Acts: Multiethnic Growth

Sermon Series: Acts: The Disruptive Presence of the Holy Spirit

By: Donnell Wyche – June 16, 2019

Preamble
We’re so glad you are here with us this morning. We’re grateful for you and the gifts of God that you bring with you into this space. Together we’ve been welcomed into God’s family through Jesus. As we become the people of God, we choose to reflect God’s love in our gratitude, in our joy, and in our generosity as we navigate the complexity of our daily lives.  We pray that whether this is your first time with us this morning, or you’ve been a part of our community for a while, that you will feel the invitation of the Holy Spirit to join in with our vision. If you are looking for a church home, we would love to be your church home, and I, in particular would love to become your pastor.

Introduction

The Book of Acts invites us on a journey to explore how we might have faith in the Empire. Acts also asks whether we are open to the disruptive presence of the Holy Spirit in our daily lives.

As the early disciples and apostles continue to bear witness to the resurrection and perform signs and wonders they are arrested, questioned, threaten, flogged, and released. As they face persecution and threat, they continue to pray, depend on the Holy Spirit and God, and hold all things in common.

31After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (Acts 4:31)

The community grows and that growth leads to conflict. Conflict that doesn’t break into open division, but conflict that threatens what God is doing in the community and their witness.

Let’s get started in Acts 6:1-7, I going to play the audio of the text now.

1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So 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. 3Brothers 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” 5This 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. 6They presented them to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1–7)

As we read in the text, there are at least three ethnic and/or class distinctions that we are working with and through. First, there were the gatekeepers of the faith, the ruling class in Jerusalem. Second, the apostles were Galileans, already considered second-class Jews by the ruling class. And then finally, Luke introduces the Hellenistic Jews who come from the Diaspora. As these three groups come together, a conflict emerges. At one level this should surprise no one. But I think it’s important for us to consider that these distinctions matter.

A way in for us is to consider the effects of in-group vs. the out-group mentality. STORY: I remember the culture shockI experienced when I realized that in spite of graduating with honors and in the top 10% of my class I was behind my cohort at Wooster. They had read more, traveled more, and experienced more that I had. Maybe you love Ohio State, but you live here in Ann Arbor, so you can’t mention your passion. Or maybe you buy some ice-hockey equipment and store it in your garage to show your new neighbors that you’re cool. Or maybe you give up bacon because you’re in love with a vegan. None of us want to be in the out-group we don’t want to be left out, or left behind, often we are willing to do whatever we can so that we belong or fit in, even if that means that we deny who we are fundamentally.

Have you ever done something to fit it and belong? What was it?

What’s the conflict?

The Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. (Acts 6:1)

The conflict at work in the church was the mistreatment of some of its members. As Luke has told us that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the resurrection has created a new community, one where everywhere contributes to the well-being of everyone. People sold their properties and shared the proceeds. This created a common purse, to cover the needs of the community; however, the Hellenistic Jewish widows aren’t receiving their daily food distribution. They were being “neglected.” They were being excluded.

At the core of this conflict was the privileges of the in-group, while those in the out-group were being slighted and marginalized. Those handling the distribution may not have intentionally overlooked the Hellenists, but the exclusion was offensive nonetheless.

The result was “a complaint.” There was an appearance of Hebraic preference, and so there was a protest: #GreekWidowsMatter.

How do the apostles respond?

What’s striking to me is the response of the apostles. Notice that they didn’t start by interrogating the Greek widows.

Are you sure you’re being mistreated?

Did you arrive in line at the right?

Did you complete the right forms?

Did you complete them in the right language?

They didn’t just ignore the complaint as those “Greeks” just being overly sensitive. Instead, they created a public community-wide space for the Hellenistic Jews to share their pain and sorrow. They created space to listen. After listening, they then gathered the community together to discuss the issue and worked together to come up with a solution to the problem. As they did this, they had to acknowledge as valid the concerns of the Hellenistic Jews that there was favoritism and partiality at work, which threatened the unity, health, and therefore, the expansion of the church.

Friends, this was a Gospel issue. The Gospel was threatened because of discrimination, mistreatment, and exclusion.

It’s striking to me that the apostles used their privilege, power, and authority, not to insulate themselves from the complaint, pain, sorrow, and suffering, instead they used their privilege, power, and authority for the benefit of others. They go even further because instead of using power to retain power, the apostles use their power to give power away, which has a transformative effect. What if we used our power and wealth to be blessing to others?

Let’s keep going:

3Brothers 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4)

As we consider their solution pay attention to the names of the seven people who were chosen, many have Greek names. Why? Because the apostles realize that the Greek widows need Greek representation. They need people who see and understand the world the way the Greek widows do. They need someone who speaks the language, who understands the culture, the traditions, and the customs. This solution isn’t just theological or a one-off fix. It’s a structural solution, so that this type of oversight and slight doesn’t happen again.

While the apostles knew that their priority was centered in preaching the Gospel, they also saw how important resolving this conflict within the community was. It was important enough that they didn’t offer any half-hearted suggestions or attempt to demean the concerns. They realized that issue needed the undivided attention of Spirit-filled people.

Being committed to and dedicated to the Gospel doesn’t mean that we don’t have time for “politics”. For those of us who are trying to follow Jesus through the narrow gate into life, it is not a matter of either/or, but of both/and.  It’s what James, the brother of Jesus says, if you claim faith, then show me your receipts.

6They presented them to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:6-7)

Let’s consider what would have happened if the apostles didn’t address this problem? Not only would they violate James, they would also violate the tenets of the Law, which was their bible. The whole point of being a witnessing community is embodying what God is like to the world that is watching.  Imagine a group that claims to be filled with God’s very presence, but does not or cannot follow one of the basic heart commitments of God, let’s consider Deuteronomy 10:14-19,

14To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. 15Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today. 16Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. 17For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. 18He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigners residing among you, giving them food and clothing. 19And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:14-19)

It’s not just here, but it’s all over  Deuteronomy, Isaiah, and the other prophets.

Some Reflections

Remember what we learned in Ephesians that God’s purpose in creation was to release us as image-bearers into God’s good creation, calling to do good works forming in us a new worldwide multi-ethnic family.

14For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. (Ephesians 2:14-16)

It was on the cross that Christ defeated and destroyed the evil that would divide and separate our communities. Because of the cross, in Christ, we can surrender our anger, our contempt, our preference, and our assumptions about “the other.” In Christ, we can rid ourselves of all the malice and animosity that we harbor. In Christ we can become the new humanity, a new creation. Christ is calling us to be his ambassadors of reconciliation, his agents of change, and it’s up to us take up that call and challenge.

Luke alerts us to the transformative work of the Spirit because of the resurrection. It’s easy to find like-minded and like-looking communities. But God’s Spirit is interested in transforming us so that we can look past these things and develop deep roots and have true community, not just all of us sitting together on the same bus. This is just diversity without the diversity creating a new culture.

This is at the core of the challenge of what it means to be a multiethnic church. That our diversity isn’t just in our appearance, but we are creating a new culture. This is the work we’ve been up to as a church, trying to create a welcoming space where everyone is wanted and a new culture can emerge.

All of this is grounded in the belief that we are better together because each of us brings a richness of God’s vision, heart, voice, and perspective into this space. As God is revealed through each of us we get to see a fuller, clearer, ever-expanding picture of God and that can be transformative. Your presence in this space confronts my limited picture of God and invites me into a fuller, deeper, richer experience. Let me just say this, I don’t want to do church without you because I know that without you I will miss God at work.

Let me push in…

And “you” includes all of you, not just the parts of you, I like. Our goal as a church is to create a beloved community where we can all belong.

Risky Response

How does our movement towards becoming a multi-ethnic community fit this narrative of Luke? Who is being reached by our multi-ethnic witnessing community? Who is being reached because of our efforts to integrate our faith and action, what some would call social justice? Who in our community needs to have a witnessing community see them, welcome, them, love them?