1Now 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. 2And 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. 3Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5What 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. 6They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7The 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.
You can tell a lot about a person’s theology based on how they deal with adversity. For example, when a Methodist pastor falls down the stairs, she picks herself up and says, “What a horrible experience that was! Next time I’ll try harder to avoid it.”
When a Catholic Priest falls down the stairs, he picks himself up and says, “I probably deserved that. But thank you, Lord, it could’ve been a whole lot worse!”
When a Presbyterian pastor falls down the stairs, she picks herself up and says, “That was meant to happen, predestined by God’s will. I’m sure glad it’s over!”
And when a Baptist pastor falls down the stairs, he picks himself up, turns around and says, “Which one of my deacons pushed me?”
Today’s sermon is about deacons, but hopefully not that kind!
The word “deacon” doesn’t actually appear anywhere in today’s scripture passage, where seven members of the early church are chosen to serve others within their community. For that matter, the word “deacon” doesn’t appear anywhere in the book of Acts. But Paul refers to the office of deacon in his letters (which were written several decades before the book of Acts), and the description of the deacon’s ministry his letters and in later books of the New Testament matches with what is described in today’s reading. So most biblical scholars, ancient and modern, have regarded the seven individuals listed here as the “First Deacons” in the “First Church.”
This month and next we are going back to the basics, examining that first church, how it came to exist as a new kind of faith community in the first century. And through that lens, we are exploring how we can exist as a new kind of faith community in the 21st century.
Up to this point, as we have been reading about the early church, we’ve seen a remarkable unity. In Acts 2:44-45, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” And in Acts 4:32, “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul…”
Unfortunately, we who are all too imperfect human beings know all too well how long things like this usually last. And so here in chapter 6, we see the first hints of a split—two different factions emerging in the life of the church—and this dispute will take center stage in later chapters.
Verse 1: 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 two factions here are the Hellenists and the Hebrews. The Hebrews are those who were with Jesus from the beginning, those who grew up following the traditions and practices of the Jewish faith. The Hellenists, or Greeks, are the newcomers, those who were not raised in the church, and often had a difficult time understanding or embracing its traditions. Sound familiar?
Some things to notice about this verse, and here I want to talk about unity and division: The church is growing, the disciples are increasing in number. This growth is probably a result of the remarkable unity we’ve seen in the preceding chapters. But contained in that unity and growth are the very seeds of its ultimate destruction, the seeds of the division to come. And there’s a reason for that.
How do you get unity among a group of people? There are two ways. The first is you get everyone to agree with each other on just about every subject. And that’s what we call…fiction. It doesn’t exist, and never has. Where two or more are gathered, there will be two or more differing opinions, whether Jesus is present or not. In fact, if Jesus is present, there will probably be at least three differing opinions!
The second way you get unity is through broadening tolerance and acceptance for differences. We have different opinions, but we’re okay with that. We agree to disagree. This approach is good to a point, but the problem comes when you take it to the logical extreme—if every differing opinion is always equally valid (and there are some pretty crazy opinions out there!) eventually we stand for nothing and have no distinct identity as a group.
And so most communities, including the early church, opt for a middle road: We have some different opinions, we have some similar opinions, and so we compromise. We decide together which things are the most important, where unity is necessary, and in everything else we tolerate our differences.
This position is best summed up by a 17th century quote from Marco Antonio de Dominis, who was Ironically the Archbishop of Spalato, which, in Italian, means “Split.” He said, “In necessary things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, compassion.” The challenge, of course, is deciding what’s necessary and what’s not.
One last thing about verse one. Notice the subject of the disagreement: Some widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. I would love it if all the arguments we had in the church were about serving people, and not about the color of the carpet, the number of pews, the style of worship, insurance liability, or the budget. Wouldn’t you?
Verses 2-4. 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.”
There are several things I love about this: First, when the leadership of the church comes to the larger community, they lay out the problem, but they also lay out a reasonable solution in the same sentence. This is good leadership. It’s not a solution that denies or ignores the problem. It addresses both sides fairly, but also faithfully preserves the priorities of the church, in the right order.
Notice what those priorities are: Serving and taking care of community members (the daily distribution of food, the widows) IS important. But it’s still secondary to proclaiming the word of God, or, in other words, evangelism. This has to be the case, because if we didn’t prioritize reaching outside our community, there would be no community to serve. So the twelve apostles (by the way, ἀπόστολος, the Greek word we pronounce “Apostle” means “one who is sent out) continue in their ministry of evangelism and overall leadership of the church, while a new body is formed to care for the neediest ones within the church community.
Incidentally, our own church leadership here at First Presbyterian Church is patterned after this model. We have three groups of elected officers. The Board of Elders (also called the Session) corresponds to the apostles, and focuses on Evangelism, Mission and the overall Vision for the Church. The Board of Deacons continues the two-thousand-year-old legacy of those first Deacons, and serves those within the church community, focusing on Worship, Education, and Member Care, or “internal” things. We also have a third group, the Board of Trustees, that supports the Elders and Deacons by focusing on Finance, Property, and Administration.
There are no trustees in the New Testament, but I can imagine a similar story where after a few months, that first group of seven deacons comes back and says, “It’s not right that we should neglect serving the community in order to fix plumbing leaks and balance the budget. And the twelve apostles smacked themselves on the forehead and sayeth together, “Fine, fine, appoint for yourselves another seven members of good standing…”
Verse 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.
Two names in this list get singled out for greater description. The first is Stephen, who is described as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. And in the verses that follow today’s passage, Stephen does amazing things in his office as deacon, attracts the attention of the religious leaders, gets dragged before an angry mob, and is stoned to death, becoming the first Christian martyr.
All this is to say that the reward for serving others in the church is rarely fame, fortune and praise. Sometimes it’s quite the opposite. The other six deacons in the list are never mentioned again anywhere else in the Bible. Even when you don’t get martyred, serving others is at best a behind the scenes occupation.
The other deacon who is singled out with a longer description is the last one, Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. That’s significant for two reasons. Nicolaus is a Greek or Hellenistic name, Antioch is a Greek city, and a proselyte is a recent convert. In other words, Nicolaus is a rookie—someone new to the faith community, and new to the faith. The criteria for leadership in the early church wasn’t putting in your time, paying your dues, and demonstrating your faithfulness to our way of doing things. It was simply good standing, spirit, and wisdom.
So to those of you who are new to our faith community, consider yourself warned. You are fair game when we elect church officers later this year.
Verse 6. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
We continue this tradition today, when we ordain and install our elders, deacons, and trustees—and in fact we have a few who have been elected and are due to be installed in the next month or so. Incidentally, although all seven of those listed in today’s passage are men, being a man was not one of the criteria. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, notes that Phoebe, a woman, was one of the early deacon in the church community.
Verse 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.
This is the classic happy ending, right? Compromise achieved, problem solved, and everyone lives happily ever after.
I wish that were true. I wish we could end the story right here. But the truth is, even though the Hebrews and the Hellenists successfully resolved this one problem so early on, ultimately their differences continued to grow throughout the Book of Acts and the New Testament, and at some point late in the first century, just a few decades after Jesus, they split into entirely separate communities. And all of this happened more than a thousand years before the great Catholic-Protestant divide, or any of the later splits that continue right down to this day.
While there is tragedy to that kind of ending, there is also hope, because we can see that in some shape or form, the church goes on, and in a way becomes even stronger, more diverse, more beautiful with every different stream, every different thread, every new tradition in every age and culture.
Sometimes, the greater sin is when we hold too tightly to our unity—when we try to keep everyone happy just so they won’t leave, and we end up sacrificing their freedom as well as our identity; their dignity as well as our message; their ability to preserve as well as our ability to change and adapt.
But through all the differences and divisions, what makes the church the church is a willingness to keep coming back to these two tasks:
First, we go into the world, and proclaim good news. Where there is fear, we bring faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is hatred, love.
Second, we take care of the weakest and most vulnerable among us. We wait on each other in humility and sacrifice.
This is our sacred calling as the church—as those who are chosen…chosen to serve.