|Opening Day for Vacation Bible School|
Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
Hund Memorial Park, Mattawa
August 8, 2016
Tuesday, August 16, 2016
Pushing Boundaries - Spreading out the Body-Life
Preached on Sunday, August 14, 2016
Scripture readings: 1 Corinthians 12; Acts 6:1-7
I can remember back to when I was a baby. I can remember learning to walk, and being fed in my highchair, and I can remember having a bath in the kitchen sink.
I can remember being barely able to walk when I learned that God made the flowers in our yard, and God made the grass, and God made the sky, and God made me. So I also have a memory of a book my parents gave me when I was about two years old and that book was about becoming an older brother.
The book showed pictures of a very little boy looking at the crib being set up for a new baby in the family. The little boy learned that it would be his job to love, and play with, and help care for that baby.
And after we went to the hospital to pick up my mom and my first baby sister, I took my new job very seriously. I hope I did a good job for both my sisters, in turn; but I also confess that I did learn how to say the famous words: “It’s not fair!”
The first church in the world was still a baby church when it learned how to say: “It’s not fair!” It wasn’t a protest by older brothers and sisters, or by younger brothers and sisters. When the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the apostles, making them witnesses to Jesus on the streets of Jerusalem, we know, from the second chapter of Acts that there had to be both Hebraic Jews and Grecian Jews coming into the baby church at the same time.
It’s hard for us to define the difference between the two groups. Paul, who comes into the picture later, had part of his upbringing in the Greek city of Tarsus, on the Mediterranean coast of what is now the Turkish peninsula. Paul was fluent in Greek and he understood a little bit of Greek philosophy. He could quote Greek poets. (Acts 17:22-28)
But Paul, in one of his letters, described himself as “a Hebrew of Hebrews”. It would be simplest to say that his family raised him to be very, very Jewish; very much a Hebrew, Hebraic Jew. So he would have learned how to speak Greek, and to know how the Greeks thought, but not be culturally Greek. He didn’t identify with the Geeks, until God told him that he needed to identify with them in order to faithfully share Jesus with them.
The Grecian Jews had lived long enough in the Greek and Roman world to have assimilated themselves to it, even though their Jewish faith was so strong that it motivated them to migrate to the Holy City of Jerusalem so that they could live out their days in that special place. They were very Jewish in faith, but not very Jewish in their language and culture. They were spiritual tourists in a Hebraic world.
They didn’t quite fit in, and the two groups tended to cluster among themselves. The Grecian Jews tended to be just a little bit invisible to their Hebraic, very, very Jewish sisters and brothers in Christ, and they perceived that their people were a bit neglected, and “it wasn’t fair”.
That’s the background of the problem behind the story. An important part of the story is how this protest was handled. I want us to see that, and also to go on to the most important lesson. The most important part of the story was what the apostles, and the whole early church together, learned about ministry and mission in the body of Christ.
The handling of the protest was important. Maybe protest is too strong a word? I’m the one using the word protest. The Scripture tells us that the Grecian Jesus did this thing that could mean nothing more than murmuring and grumbling.
It wasn’t loud the way I could be when I thought my parents weren’t being fair. It was quiet. It was under the surface: just enough to so that they could fulfill their desire make themselves clearly heard, and just quiet enough (they thought) so that they couldn’t be blamed for what they were saying. They were trying to have it both ways.
The important point is that apostles didn’t let it stay quiet with the hope that the complaint would quietly go away. They dared to do the incredibly scary thing, and so they brought the problem out into the open; out in front of absolutely everyone.
They didn’t make excuses. They treated the problem as something that deserved an honest and direct and measurable solution.
At first sight it looks like they put the complainers in charge of the solution, because all of the committee of seven have Greek names, but that doesn’t prove anything. Most Jewish people had three names: their Hebrew name, their Greek name, and their Roman name.
But we have no idea of any Hebrew name, at all, for two of the original twelve apostles. Andrew and the first Phillip had perfect Greek names. And yet they were Jewish fishermen, or some such common thing.
In a strange way Jesus himself gave another apostle, with the very Hebrew name Simon, the famous Greek name Peter (or Petros), the rock. So Peter had a Greek name, but there was nothing Grecian about him.
The apostles called the whole church together (the whole fellowship no matter whether they were Hebraic or Grecian, and no matter whether they had Hebrew or Greek names). They called everyone together to work as one, in order to come up with nominations for the committee of seven. Surely the whole church (both the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews together) came up with the list we are given in Acts.
All of this teaches us, as a church, to push beyond our familiar boundaries to value the people in our fellowship who might be the least like us, and think the least like us; on the condition that they have a good reputation, and are full of wisdom, and full of the Holy Spirit. We are taught to value them. We are taught to give them ministries among us, and to listen to them, and to learn from them.
And we are taught to not put this off. We are taught to push beyond our familiar way of being a Christian, right from the start, and to let others in.
But the very most important part of this story is the discovery that the apostles made about themselves, and about their ministry, and what ministry should be in the church. The twelve apostles discovered that they couldn’t do it all. They saw that they had failed to do their job because they couldn’t do it all.
They needed to learn how to share the ministry. They had to spread the ministry to others if they truly wanted the church to be strong.
We lose sight of this because we have distorted the meaning of the word minister, and Christians have been distorting this word for a long, long time. The word minister has nothing to do with some concept of a thing that the world and the church calls “clergy”. Speaking as a Presbyterian, I want you to know that there is no mention of any such thing as clergy in any documents, or standards, or rules of the Presbyterian Church.
In the Presbyterian Church, clergy do not exist. I’m an elder. Who else, here, is an elder? Who’s the boss here? Jesus! We hope!
It’s also important to remember that, in our church, there are no rules or standards where anyone is ever called a “layman”. Sometimes that has been forgotten and it has needed correcting. Officially speaking, everyone in the church is a minister. Every follower of Jesus (every one of you) is in the ministry.
The word minister has been distorted to mean leader. It really means servant. The biblical concept, and God’s design for the life of his people (whether we call it our church, our congregation, our fellowship), is servanthood. And when you are a servant, you have to admit that you can’t do it all.
In families, who is the one who is the servant who tries to do it all? It’s usually the mother; isn’t it? But it always holds true: you can’t do it all. Health comes to families, and to mothers, when everyone is a servant.
As I got to a certain age in my childhood, I began to acquire jobs in my family: making my bed, keeping my room and closet straight, taking out the garbage, cleaning up after the dog, mowing the lawn and other duties as required. I stopped having to wash dishes because it gave my hands a rash and I was also allergic to rubber gloves: so I couldn’t do it all.
Some people think it sounds like the apostles looked down on delivering food to the widows. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry (or the servant-work) of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” (Acts 6:2)
The real point is that they had been waiting on tables all along, and that they clearly weren’t good at it. Well, they weren’t good at doing it all.
Waiting on tables was actually noble work because caring for those in need is a big part of the Jewish faith, as well as the Christian faith. The reason why it is a big part of the Jewish faith is that it is a big part of the Old Testament law and prophets. The same standard applies to us.
When you look at the Jewish people, they are famous for their charities. They are required to take special care of widows, orphans, and even aliens, because God does. Deuteronomy says: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothes. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 10:18-19) These things are just as spiritual as serving the word of God. These things are just as spiritual as prayer.
The apostles saw they couldn’t do it all. They saw that they had to grow the ministry; share the ministry; spread the ministry. This sharing and spreading of the ministry became the model for the church.
Paul says it in First Corinthians: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God who works all of them in all people. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” (1 Corinthians 12:4-7)
I’ve called this new group of seven “the committee of seven” but there is no evidence for committees in the New Testament. The seven have no title, but even the title of apostle isn’t a title; not in the sense of holding office or having a job description.
It seems to be an office and a job description because of what the Book of Acts tells us about the process of choosing a replacement for Judas Iscariot; the one who betrayed Jesus and hanged himself. Judas’ role is traditionally translated as “office” in Acts 1:20, but the word simply means an area of oversight and responsibility.
They looked for a replacement among those who had been with Jesus from the beginning and who had met the risen Jesus in the flesh. Those were the people who had the authority that came from being first-hand witnesses. That was a level of authority that couldn’t last for more than a generation. And Paul, who had not followed Jesus, and who had not met the risen Jesus, in flesh and blood, became one of the next generation of apostles. Paul met the risen Jesus powerfully, but also spiritually.
That needs to be our authority. We need to meet the crucified and risen Jesus powerfully and spiritually. When we know Jesus this way, then we can be safely sent to do the servant-work of Jesus and be his witnesses through that servant-work.
The word apostle means a person who has been sent. All Christians are sent on a mission by the Lord. The apostles were only the first example of what it meant to be sent by Jesus, and we follow their example.
Even the apostles’ work is described as servant-work, because they have a ministry of the word of God and prayer. All ministry is servant-work; and we have to learn to be servants, or else we don’t know what it means to serve Jesus at all, and we don’t even know who Jesus is. Jesus called himself a servant and he told us that we have to be servants like him.
Children are good at asking the question: “Do I have to?” It’s our fallen human nature to think that being a servant is a form of punishment. Children start their life being totally served by their parents, and parents keep it all together by remembering that all the work of serving their children is not a punishment. As hard as that service can be for the parent; the power of that service is love. Servant-work is, or should be, love.
Well, we mix it up because, in families, we dish out servant-work as a form of punishment to children when they misbehave. We’ve all been given servant-work as punishment, and we know it. It’s a lesson that’s hard to forget.
Maybe the punishment of servant-work is a lesson to teach children the meaning of love. They are given the work because they haven’t learned how to love to the full measure of love. Servant-work teaches you what love is in a way that can only be gained by experience.
The servant-work of marriage can only be learned by living in marriage. The servant-work of parenting can only be learning through the experience of parent. Growing up to be the kind of human being that other human being want to be around can only come through the experience of servant work. Being a Christian and following Jesus can only be learned through the servant-work of ministry.
Maybe even parents, in the midst of their servant-work forget this, sometimes. Husbands and wives, in their lives together, sometimes forget that serving is loving and being served is being loved.
If we love Jesus we have to be servants of Jesus. If we love Jesus, we have to love each other, and that means we have to serve the servants of Jesus; and they are also called to love us by serving us.
This could be beautiful. As the servant-work was shared and spread among them, the followers of Jesus didn’t get weaker. They got stronger. Being a servant is part of the message. When they spread the ministry, and when they shared their servant-work more and more, the message got stronger and stronger. It says this: “So the word of God spread.” (Acts 6:7)
Being a servant isn’t easy. Taking food to those who have empty cupboards is a big challenge. The question is how to do it right, how to do it responsibly, and smartly, and compassionately, and wisely. It’s just as hard to do the nitty-gritty practical stuff as it is to do the stuff that seems to get the most attention. And all servant-work for Jesus, and for the love of others, is spiritual work that requires the fullness of the Spirit and wisdom.
All servant-work needs the Holy Spirit. All servant-work needs the mind and counsel of God. It all needs the inspiration and power of God. Whoever gets a slice of the servant-work needs to be clearly known for the fullness of the Holy Spirit working in them, and known for wisdom. I think that this suggests that they should be known for looking like Jesus, in their lives, because the Holy Spirit is also known as the Spirit of Jesus. (Romans 8:9)
The ministry of all Christians is servant-work. It is love built on the love of Jesus. Jesus said: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:43-45)
Ministry is not an office or a job. Ministry is sharing the work of Jesus who served the world by dying for the sins of the world. Ministry is living and speaking the message of Jesus who served the world by dying for the sins of the world.
Ministry requires fellowship with this Jesus. Ministry means loving this Jesus, and being empowered by him to bring Jesus into the world through his servant-image in you, and in the family of Christ, the household of God, the church.
The people of Jesus made the message stronger and clearer when they spread out the ministry, when they opened the servant-work to more and more of the family of God. We are called to find ways to spread the ministry of going out into the world for Jesus. This is what I pray for and strain for with all my heart.
Each one of you is designed for the servant-work of ministry through the power and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps you already know what your ministry is, or what it might be becoming, and you need to tell us. Please tell me if I don’t already know it. Or else it is the work of all of us together to seek out what special work the Spirit wants us to spread to you and what work the Spirit wants you to spread to us.
This gift came to the church through the complaints of its members. It came through the honest admission that no one can do it all. It came through the ability to see what needed to be done. It came through the prayerful search for those who would share the calling with the help of the Holy Spirit. Let’s prayerfully search for those ministries, and let’s please put them into action.