tables.”
These twelve men, at least eleven of whom had watched Jesus wrap a towel around his waist and wash their filthy feet in the upper room, said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.” They appoint seven other men to “wait on tables” so that they can remain devoted to prayer and preaching.
Just who do these guys think they are, anyway? Too busy praying to feed hungry widows? I spent a good part of the week frustrated with these apostles and their poor leadership model.
And, to be honest, I also spent some time this week fantasizing about what my job might be like if I could just devote myself to prayer and preaching. No meetings. No pastoral visits. No worship coordinating. I wouldn’t even have to check email. Maybe these guys were onto something. . . .
Yes, we can read the apostles’ response here in Acts as a snotty, “We’re too good for that lowly work.” But we can also read it as a wise implementation of a broader leadership structure. . . .
Perhaps this is not about arrogance, but simply about good leadership. “We will preach and pray. You will coordinate the dispensing of food to the needy.”
Over the course of the week I convinced myself that these twelve guys maybe weren’t so bad after all. They’re just being smart. Trying to save themselves from burnout. Setting a good example about division of labor within the church.
It is a good thing for each of us to have our niche. We are all better at different things.
And I think–all of you listen, please–especially those who feel guilt-ridden for not doing enough–I think the apostles here give us permission to say “no.” Not “no, I don’t care.” But “no, I can’t be the one to do that.”
. . . For every thing we choose to do, we are also choosing to not do anything else at that moment. We have to make decisions as faithfully as we can, trusting in the work of the whole body and the grace of God.
The apostles realized that saying “yes” to personally resolving the situation with the distribution of food would have meant saying “no” to some of the praying and preaching they were doing. And it might not be that any of it was more important than the rest of it–Paul’s writings certainly indicate that there is not a hierarchy of service–but simply that one person, even one group of people, cannot do everything that we, as Christ followers, want to see done in the world. . . .
But some of you are doing the reading plan. So you didn’t just read Acts 6:1-7. You read through the first verse of chapter 8. So you know that at the end of chapter 7, Stephen is stoned.
And for those who don’t remember the story, let me assure you that he was not stoned for distributing food to widows.
That was supposed to be his job, right? The apostles prayed for him and the other six; laid their hands on them and sent them forth to distribute food. Three verses later Stephen is in trouble with people at the synagogue for preaching and doing signs and wonders.
Stephen had a role in the church and the Spirit calls him out beyond that role. Later in Acts we also see Philip preaching–even though he was supposed to be distributing food as well.
And I’d like to think that, perhaps, Peter and Andrew and James and John and all the rest of the twelve found themselves giving food to widows every once in awhile.
Because that’s how church works. We discern each others gifts and assign roles. And that is good. And it helps us function; it helps us do ministry–do the work of God in this place.
Then the Spirit comes in and shakes things up now and then.
We are called to be organized and open. Focused and free to expand. It’s a tricky, tension-filled place to be.
But nobody said that being church was easy. And nobody says that we have to be perfect. The key for the early church–and probably for us–is to listen to each other and the Holy Spirit. The better we listen, the more faithfully we can follow the way of Jesus. Amen.