Sunday, July 26, 2015

Comfort Food Ministry

Showing God's Love in a practical way. 

Acts 6:1-7

New International Version (NIV)

The Choosing of the Seven

In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters,choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit;also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.

We have seen the former disciples now referred to as "apostles" come through some minor persecution. They have been thrown in jail momentarily only to be set free. They have been flogged and yelled at and told not to preach in the name of Jesus anymore only to head right back into the Temple courts and seek people in which to engage on the basis of the Message. Now, in Chap 6, it seems as if the story shifts gears. There are a few internal issues and matters to discuss as well as new people to be introduced to along the way. 

Every story, historical or otherwise, needs drama in order to catch the readers attention and hold it. And, if the bible is full of one thing, it is drama. Human beings are full of it and drawn to it. In sporting events, it is the games between two rivals that grabs the most enthrallment. Yankees vs Red Sox. Ohio State vs That Team Up North. Up until now we have seen the scripture in Acts make reference to the disciples being all of one heart and mind. The mere mention of two different parties of Jews here opens the door to a whole arena full of antics that will come to fruition in the realm of dissension and quarreling. 

We have Hellenistic Jews and we have Hebraic Jews to look at as we enter Chap 6. 
If you cared to click on the footnote marker in the scripture passage you'll find that Hellenistic is a Greek word referring to those Jews who have embraced the Greek culture. They most likely speak Greek as their everyday language. These are the Jews of the Diaspora, or "The Dispersion" referring to Old Testament times. Jews were taken into captivity in Babylon and Assyria. Jews have since come to move around and grow up in all parts of the world. Some Jews have come back to live and settle in the region of Israel, but have held on to the culture they grew up in. If they grew up in Roman parts, speaking Greek, then they would be referred to as Hellenistic. Hebraic Jews then are the ones who have stayed true to the Hebrew culture and the language. They have grown up around Israel and Judah, most likely. Even if they did not, the Hebrew language and the Jewish culture is what matters to them personally and to their religious life. The scriptures are read in Hebrew. Marriage is done within their Hebraic culture. Their social structure is kept within their own circles and families. 

SO, it should not come with much surprise when we hear that there is an issue between the two cultures and on such a simple and primal area of need. People need food. People need to be fed in every cultural climate, and in many cases, people are needed to facilitate the movement of fulfilling that need. Humans get hungry and find themselves in places where they cannot get food for themselves and their families. The central focus in our passage today is "widows". Most likely, they are females who find themselves without family or a spouse to support them. Many cannot work or do not have the means to find work in a culture so male dominated in the workforce. Women are thought of in more of a servant role. Their role is to serve the man in whom they are married. All they have and all they are revolves around the male they are married to and without that person any longer to represent them their existence become vicarious at best. Now, the Hellenistic community is noting that the widows in their midst are being overlooked. And, they want somebody to do something about it. 

This is an early setting for what we will see ahead. 
This matter seems to be easily handled as we will find out. People are needed to meet the needs. It is a matter of ministry. What is ministry? Simply put - "meeting people's needs". But, the question facing the parties in today's scripture is also one that we wrestle with today. Who? Who is going to meet the needs that we see in front of us? Whether it is feeding widows or visiting the sick or going to the hospital, the question is always the same. Who is going to do it? Whose job is it to do these tasks? Is there a way to determine a set of priorities so as to suggest a course of action so that the needs can be met?

The apostles put an interesting and controversial question in front of the group that has gathered. This passage we are covering today is one that I have wrestled with and pondered over for much of my time in this career. When I first started into the preaching & pastoral ministry I began as a bi-vocational pastor. During my time in high school I found a love for working in the grocery business. I enjoyed sacking groceries and stocking shelves. As I turned a corner into my early twenties, I discovered the field of appliances. Specifically, washers & dryers, refrigerators, dishwashers, microwaves along with sales and delivery service. I even learned some minor repairs. There was a certain pride I wanted to maintain. I also knew starting out that I would be in smaller churches that could not support a pastoral salary. I was single. I was alone. I had no additional debts or personal baggage to burden the church. It seemed like a viable plan. If I take the time to look back and focus on what really needed more time and attention back there it would most certainly be the amount of effort put in to studying and preparing for this very moment. The sermon on Sunday morning. This is what suffered the most. I seem to recollect that I felt people would see me working and doing the pastoral job and somehow be impressed with my effort. Maybe people would come to the church on that merit. Maybe they would be impressed with all my hard work. 

The thing I recently have come to embrace is the notion of unrealistic expectations. As I have taken the time to reminisce I have found I had lots of expectations that seemed good at the time, but weren't realistic going forward. I have come back to the apostles focus here again and again and have wondered if they got it right. What's wrong with focusing on feeding the poor and impoverished? Well, nothing. However, someone needs to be focused upon studying the word. Someone needs to focused on teaching the word to other people. Someone needs to be prepared to speak on the day of worship so as to share the word with the congregation. There is a ministry that needs to be done with the word. This "pastoral" ministry we have embodied in this 21st century world is familiar with and yet differs dramatically from the world the apostles were working. There needs to be someone qualified to study this Book. Someone qualified to speak on the matters it covers. Someone who has studied to shown themselves approved. In these early days of the discourse we see in Acts those qualified are the ones who actually walked and talked with Jesus. Today, we want someone who has taken the time to learn from others who have been in ministry and have studied the good Book. And, so, there is need to pull away from the general labor of the everyday world and focus on "the ministry of the word of God". 

The matter still lies before us, then - who will meet the needs of those who are desperate and find themselves unappreciated? Well, this is where our world centuries later might differ. The early church had no "pastors". This role is something that has been developed in the last few centuries. The early church had no one to stand and preach that "Sunday morning sermon". The apostles were figuring out their new roles as they went. I see great need for the pastors of today to lead by example. To go forth and be the ones who show God's Love in a practical way. In doing so, the hope is that people will see what we as pastors are doing and want to share in the venture to do ministry. I don't think that's an 'unrealistic expectation'. People should want to be involved in the life of their church. It's not the work of the pastor to make all of this happen. In the apostle's moment, they need people willing to take the load upon themselves and go forth. So do pastors today. 

I have often wondered...why seven? Was there anything significant about that number? The only speculation I seem to find centers around the number of days in the week. Maybe there was someone to take a day, each day of the week. People have to eat. Everyday. Here comes seven men ready to step up in this moment and be servants who would make sure that the widows of their time are met with the elements that will ensure they will have enough. One of those men is Stephen, who will be of particular importance to our study in a couple weeks. The scripture says that this pleased all that were involved. The apostles step up, lay hands on these seven, and pray for them as they prepare. 

The interesting part is this...
Because they chose this course of action, because they choose to do ministry in this way, three things happen. "The word of God spread quickly" it says here. Well, if you have twelve people focusing their time and attention on studying and teaching in the midst of a culture needing to hear about this Messiah, then it is probably going to spread. People want to hear. They truly do. Even today. Especially today. "The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly". It is a proven fact that when the church is focusing on the right things and people are involved in doing good ministry, things are going to happen. People are going to want to come see what's going on here. 

The last thing needs a bit of correlation and parallel thought. "...and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." Later, the apostle Peter would refer to all believers as a "royal priesthood". There were Jewish priests who did not believe in this Messiah the apostles presented. They did not believe the Holy One had come yet. Now they do. As believers in Jesus, we are all priests who have a responsibility to share and meet the needs of those around us. We meet those needs through what we share about our faith in Jesus Christ. A priest has privileges concerning the sharing of forgiveness and mercy. A priest can direct people towards God. You can direct people towards God too. You can share what Jesus has done for you. In doing so, you become not just a believer, but a follower. When we take the time to meet the needs of those less fortunate, we put legs on our faith. Others have a chance to believe in the One who can forgive and restore. 

It just takes a few good people. Seven sounds like a good number.
Or, ten. Maybe twenty. 

Maybe God is moving in your heart today.
Go be the servant God wants to use. 

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