Today, we’re going to wrap up our series on the Holy Spirit and the church by returning one more time to the book of Acts. If you’ve been with us over the last several weeks, you’ll remember that we’ve been asking one fundamental question: “what is it that the Holy Spirit empowers God’s people to do?”
The book of Acts picks up after the resurrection, and is generally considered a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. This book details what the early church looked like, and in the beginning paints a pretty idealized picture: everyone gathered together daily for prayer, teaching, and meals. They celebrated the Lord’s Supper in some form together, and Acts 2 even says that the earliest followers sold most or all of their property and held everything together in common. They were unified, excited, and full of joy at what God was doing among them.
By the time we hit chapter 6, though, there is some conflict in the body. The apostles had told Jesus’ story throughout Jerusalem and on several festival days, so the believers were from every walk of life: Jewish people who grew up in Israel and spoke Aramaic, Jewish people who grew up in other parts of the world and spoke primarily Greek, and a few Gentiles who filtered in rather slowly. These cultural divides provide the background for our story today.
Scripture: Acts 6:1-7
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.’ What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Even as the word of God continued to spread, the Church is growing, and even the temple priests are coming on board, all is not well within.
The ‘Hellenists’ described here were probably Greek-speaking Jews, who would’ve grown up away from Israel and adopted Greek customs, and later moved to Jerusalem. This would’ve set them apart in many ways from the ‘native’ population, and because humans tend to seek out people with whom they have the most in common, they probably would’ve formed a smaller community within the community.
We have to sort of extrapolate to get to their core complaint: apparently, there was a daily distribution of food to people who needed it: widows, orphans, etc. And the Hellenists thought the folks from their community were being shortchanged, so they went to the apostles, who were the de facto leaders of this growing community, to present their complaint.
And if you heard this passage the same way I did at first, you might think the apostles are exasperated by this complaining. “Seriously? We don’t have time for this.”
But that’s not the case at all. They remembered the way Jesus would sit with them and teach them over dinner. They knew the importance of gathering together for meals and extending the table as far as they possibly could. They likely also knew that if it weren’t for this community’s act of giving generously, these folks might not eat at all. Food is important – not just because it keeps us alive, but because there is a special sort of bonding that happens over food.
So rather than dismiss the complaint or tell them to go figure it out themselves, they say instead: “unlike Jesus, we cannot be in all times and all places. We can’t be out there preaching and teaching and monitoring who gets more food at the soup kitchen. So, let’s raise up some more leaders.”
They divide and conquer – and if you paid close attention to who was chosen to oversee this ministry, most of them were Greek names. So not only did they raise up new leaders, but they raised up leaders from the community most affected by the conflict.
This story helped set out for us the division of labor that still governs our church today – while Ministers of Word and Sacrament are somewhat mobile, going from community to community to preach, teach, and offer the sacraments, elders and deacons are rooted in one particular Christian community. Elders are the congregation’s leaders and decision-makers, while Deacons oversee ministries of care and service. It’s not a perfect system, because it’s made up of real, actual humans – but when we’re paying close attention to the tasks before us and the ways the Holy Spirit is pushing us to serve, then the whole congregation can thrive.
But in this same passage, I also see the way these apostles dodged some of the greatest temptations for congregational leaders, even today:
The first temptation is to take everything on yourself, and never allow anyone else to use their gifts. In the same way you would be frustrated if I got up here on Sunday morning and said “sorry, I don’t have a sermon this week – I was too busy figuring out which color we should paint the bathrooms and taking care of the ant problem out front,” so the apostles didn’t abandon their core tasks to take care of every single problem themselves. This is especially difficult for those of us who are perfectionists, and struggle with others who might not do things the way we would.
The second temptation is to put efficiency before people. These are the folks who develop air-tight processes and systems, and you either play along or you don’t play at all. These systems lack flexibility, and the ability to change the way things are done because we would rather run on autopilot. But the apostles, instead of seeing a threat to their leadership or ‘the way things are done,’ instead saw an opportunity to correct an injustice and develop new leaders at the same time.
This brings us to the final temptation for leaders that I’ll talk about today – the temptation to take everything personally. Some of the best advice I got when I was starting out in ministry was the continual reminder that “you are neither as great nor as awful as people may say you are. Everyone falls somewhere in the middle.” Whether it’s every success or every failure or both, leaders whose well-being depends on how happy their folks are will burn out more quickly than a match in a thunderstorm. The apostles were willing and able to hear this complaint and do something about it because they knew that ultimately, it wasn’t about them at all. They didn’t take it personally, and that allowed them to make the necessary changes without feeling like they were failures as leaders.
Some folks are convinced that because the Church is a gathering of God’s people, there should never be any conflict. We should never disagree, or call one another into better behavior, or argue or be frustrated. And of course, none of that has ever happened here, right?
But that’s not how humans work. The question is not whether we should have conflict, because we will, but how we will deal with it.
This story is not a one-size-fits-all solution to every problem – not even close. But it does remind us that through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can do hard things.
We can disagree without hating one another. We can change and evolve without feeling like we’ve somehow failed. We can solve conflicts and call one another up without taking everything personally, and we can step back and invite new voices into leadership without fearing the future.
If you read on in Acts, both Stephen and Philip—two of the people called up to be servants—would become preachers and teachers themselves, which brings me to one final point: the Holy Spirit may call you to one thing for your whole life, or that call may grow and evolve and change. And that’s perfectly okay.
Whether it’s waiting tables at the ancient version of a soup kitchen, rearranging the leadership puzzle, teaching littles or teaching grownups, sitting in living rooms listening to stories, preaching to those who’ve never heard the good news of Jesus before, or raising a fuss to make sure everyone gets what they need, the Holy Spirit calls and empowers you to serve somewhere in the community of faith.
Remember that when the Nominating Committee comes around in the fall.
The Holy Spirit is not just about the big flashy miracles. Every time you don’t bite someone’s head off when you’re frustrated, or you pray for a friend who’s struggling, or you draw on some untapped well of courage to do something that scares you, that’s the Spirit. There is nothing too great or too small for God to care about, to strengthen you for, to pay close attention to. If you’re ever tempted to think “oh, that’s so petty, God has other things to do,” remember that the Spirit empowered no fewer than 7 people to make sure a group of widows in ancient Israel got enough food.
And today, with that same attentiveness and care, Christ invites you to come and feast, to dine at his table and be fully embraced in his love.