Summer Sermon Series: Acts 6:1-15

Full Text: 

When I was in middle school, cooperative learning seemed to be the in thing at my school.  There always seemed to be a 2 or 3 big group projects every year.  We were assigned our groups, and somehow, we would magically work together and learn from one another. 

It was a nice idea in theory.  … But I didn’t have any magical cooperative learning experiences. 

After one negative experience in 6th grade where no one ever wanted to focus or follow through on anything and we received a bad grade, I vowed never to let that happen to me again.  I took charge of every other group project after that, and did most the work myself if I had to.  No one ever seemed to mind.  Sometimes someone would step up and join me.  Most of the time people were just grateful I did the work.  The grades were up to my standards, …but I didn’t exactly learn how to work cooperatively. 

In retrospect, I’ve learned a lot—even if it wasn’t what my teachers intended.  I learned that I can’t do everything myself, or else I will burn out.  I’ve also learned that when I do everything, I take away opportunities from the others in the group.  And, I’m slowly learning, that new and creative ideas can emerge out of conflict. 

Last week we had a story in Acts about how the early church kept growing, and everyone was of one heart and one mind, and everyone was generous with one another, and everyone devoted themselves to prayer and Bible study, and everyone magically worked together and learned from one another.  …this week, we have a different story…

This same church that was of one heart and one soul found its self in deep conflict.  In chapter 4, there was not a needy person among them.  Now, some of the widows were being neglected.  And not just any widows…it was the widows who spoke a different language and came from a different culture.  Most likely, the Hellenist widows were also Jewish, but unlike the Hebrews, they probably had spent some time outside of Jerusalem and Judea and had picked up the language and the culture of other parts of the Roman Empire.  They probably spoke the international language of Greek instead of Hebrew. 

Maybe it was an insider vs. outsider thing.  Maybe it was a traditional vs. contemporary thing.  Maybe it was a people will always find something to disagree about thing.  Whatever the origin of the conflict, it was big enough to bubble up to the top. 

How the twelve handled this conflict sounds to me like a make it or break it kind of deal.  As the church grew and grew, the more potential for disagreements simply because there were more people.  Plus, small conflicts have the potential to fester and quietly grow underneath the surface.    I feel like they handled this one beautifully.  Later conflicts leave something to be desired, but this story gifts us with some helpful wisdom. 

First of all, the twelve didn’t ignore the conflict and hope that it would go away—which is something churches are often tempted to do.  Jesus came to reconcile people, and break down walls, and build bridges.  The church was to be one body in Christ with room for everyone and a place where everyone’s diverse gifts were celebrated.  The church starting to divide along cultural and language lines could not be ignored.  The twelve seemed to know that they needed to address this one. 

Secondly, unlike me in middle school, the twelve knew their purpose and what it meant to lead.  It comes across a little arrogantly It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.  And yet, I can tell you that “mission” is the biggest buzz word in just about every seminary, church seminar, or educational event I’ve seen.  The word is tossed around so much that it’s dangerously close to losing its meaning, but it’s so important.  Churches that lose their sense of mission and purpose will almost always devolve into conflict.  It’s a lot easier to fight over the proverbial color of the carpet when we stop paying attention to Jesus and everything God calls us to do.  And conflict can choke the church.  So while it can sound like the twelve were just trying to get out of waiting on tables, I think they were quite wise.  Church leaders need to devote their energy and time to spiritual growth to responsibly discern God’s mission for the church. 

 Third, unlike me in middle school, the twelve knew their limits.  One person or even a small group of people can’t do everything.  When we take everything on ourselves, we get spread too thin.  We get sloppy.  We get grumpy.  We burn out.  It’s not a sustainable model for the church.  But it’s hard to respect those limits.  It can be hard to trust other people.  We might be afraid it won’t be done right.  We might be afraid it might not get done at all.  We might like to have control. 

I’m beginning to see our limits as a gift though.  When we respect our limits, it forces us to make space for other people to use their gifts.  If I do everything, I rob others of their chance to use their gifts.  The twelve dared to trust others to help solve this conflict.  They strategically picked 7 people from the group that was being under-represented.  The 12 leaders gave these seven clear directions to get them started.  They gave them their blessing and gave them authority to be in charge of the food distribution.  And they got out of the seven’s way.  They gave them space to use their gifts. 

And after these seven leaders were appointed to this smaller job, a couple of them continued to grow and use their gifts in ways no one could have imagined.  Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Stephen did such amazing things that other people got angry and jealous and he ended up fully following in the footsteps of Jesus.  His faith was so deep he even forgave the mob who stoned him, just like Jesus proclaimed forgiveness from the cross.  Next week we’ll hear about Phillip who went beyond Judea and spread the good news to a most unlikely person.  When we dare to trust and empower others, we create space for the Holy Spirit to do even more amazing things. 

So out of this petty conflict, the early church managed to reaffirm its mission, strengthen its community, and raise up new leaders to further the church’s mission.  The Spirit is there, even in the midst of conflict. 

This is all so much easier said than done though.  Like I said earlier, future stories in Acts show some less-than-helpful ways of dealing with conflict…and yet God is still there, still at work, still finding ways for the mission of Jesus to persist in the world. 

Today I want to affirm each of you.  I like to think I can do everything, but I know better.  We need each other to be the church God calls us to be.  You each have gifts that I don’t have, and my prayer is that I will get out of the way so you can use those gifts.  I pray that I will do everything I can to equip and empower you to grow the mission of Hope in the world.  I pray that I will not revert back to my middle school self, and instead take a cue from the disciples in this story.  I encourage each of you to listen to the ways God is calling you.  We can do great things for God when we work together, lift one another up, and creatively face our conflicts. 

 

Today I celebrate each of you and I look forward to discovering all the gifts we have right here in our congregation.