This week we’re talking about how the leadership of the early Christian church dealt with the division of labor and division within themselves. How can that help us today? Do we have the same sorts of issues?
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. 2 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 on tables. 3 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,
4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”
5 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. 6 They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 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.
Background on the Text:
- By this time in Acts, Peter and some of the other apostles are beginning to exert more authority. Peter and John heal a crippled man, and Peter takes the opportunity to preach again to the astonished crowd. Peter and many others are arrested twice, and an angel intervenes to release them the second time. The third time they are arrested, Gamaliel convinces the council to just have them flogged and released, saying if the new message was of God, it would become obvious.
- These stories are meant to point out the difficulties of the first days, but also to show how God was actively intervening in the establishment of the Church.
Exegesis (close reading) of the text:
- During those days: this is the time when the community is growing, but also experiencing persecution.
- The Hellenists are Jews who speak and pray in Greek. They would have been accommodating themselves to the culture of the Roman Empire more than the Hebrews, who were Jews who spoke and prayed in Hebrew or Aramaic. There were large cultural differences between these two groups, but they are one community.
- “Being neglected in the distribution of food.” This may have been the early form of a food pantry. Widows would not have had a way to support themselves, so the early community has set up a way to care for these folks. But it’s not working according to plan. It could also mean the widows are not being allowed to serve others.
- “The Twelve” are enshrined here as the leaders of the new community, for the first time in Acts. The community is made up of disciples, or learners.
- The word “diakonia” is used many times here and translated differently. It can mean “service,” “apostolic ministry,” “daily distribution,” “service of the Lord’s Supper,” and even “financial service.” Here it seems to refer to serving the needs of the community members.
- The solution is to have the disciples select from their ranks 7 men who would take care of diakonia, and the Twelve would take care of prayer and “serving the word.” They choose Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, from Antioch. Both Stephen and Philip will “serve the word” by preaching also. The Twelve lay hands on them.
- Numbers increase, and now even the priests (religious leaders of the Jewish people) are being converted.
Questions the Text asks of us:
- This text describes the division of labor within the early Church. Even early on, the church has struggled with how to define its mission and how to accomplish that mission. Here we see a division between serving others and proclaiming God’s word. There is a division between Hellenists and Hebrews. There is also the division between the Twelve and everyone else. Are there times when dividing the work of the church is necessary? How do we decide who is called to specific work in the church? What divisions do we have at the Coop? Which are necessary for “serving the word?” Which are harmful to the community?
- How do we balance proclaiming the Kingdom of God and living into the Kingdom of God? When we provide for the poor and homeless, how are we “proclaiming” the Kingdom of God?
- The problem associated with the widows was one of hypocrisy: the apostles were saying that God had changed the world through Christ, but the behavior toward the widows was not any different than the outside community. Where are we not “walking the talk” within our community?