Called to Serve May 22nd, 2022
O God, your Word brings light to your people now, just as it did long ago. Fill us with your Spirit as we listen for your Word. Open our minds and hearts to receive light to guide us and truth to change us in the name of Christ, our Risen Lord. Amen.
I’d like to begin with these words from Jesus which are found in the Gospel of Matthew, “‘…The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So, when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’” (Matthew 13:24-28)
Now this same enemy which Jesus talks about was alive in the early church in Jerusalem and is still with us in our world today. In this passage Jesus refers to him as the enemy, but in other places he calls him the evil one or the devil. In today’s church talking about the devil makes everyone squirm a bit and so we’d just as soon pretend he doesn’t exist, but as the saying goes, “simply ignoring a problem won’t make it go away”. So, with that being said, let’s look at the founding of the Christian church and see how quickly the devil got his foot in the door.
The passage I just read above is known as the parable of the wheat and the weeds and is Jesus' prediction of the attack the church would undergo during the period between the first time he was here on earth and his second coming. He compares the work of the devil to the weeds which grow up in a farmer’s field after he has planted his crop. These weeds are all the divisions which occur in the life of the church, divisions caused by the influence of the devil in people’s lives. It’s an evil we don’t like to think about but one that often rears its ugly head and Jesus warned us to be prepared for it.
As we’ve gone through the first chapters of the book of Acts, we have seen many good things, what Jesus referred to as the wheat springing up in the midst of the world -- men and women filled with the Spirit of God, equipped by the Spirit with gifts of ministry – who break out upon the city of Jerusalem with tremendous impact and power. They’re not afraid, they’re not discouraged, they are completely confident that God and the Holy Spirit are with them, and they move out to bear witness to the truth of the Saving Grace of Jesus Christ. Up to this point there are no sign the weeds.
But by the time we reach Chapter 5 of Acts the first sign of the weeds sown by the devil begin to appear. It shows in the deceit practiced by Ananias and Sapphira who sold a piece of land and gave only part of the proceeds of the sale to the welfare of the church while pretending that they had given it all. And for their hypocrisy they were punished with death. It doesn’t take long for the weeds to begin to sprout amongst the crops.
Now the second example of the weeds is found in the account in Chapter 6 which we heard this morning. It is a story of dissension, the attempt on the enemy's part to divide the church by envy and misunderstanding. One of the favorite tricks of the devil is to create dissension among the people of God.
Here’s how Chapter 6 begins, “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.” The early church in Jerusalem was made up of two types of types of people who were of the Jewish faith. Some were called "Hebrews," who had lived in and around Jerusalem, spoke the local language, Aramaic, and used the Hebrew Scriptures. The others were "Hellenists," who originally lived outside the land of Israel, but were now living there. They spoke Greek primarily, as well as the language of the area where they had lived, and they used the Greek translation of the Scriptures.
The devil used these differences to cause dissension and division amongst the members of the church. Part of the congregation felt they were being neglected. The Greek speaking Jews in the early church believed that the Aramaic speaking Jews were receiving all of the attention of the church’s ministry. Prior to becoming Christians, the Hebrews and the Hellenists had their own separate synagogues in Jerusalem, so they were not accustomed to worshipping together. But when they became Christians, they came together in one fellowship. And as the church grew, some of the Hellenists believed that the church leaders were discriminating against their widows.
One of the key traits of the early Christian church was how they looked after the poor, the needy and the widows. It was the social custom of the time that it was the husband who was the wage-earner for the family while the wife stayed at home to look after the children and did the work in the home. So, if she no longer had a husband, either through death or divorce, she would end up in dire straits.
Jesus, during his time here on earth, gave an example of caring for such widows. This is from the Gospel of Luke, “Soon afterwards he (Jesus) went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went with him. As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, “Do not weep.” Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you, rise!” The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.” (Luke 7:11-15) In that passage it’s important to note that not only was the woman a widow, but the man who had just died was her only son, so she was left without a wage-earner in the family and was destined to be destitute. By healing her son, Jesus made sure that wouldn’t happen. And the early church continued on in the same pattern, taking care of those who were unable to take care of themselves.
But doing this took the apostles away from their main duties. God had raised up the apostles to act as the pastors to the early church. Their job was to provide leadership to the believers. To do this, they would need time to devote to prayer. And they were also to provide God-inspired teaching and so they needed time to devote themselves to the ministry of the Word.
And that’s where dissension, and the devil crept in. Some of the members felt their widows were being neglected and so there was dissension and disagreement. There was risk of the church splitting apart. Therefore, the apostles proposed a solution. The church would set aside some qualified men to assist the apostles by seeing to the congregation’s needs and freeing them up to fulfill their responsibility of providing God inspired leadership through prayer and God-inspired instruction through the ministry of the Word.
This is what took place, “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. 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, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”
We shouldn’t think that because the text says that the men were to “wait on tables” that those duties were any less important than the work of the apostles. What it comes down to is this, the apostles served the church through prayer and preaching, and the other leaders served those in need. Both their services to God were important, although the tasks and skills were different. Both were essential in the development of the church and for the witness of God’s people in the world. The life of the community depends upon both of these forms of service, and one isn’t any more powerful or more spiritual than the other.
Now the apostles understood that their gift was that of a builder. They were to lay the foundation of the church. But they also recognized that there were other gifts of the Spirit. There were gifts of help and the gifts of service, and men and women in that early church had those gifts and they were charged by Jesus through the apostles to use those gifts to help the community.
And this was the result of their decision, “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. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 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.”
So, what we see in this morning’s passage from Acts is that the church showed concern for both the spiritual and the physical needs of its members. Its leaders gave priority to spiritual needs (prayer and the ministry of the Word), but they also gave attention to correcting injustice and helping the poor. This reflects the Christians' commitment to loving God wholeheartedly and loving their neighbors as themselves, which are God's great demands. So rather than blaming each other for a problem that arose, the apostles corrected the problem and continued to give prayer and the ministry of the Word priority. They rooted out the evil of dissension and worked together.
And that’s what we should continue to do here in our church. Certainly, our primary purpose is to come together to praise and worship God through listening to his word being read and interpreted, as well as through our songs and prayers. But at the same time, we shouldn’t neglect to show care and concern for those around us. As we continue on together on this journey, we have to use the talents of our members to reach out to the communities we serve and who are so much in need of the help which we can offer them. We need to be as prepared as the early apostles, ready to do God’s work as needed. Every manner of good work has the capacity—by the power of the Spirit—to be a means of participation in God’s renewal of the world.
Let us Pray:
Heavenly Father, as we look around us and see so much great need, help us to care for each other in a kind of loving unity that will indeed make us effective as we stand on the threshold of evangelism in this world. Let us stand against evil and work together for you. We commit ourselves to you, Lord, for this purpose and to this end, so that Christ might be lifted up and exalted against all evil. All this we pray in his name, Amen