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Sunday, June 17, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Church Getting Organized!
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 92:1–4, 12–15
We come into thy house, our home,
once more to give thanks:
for earth and sea and sky
in harmony of color,
the air of the eternal
seeping through the physical,
the everlasting glory
dipping into time.
We praise thee.
The 223rd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA has just begun its biennial meeting, this time in St Louis, Missouri. The General Assembly is our national gathering with elected commissioners from all of the presbyteries in the Untied States. For more than two hundred years, we Presbyterians have come together to elect new national leadership, to worship and to pray, and to do the work of the larger church—making statements meant to guide local church work, as well as making policy decisions that actually impact local church work. Inevitably, as there is at every General Assembly, there will be disagreement, conflict, passionate debate, close votes—you know, church fights. For, as Presbyterians, we believe often God speaks through the voices of each other. It is why we handle everything by committee and everyone on a committee usually has both voice and vote. Thus, conflict will break out.
And yet, as I always make myself remember, especially when newspapers start running simplistic headlines, and some of you start sending me emails in response, conflict in the church is nothing new. It has been a part of our DNA from our very beginning. We may be a part of Christ’s living body on earth, but in God’s great mystery, God chose for that living body to be made up of human beings—regular, broken people like you and me whose self-interest will always be front and center. So debates, spirited discussions, votes, the potential of division—none of that is new for the church. Just look at our text for today as one of the first examples.
As we have heard the last two Sundays, up until this point in Acts, all things were going well in that early church. Peter, in particular, was turning out to be an inspiring preacher—a preacher whose sermons moved thousands of people to give their lives over to the Gospel and to worship Jesus as Lord rather than worshipping their political leaders as Lord. As a matter of fact, Peter and John were so good at preaching Jesus’ call for liberation and healing, that those with the political power began to notice and get angry. Stop saying that man’s name, they told them. Stop talking about Jesus.
And when Peter and John refused to obey that order, they were tossed into jail a couple of times, lashed with a whip, and told yet again to stop proclaiming the Gospel or there would be more punishment and pain in their future. But they did not stop. As a matter of fact, they took the political leaders’ ire against them as proof they were doing what they were supposed to be doing. The fact that the authorities of the day were reacting so harshly caused those church leaders to rejoice. It meant they were getting it right. Furthermore, due to their persistence and their insistence in standing up for God’s mercy and justice, the early church continued to grow and to prosper.
But then, well, then they began to have growing pains. Conflict started to simmer. Murmuring about this church decision or about that sermon began to be heard in the parking lot, around the coffee pot, and on a few group emails that started to circulate. But one issue in particular rose up as the most contentious one. It was the issue of whether or not the leaders of that early church were doing all they could to make sure that the most vulnerable ones in their midst, the widows, were being cared for appropriately. Were the leaders of that church following the demands of the prophets and the demands of Jesus to always be on the lookout for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the refugee, those who are strangers in our midst? Or had they forgotten? Adding to the complexity of the moment, the issue quickly became defined by a difference of language and culture, insiders vs. outsiders, the Hebrews vs. the Hellenists.
Now, let’s take a moment to understand the players in this conflict. Both groups were made up of Jewish Christians—those who, at this time in our church history, were just about the only ones who comprised the church. We Gentiles were not in the picture yet, except perhaps for a few converts here and there. No, here in the early church, both groups were predominately Jewish Christians. The difference was in language and history. The Hebrews were Aramaic-speaking Jews, people from Jerusalem and the surrounding area, the place where the church was born. And because they came from that place and were the inheritors of the original proclamation of the Gospel, the Hebrews were the ones who made up the leadership of the church.
The Hellenists, though, were Jews who had grown up away from Jerusalem, in the diaspora. They spoke Greek more fluently than they spoke the native Aramaic. So they were perceived as the outsiders, the newcomers, and they were not in positions of leadership. (Justo Gonzales, “When the Spirit Makes for Trouble,” A Journal for Preachers, 2008). Yet it was the newcomers, the Hellenists, who began that particular murmuring campaign we read about in chapter six. They did not feel that the leadership of the church, the Hebrews, were living up to their biblical mandate to care for their widows as much as they cared for the Hebrew widows. There was a difference of support and the Hellenists felt strongly enough about it that they began to raise their voices. As a result, conflict ensued. I am sure passionate debate and discussion around the leadership tables began to break out on a regular basis.
So what did the Hebrew leaders, those being charged with not living up to their responsibility, do in response? Did they try to cover it up, ignore it, or make some token gesture to quiet things down? Not at all. Rather, they called a congregational meeting. They took all of the murmuring that had started in private and drug it out into the light, so that together, as a whole church community, they could look at the issue and see if there was a way for them to all move forward into solving it, into healing, together.
Now, I find their decision to be incredibly refreshing and instructive. As a matter of fact, those of us who serve in leadership in this congregation are also constantly trying to figure out how we, too, can be more transparent—transparent about the wonderful ministry that goes on in this place, as well as transparent whenever we come face to face with conflict or difficulty. One very recent example of this is the letter that members of this congregation will soon receive from me about our mid-year financial position as a church. While we remain in a healthy budget position, we are still around $200,000 away from where we would like to be in promised support—support that would help us do all that we feel God has called us to do. If we are not able to make that goal, then we will need to adjust our mission and ministry to fit a smaller budget. That is reality. And we, as leaders, think it is important that all of you know that. We are trying to learn from our early church brethren and drag that challenge out into the light so that together, as a whole church community, we all know what is going on and can work on solving the problem as one body.
That kind of transparency is what we see in Acts. But even more refreshing than their honesty about their struggle is the way they then went about solving it. They knew, due to the workload those leaders were already carrying, that the new church would need a brand new administrative structure. For they all agreed that caring for the most vulnerable—in this particular case the Hellenist widows—was an essential part of their work as church. So they needed to figure out how to solve the problem and be who God had created them to be.
So in order to do just that, those early Hebrew leaders made a radical move. They asked the congregation to decide. And the congregation decided that the most just action would be to elect leaders from the marginal Hellenist faction itself. The Hellenists, more than anyone else, would know how to solve the problem. As Justo Gonzales points out, “[we must notice] Those who are chosen all have Greek names . . . so this congregation, where presumably the majority are still Aramaic-speaking, chooses leadership that [intentionally] empowers those who had been more marginal” (Gonzales, “When the Spirit Makes for Trouble”). Those never invited to the leadership table before. Those never invited to be a part of the vision before. It was a radical move.
That congregation decided not to do what is still typically done even today when leaders come face to face with this kind of an issue. They did not choose to elect just another group of Hebrews, those who already have the power, perhaps along with one token Hellenist to represent his whole community in order to work on the problem. Nor did they form a small and contained group of Hellenists and then only give them the money and amount of power dedicated to that particular ministry of care, a move that would keep them on the margins, keep them away from strategic planning tables. Rather, the Hebrew leaders and the congregation said “As the people most affected by this injustice, we trust that you Hellenists all know what needs to happen to transform this situation. So we will keep doing what we feel called to do in leadership, and invite you to come alongside of us as additional, equal leadership, well-equipped to do what needs to be done in order to keep all of us faithful to our call.”
Those early Hebrews must have been community organizers because one of community organizing’s key principles is that the people and talent resources needed to transform communities or solve problems often reside in the communities themselves. What is needed is for those in the community to learn how to be effective leaders and advocates. Some in the academy call this approach “asset based community development.” Whatever we call it, that is exactly what happened with the Hellenists as they were elected by the congregation, ordained into leadership by the laying on of hands, and charged to serve and to lead the people, to make sure all those who were vulnerable received the kind of care and support their Christian faith commanded.
Can you imagine? Willingly giving up power to share it with others is not typically invited into the decision making process. I am going to tiptoe now into current events: It would be like if a delegation of our congressional leaders decided—as most leaders in Christian denominations as different as the SBC and the UCC have proclaimed this past week—that the policy of separating families must be stopped. But since our leaders were not quite sure what the next steps for immigration reform needed to be, they decided to go down to the border with Mexico and enter into honest, deliberative conversation with families trying to come across. That way, they could listen for the migrants’ suggestions on how to make the process better and more humane. Can you imagine?
Yet, just as a move like that would be incredibly risky for our national leaders and their chances for re-election, the early church’s move to empower the “newcomers/outsiders” for leadership and ministry was also incredibly politically risky in their larger city context. As Gonzalez states, “the Hellenists were not [considered] respectable folk in good Jewish society.” Some in their wider city blamed the coming of the Hellenists for some of their current troubles with Rome. Given all that tension, the Hebrews’ decision to share leadership and power with the Hellenists made an even bigger impact on those who were watching what they were doing—an impact that might have been attractive to some, but an impact that was certainly a threat to others—especially to those who were invested in the power structures as they were.
So let us make no mistake about it, being that transparent with their conflicts and struggles; intentionally sharing power and leadership with the group most marginal and overlooked in their community; making sure to not lose sight that one of their main jobs as church was to care for the most vulnerable—all of those decisions made by that early church congregation were deeply courageous. And they were decisions that got them noticed—decisions that put them on the radar of two kinds of people: 1) people who were looking for that kind of a risk-taking, courageous, faithful community and 2) people who perceived that what the church was doing was dangerous and ill-advised for the health of the way things were.
But thanks be to God, those early church leaders—both Hebrews and Hellenists alike—did not let a fear of being different, a fear of doing things differently than the world around them, get in their way. They did not let the people who were angry at them for shaking things up determine their fate. They refused to see power and leadership as limited quantities—things that needed to be hoarded and protected. They did not give into the way the world is, but kept working hard at living into and building the way the world, God’s world, should be. For the leaders in that new church—Hebrews and Hellenists alike, insiders and outsiders, long-timers and newcomers—trusted that God was doing something new in them and through them. And it was a newness they could trust even if they were still unsure exactly what God was calling them to become. They just knew that God was the one doing the calling. All God was asking them to do was to keep saying “Yes” and taking one messy step forward at a time.
Who knew we could learn so much about how to faithfully handle conflict—or about how important it is to share church power and leadership with folks whose voices have been long silenced; or how risky and courageous those early church leaders chose to be in a world that did not look kindly on their acting up—who knew we could learn all just from a few verses in Acts 6 about the church getting organized? What might the Spirit have to teach us next? And how might that keep shaking us up? Amen.