Years ago Tim and I were given an old deacons’ bench by friends who told us that the little black bench sat for years in the rear of the sanctuary of an old New England church. There’s a shelf built into the bench where the offering plate sat while the deacons waited to collect the weekly offering – and maybe to guard it afterward?
I love our humble bench because when I look at it I imagine its former function, Sunday after Sunday, as the deacons faithfully collected the offerings of the people; then with care they distributed the gifts to meet the needs of the church: to compensate their minister; to attend to the upkeep of their building; and to regard the needs of the poor in their community. The needs of the church weren’t really much different 100 or 2,000 years ago than ours are today.
Our passage in Acts is the fourth in our preaching series studying the flourishing establishment of the early Christian communities throughout the Mediterranean world. Here we read about the intentional inauguration of the deacons’ role and ministry within the community. This story is sandwiched between the arrest and persecution of the apostles, and the arrest and martyrdom of Stephen. As one of our Kerygma study leaders so cleverly pointed out, “This passage almost lulls us into thinking that the direction of the early church is heading into the ordinary, dealing with the mundane….” (This is the danger of encouraging you all to study the texts we’re preaching on. Your insights are so good it’s intimidating!)
This early gathering of believers morphed from a collection of individuals into what I term a “soul community.” That is, a community bound together by more than a set of doctrines. A soul community is bound together in heart, mind and body. A soul community puts flesh on what it preaches about God’s love in Jesus Christ by performing acts of compassion and practicing forbearance toward one another. A soul community necessitates deep relationships of support.
The soul community in Jerusalem was facing a great problem: growth! Oh, how churches today wish for that problem. Growing the church is on the mind of every pastor and denomination in the 21st century. American Christianity is shrinking. “In 2009, the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation nearly doubled since 1990, rising from 8 to 15 percent…We are in what we would call a post-Christian era,” wrote Newsweek editor, Jon Meacham, April 2009.
I don’t think that’s news to any of us here. The PC(USA) is losing in the realm of 40,000 members each year. Analysts speculate on why this is so, and devise all sorts of strategies on how to reverse– or at least slow down– this trend: books and articles about marketing strategies, and of course our need to capitalize on the social media revolution as answers to our problem of decline. Sometimes we need to go back in order to go forward. We can learn from the early church’s growth, and the consequential challenges of an organization bursting at the seams.
Like any Organizational Behavior student from the Weatherhead School would tell us, growth often means that the organic nature of a small group must adopt an intentional structure in order to thrive. In chapter 4 the people “were of one mind and held all things in common.” In chapter 6, the tensions are growing. It’s easiest to be a loving community meeting the needs of all the folks when the group is small. But when the group grows new challenges emerge.
The Jerusalem congregation was made up of Hellenists and Hebrews. Both groups were Jews, but the Hellenists were Greek-speaking Jews; they read the Scriptures in Greek and were from outside of Palestine, probably from all over the Roman Empire. The Hebrews were Palestinian born, Aramaic speaking, and they read the Scriptures in Hebrew. The Hebrews considered themselves religiously purer. The Hebrews judged the Hellenists as being too influenced by Greek culture.
The challenges of diversity are not much different today. We hear from groups of Christians who diagnose Christianity’s loss of membership as the church becoming tainted by the world’s influences. And, those who focus on some standard of purity that has been self-designed fear change. The danger of fearing change of course is that we hold more tightly to our ways of doing things, and our views of what being a true Christian means. Then we construct theological and scriptural reasons why ours is the right way. As biblical theologian Walter Brueggemann says, “We are all selective fundamentalists, each choosing particular Biblical passages that fit our view of God and our political convictions.”
Last Monday evening, our Presbytery of the Western Reserve voted by a large margin for a proposed amendment to our Book of Order (which is the governing document for our denomination). This amendment allows governing bodies to determine the suitability of an individual to ordained office – meaning elders, deacons, and ministers of word and sacrament. If this amendment passes at the national level, and our Book of Order is modified, the way will be opened for all persons regardless of his or her sexual orientation to be ordained to an elected office in the church. This amendment allows the congregation or the presbytery that is closest to the individual to determine his or her fitness for the call.
We see that 2,000 years later, the church continues to wrangle over who is worthy to be included in its leadership. We’ve been given the Holy Spirit to continue to discern God’s will for the community. That’s risky! When we take seriously the responsibility God gives us to discern the movement of the Spirit in our communities, we admit that we might very well have it wrong! But we’re in this together, and whether we want to believe this or not, God takes us and our decisions seriously!
A soul community keeps itself open to new ways of hearing God’s call. For example, in the 19th century, the church had to discern the will of God in the issue of slavery, and thus took a stand against the evils of slavery. In the 20th century, the church had to discern the will of God in response to women in leadership roles, and thus had to take a stand against the church’s practice of keeping women from being elders, deacons and ministers. Being a soul community means that we’ve been given great responsibility to respond as faithfully and humbly as we are able – at a given time – to the challenges we face.
The Hellenists murmured that their widows were not being cared for as well as were the Hebrew widows. The murmurings were becoming an obstacle for the community, and if not addressed and rectified, the apostles knew the conflicts would get worse. The genesis of conflict usually begins with murmuring in parking lot conversations. How did the apostles respond?
First, the Apostles wisely knew that they themselves could not do everything that was needed.
The leaders could not teach and preach the word, and organize the care for those in need. The apostles had to choose carefully to what they’d commit themselves, to discern to what service they’d been called. It wasn’t that they elevated one form of service over another. “Serving the word,” sharing the story of Jesus, was of central importance, but so was caring for the hungry and doing the everyday tasks that keep a body running. So, the leaders empowered the others according to the needs of the community and the gifts of the people.
Second, the Apostles allowed the people to choose the men qualified to serve.
What an affirmation of democratic leadership! The Apostles gave the people power and responsibility to discern God’s will and choose deacons. The deacons, the servers, were to be men they deemed wise, with good character, and filled with the Holy Spirit. The seven men chosen all had Greek names, which is a significant detail. You see, the ones chosen for leadership were Hellenists. Perhaps wisely they knew that an authentic community requires leadership from the very ones who are marginalized.
Third, the Apostles trusted the people’s decision. They set the new deacons apart for their service by ‘the laying on of hands.’
Unlike so many organizations, the mission of the church is to serve others. The bottom line is not our profit.
That being said, an unhealthy, depleted community – one that does not protect its own soul – is not helpful to the world. The community itself must remain spirit-led and vital. I personally think of the church’s function as more hospital than social service agency. Jesus healed people. So often, people come into the church in emotional pain and suffering. At our best, we offer compassion in the name of Jesus. More often it’s our own members who are in pain, and so at our best we offer one another care. Goodness knows, the community in Jerusalem needed each other in order to withstand all the threats from their persecutors. The head deacon, Stephen, was soon martyred.
We regularly give witness to the healing of Christ by sending our deacons beyond our boundaries – and they are porous boundaries – to extend compassion to those who are suffering. I want to conclude by sharing with you a testimony to the Spirit-led work of our deacons.
I received a note the other day from a woman who, with her partner, has visited our church a handful of times over the past few years. Her partner is in the midst of chemotherapy treatments which, as many of you have experienced, have turned their lives upside down. Our deacons got word of their situation and the call went out for a meal to be delivered to them. Here’s her note to us:
First, let me thank you for this opportunity to share my feelings and gratitude for the gesture of the meal that was brought to us on Monday evening by [Bill and Nancy] the Burchams. When Nancy called last week to offer to bring dinner, Judy and I were both surprised. Maybe even a little shocked. Why us? Judy and Nancy traded messages but never actually spoke to each other. The last message said she would bring dinner on Monday around 5 pm. Just before 5pm I saw a car slow down in front of the house and then pull in the driveway. When I opened the door, there stood the Burchams with our meal. We exchanged introductions and chatted briefly. Nancy had labeled what needed to be heated and explained none of the containers needed to be returned. What a gift – heat, eat and dispose. As they got ready to leave, all I could muster to say was “Thank you, you will never really know how much this meant to the two of us.” As they walked back to their car, I heard a voice in my head saying “I just saw God in the face of strangers.” So if anyone wonders whether this gesture was meaningful….the answer is YES. Not only were our bodies fed, but I know my soul was nourished as well.” Gratefully, Lia
The soul community in Jesus’ name is still working in love and service right here in Cleveland Heights – 2,000 years later. Serving God’s word, preaching the good news of God in Jesus’ name, through acts of compassion continues to be the most reliable strategy for church growth. “The word of God continued to spread, and the number of the disciples increased greatly….”
May it be so. To God be the glory.