04/25/21 “Easter People: Stephen”

Acts 6:1-7

The book of Acts is full of exciting stories. There’s Paul’s dramatic conversion and his later rescue from a shipwreck. There’s one prison story where an angel walks Peter out through doors that swing open of their own accord, and one where all the prison doors open and all the prisoners’ chains come unfastened during an earthquake. Philip gets magically whisked away from one place to another. The book of Acts would make a great adventure movie. Picture George Clooney and Tom Cruz as Peter and Paul.

But, today we’re not focusing on any of the stories of daring escapes or supernatural occurrences. We won’t follow Paul and Barnabas as they flee from one mob after another. We’re not even watching the dramatic event most of us associate with Stephen—his execution by stoning at the hands of an angry mob fueled by trumped-up lies. Instead, we’re going to focus on one of the most boring stories in Acts—Luke’s account of a committee meeting.

But before you let your eyelids droop in anticipation, consider this. In this story, we see some of the first disciples in a situation most like what we might find ourselves in. We’re not likely to have a miraculous prison break or angry mob or a shipwreck in our future. But, like the first Easter people, we do find ourselves learning about a problem, calling a meeting, and figuring out how to address it—not through supernatural means but simply by working together to find a solution.

A lot had happened since Barnabas laid the proceeds from the sale of his land at the feet of the apostles. The apostles had been preaching and healing with such spectacular results that believers—both men and women—were being added in great numbers, and people were bringing their sick into Jerusalem just so Peter’s shadow might fall on them.

The high priest and his crowd feared that their power was being threatened, so they had the apostles arrested and put in prison. That was the setting for the first angelic prison break. the next day, when the freed apostles appeared before the council, the council told them they were not to teach about or heal in Jesus’ name. When Paul retorted that they would be following God’s orders, thank you very much, the council became enraged and murderous. Fortunately, the cool thinking of a Pharisee named Gamaliel prevailed, and the apostles were released after being beaten and commanded once again not to speak in the name of Jesus. A lot of good that did; they went right back to their daily proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah.

All that excitement leaves us wondering what will happen next. And, what happens next is…a committee meeting. A problem has cropped up, having to do with how the new Church is distributing food among its poor. This is an important ministry—something of a hallmark of the fledgling church. They’re becoming known for how they share what they have so that no one is in need. And, this isn’t just a feel-good promotional gimmick. It’s a sign that God’s grace is upon the Christian community. The apostles had been doing headline-worthy signs and wonders, but the sharing of food was, in its own way, just as important a sign of God’s grace.

Remember that one of Luke’s purposes for writing this book is to demonstrate how God’s promises were fulfilled in Jesus and were being lived out in the Church. Care for the vulnerable had always been a benchmark against which faithfulness and righteousness were to be judged. The prophets all made it clear that how God’s people treated widows and orphans, the poor and the powerless, the aliens within their gates was a gauge of the people’s relationship with God and their renewed covenant with God. The food ministry was a visible expression of that. The problem in the food ministry was more than a logistical problem. It was a theological problem.

The presenting symptom was a reported disparity in how the widows in the Church were being treated. There had been grumbling by the Hellenists that their widows were being slighted in favor of the Hebrew widows. In principle, they were all of one heart and soul, and they all had an equal share in the blessings of Israel. But, in practice, some seemed to be treated “more equally” than others.

The Hellenists and the Hebrews were all members of the one faith community and all claimed Jesus as the Messiah. But the Hellenists spoke Greek, and the Hebrew believers spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. At its most basic level, this was a language problem. But, differences in language are often associated with other differences. The Greek-speaking believers may have come to Jerusalem from other parts of the world—what we call the diaspora. Along with their language, they may have brought with them other cultural differences.  Since birds of a language-feather often flock together, they may have established house churches in their own neighborhoods among people like themselves, even though they were part of the one Church and looked to the apostles as their leaders. It was a language barrier and perhaps some other cultural barriers that threatened the unity of the Church.

So, the apostles called a meeting of the “whole community of disciples.” It’s not certain who made up this guest list, since the believers numbered in the thousands by that time. It’s more likely that Luke had in mind a group of representatives—people who were mature in their faith and were leaders in their communities, people who could be counted on to be thoughtful in their problem-solving.

The current predicament had made the apostles aware of a basic truth: they couldn’t do everything themselves. They’d been called to the particular ministry of preaching and prayer, and trying to run everything meant that something would be neglected. So, they proposed that the community choose a group of disciples who would be responsible for the caring ministries of the church, while the apostles focused on the work they were called to do.

This sounded reasonable to everyone, and they chose a group of seven, including two men Luke writes about later: Stephen and Philip. The apostles prayed over these new leaders and laid hands on them, signaling that the new leaders had been given authority to carry out their work. The plan was successful. We hear of no more grumbling and, Luke tells us, “the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”

Immediately after this rather humdrum story, Luke moves back into action mode, telling of Stephen’s signs and wonders, and his thorough and passionate preaching which led to his death by stoning. That leads me to some questions. Why would Luke sandwich such a run-of-the-mill story about a committee meeting between a prison break and the making of the first martyr? Why is this meeting so important? What does Luke want his readers to learn from our passage for today? I think that this story contains at least three lessons to teach us as present-day Easter people.

The first lesson is that things change, and there’s no user’s manual for how to adapt. Those first Easter people weren’t operating according to a predetermined script. There was no “Early Church Owner’s Manual.” As conditions changed, they had to feel their way forward. Jesus had ascended into heaven, leaving them with a commission to be his witnesses and to make disciples, but they had to continually refine the ways they’d been doing things so that they could carry out the mission Jesus had entrusted to them.

In that, we are not so different from them. We’ve been given the same mission. As conditions around us change, we too have to adapt, to changing course, finding new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, sometimes the Church behaves as though nothing has changed or will change. Membership declines. Ministries lose vitality. More people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and turn away from the institutional Church. Others long to feel accepted by the Church but are excluded. Reason and experience tell us that the world is changing, but too often the Church at every level sweeps change under the rug and continues on as though nothing has changed.

If the past 13½ months have taught us anything, it’s that we have to deal with change. And I’m proud of how this congregation has stepped to meet that challenge.  Just as the first disciples did, we’ve learned a lot about adapting our ministries to meet current needs. But, when the pandemic is over, we should not plan to settle back into business as usual. The world around us will continue to change. Whitehouse will continue to change. The way we understand the world’s needs will continue to change.

We should remember what we’ve learned about discerning the nature of change in our lives, in our church, and in the world, and we should continue to use what we’ve learned. Our passage teaches us that there’s never been a simple step-by-step guide to being the Church. There never will be one. But, Easter people adapt and find a faithful way forward.

The second lesson from our passage is this: the ministry of the church is not limited to a select group but is shared by all its members. When the apostles got wind of the grumbling, they took action by calling together the community. They could have made a decision on their own. They could have held tight to the flag-ship ministry of the Church. They were in charge, and the community had acknowledged their authority. But they recognized that they couldn’t do all things well. Trying to do everything themselves meant neglecting the tasks they had been called to and had already led to problems with the food ministry.

Ministry, then and now, is the task of the whole Church, not just certain selected leaders. We call this “the ministry of all Christians.” Here’s how our Book of Discipline describes it: it’s “the expression of the mind and ministry of Christ by a community of Christians that demonstrates a common life of gratitude and devotion, witness and service, celebration and discipleship.” Christianity is a team sport, and every member has a role to play.

A challenge for the Church can be that as change occurs, it’s hard for the existing leadership to hand off authority to others. New leaders often have the annoying quality of wanting to do things differently. We may say we’re willing and even eager to let someone else take the reins, but we can’t quite let go.

It’s like going back to a house you’ve sold to new owners. Marc and I did that once. We went back to the first house we owned after we sold it. I felt a little offended when I saw that the new owners had planted different flowers (even though I had told them which ones grew best along the driveway), and that they had removed the decorative grill on the front door which we had so carefully picked out. I knew it was ridiculous, but it’s hard to let go of what we’ve so lovingly and carefully built. New leaders need to be given the authority to lead, and we can look to the example of the apostles. They literally handed over authority to Stephen, Philip, and the others by laying hands on them.

Here’s the last lesson: There will be people in the church who grab headlines, but there are many more who carry out the day-to-day work of the church without fanfare, and they are no less vital to the Church’s mission. Luke spends a lot of time telling us about Stephen’s preaching and healing and, of course, his martyrdom. But we first meet Stephen when he’s appointed to the task of managing the food ministry. He may go on to do extraordinary things, but his first job was to effectively carry out an ordinary ministry that affected people’s day-to-day lives.

Six other men were appointed at the same time as Stephen. One of them was Philip, and we hear lots more about him from Luke. But there were five others whose names we don’t hear again—five disciples who were chosen because they were respected by their peers, could exercise good judgment, and (perhaps most importantly) were full of the Spirit. They went about doing the work they’d been appointed to do, making a difference in people’s lives, making it possible for the word of God to spread, and contributing to the increasing number of disciples.

I included Stephen’s name in the title of this sermon, but I think now that I should have included the names of Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus instead. They are the Easter people most like us. They’re the ones who went to the committee meetings, accepted the work they were chosen for, and carried out their tasks behind the scenes, far from the glare of a spotlight.

There are no dramatic stories told about them. But I’ll bet that they made as great an impact on the lonely woman who found fellowship as well as food at a common table as Stephen did on those listening to his sermon. I’ll bet they left a mark as lasting as the memory of Stephen’s martyrdom when they filled the belly of a hungry child. I’ll bet their faithful witness to their risen Lord through their daily attention to people’s physical and spiritual needs did as much to make disciples as any of the more flamboyant deeds of Stephen, Philip, Peter, and Paul. Their ministry was an example for Easter people then, and they are an example for Easter people now.

Long ago, the apostles and the community of disciples sat down to work out how to be the Church in their world. They didn’t have an instruction manual. They didn’t know how their story would unfold. They couldn’t have known that nearly two thousand years later, in a land they didn’t know existed, in a place that would come to be called Whitehouse, another community of disciples would look to their example for working out how to be the Church in their world. Like them, we don’t have an instruction manual, and we don’t know how our story will unfold. But we share with those first Easter people our faith in the risen Christ. Like them, we will live as Easter people, adapting, changing, and making our way forward as we live out our commission to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young