15In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, 16“Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus— 17for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
18(Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20“For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it’; and ‘Let another take his position of overseer.’
21So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.” 23So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. 24Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 25to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.
My goal for today is a little ambitious, but if you stick with me, we can do it. I’d like to give a brief introduction to the Book of Acts and its historical setting as a whole. Then I’d like to catch us up to where we are now, so that we’re all on the same page as we start this series on Acts. Finally, I’d like to dig into the passages for today to think a little bit about Church leadership, since today we will elect leaders for the coming year.
My hope this summer is not only to work through the whole story of Acts in worship, but also to set up some small group opportunities so we can engage the story at a deeper level through discussion. I encourage you to read the Book of Acts on your own. If you get my daily readings, you’ll get a lot of it that way, but it will give you a great foundation if you read the whole story through on your own. I’d recommend shooting for 5 chapters a week, but read the first 7 chapters this week to be ready for next week. That’s a great pace to absorb, miss a day here and there, and also keep some momentum.
First, why Acts? This generation is a time of huge change in the church. Many of us remember the 1950’s and 60’s as a great time for church. The values of the church were widely shared in the culture: even those who didn’t belong to a church knew the story of Jesus and many of the core beliefs of Christianity. Churches were typically well attended and growing, and the postwar boom in US economic and social life enriched the church.
That’s not the case today. When I think about friends my age, not counting pastors, only a few go to church outside of Christmas or Easter. While politicians still usually find it necessary to claim religious affiliation, and most people respect Christianity in general, the church doesn’t have the political and social clout it once had.
There are a lot of reasons for these changes, and the rough sketch I offer this morning leaves out a lot and can’t do justice to the complexity of the story. Starting in the 1960’s the pace of social change accelerated. Civil rights movements and the women’s movement uncovered oppression that had gone unquestioned by many before, upsetting the false calm of the dominant social system.
Related to that, many people came to distrust institutions in general, and the church is an institution. Sins of the organized church from sex and abuse to financial misconduct came to light, further eroding trust in the church. People are also aware of greater diversity of religion, culture and outlook, so Western, Christian culture no longer has the monopoly it once had.
All those changes and more have left the church smaller, weaker and less central to society than we were two generations ago. Often that makes us nervous, so we wish for and try to recreate those “golden years” of our youth when the church was full, the finances were strong and there were great programs for every group within the church.
It’s never going to be 1960 again. The institutional wealth and stability the church had then is not coming back, and that is great news for the church. Like all gospel, like all good news that matters at a deep level, the good news about change in the church is not easy; it’s difficult and disruptive, but it can help transform us into the people and the community God wants us to be.
Instead of looking to the sixties, we’ll do better if we look back at our real roots, which is the church’s birth told in the Book of Acts. There are two big reasons for that. The first is that the change we need in the church isn’t tinkering around the edges; it’s a fundamental recreation of the organization. After Jesus returned to heaven the disciples had to build something that had never existed. Their first creation of the church by the Holy Spirit’s guidance is the best instruction we can have for recreating the church today.
The second reason for digging into Acts is that there are a lot of similarities of the first century to our time, so looking at how the church navigated that culture can help us navigate our own.
Let’s start this adventure with some historical background. Alexander the Great unified most of the Mediterranean world about 300 years before Jesus was born, and the Roman Empire took over and continued that consolidation a hundred years later. While many other languages were spoken, Greek, and much later Latin, provided a common language for most of the known world. The stability of a strong empire made travel and communication relatively safe and easy with good roads, a reliable postal system and many seaports.
The first century was a global time. Greek philosophy and religions coexisted with religious ideas from Egypt, Asia and parts of Europe. Ideas, foods, market products and people could travel widely, and many big cities enjoyed being cosmopolitan and sampling the diversity of the world.
The economics of the Empire were not entirely healthy. While trade flourished, the far-flung military obligations of a huge empire created severe financial strain. Taxes were high, especially in conquered areas. Society was divided economically with little upward mobility. Rome and other cities were nowhere near self-sustaining, and most people there relied on government distribution of food.
With all the advances and changes in commerce as well as many people forced to move by Roman conquest or economic forces, many people felt isolated from their native culture without a community to support them. The dangers and uncertainties of life made many people feel like they had no control over their destiny. People believed parts of different religions, and the official Roman faith imported gods and ideas from many areas into the traditional religion of Greece and Rome.
I imagine you recognize some parallels with our own time here. From diversity to communication to a global economy full of opportunity and instability, many parts of our current world resemble the Roman Empire. In some ways English plays the role of world language and Western commercial culture plays the role of Roman civilization. Then, as now, there are opportunities for communication that allowed the Christian faith to spread quickly and people who were hungry for good news and real community.
Perhaps the most important part of that landscape for us is that in those days the church was tiny. It had very little organization, basically no property and negligible power. In that setting, the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ spread throughout the known world within a generation. That was the time of the church’s greatest faithfulness and most dynamic growth.
Christianity is supposed to be a movement of people giving their lives for God’s love, not a powerful institution forcing others to listen to us. The message of a crucified God is one that is best told humbly and with love, not at the point of a sword or in a setting where people have to believe to fit into society. Losing our dominant place in the culture is the best path to faithfulness to God’s calling, but it means we need to let go of some of our ideas of church to make space for God’s idea about church.
That’s the big picture, so let’s catch up with our part of the story. Acts is Part 2 of Luke’s Gospel. It starts where Part 1 left off, with the risen Jesus spending time with his disciples. Jesus tell his disciples that their job is to take the message of God’s kingdom to the ends of the earth, but first, they need to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Then Jesus rises into heaven to return at the right time.
As Susan read, the first thing the disciples did after that was to elect a new apostle to take Judas’ place. After that they did what Jesus said, they waited in Jerusalem with lots of prayer and fellowship. 10 days after Jesus ascended into heaven the disciples were together in an upper room when the Holy Spirit came down and filled them with power and the ability to tell God’s news in other languages. Peter told the crowd about Jesus and thousands of people became part of the movement right away.
Soon after that Peter and John heal a man in the temple. They make it real clear that Jesus’ power is responsible for the healing, not them. The religious leaders arrest and interrogate them, but eventually let the disciples go after warning them to stop talking about Jesus. Obviously, the disciples are not going to do that and soon they are arrested and released again. They pray for boldness to tell the story and the church keeps growing.
Members of the church care for each other so radically that they share what they have so no one is in need. There are problems too: then as now money can be a temptation and some people wanted the credit for giving their property away while holding on to some of what they have. Overall, commitment continues to grow and even people who are too scared to join the church respect and admire the disciples. That’s where our story picks up:
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. 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.
Even early in the church, the believers recognized that leaders were important. Jesus had appointed 12 apostles even though there were many more who followed him. The early church kept the tradition of having 12 apostles, so they elect Matthias to serve that role, though many others continue to have leadership responsibility, including women.
As the church grew, so did its leadership needs. In this case, the important ministry of caring for the most vulnerable members of the community, the widows, was getting too difficult for whoever was handling it. Specifically, while the Aramaic speaking or Hebraic Jews were being served, it seems that some of the Hellenistic or, Greek speaking, Jewish widows were not being cared for adequately.
The twelve apostles couldn’t spend more time on that, since their main calling was preaching the word, so they asked the community to pray and chose people appropriate for the job the community needed done. That’s just what we’re doing today. When our worship draws to a close we will pray for God’s guidance, and, like the early church, we will chose people to lead this congregation.
The leadership those people provide will be important for the growth and guidance of our community in the year to come. Each person has been nominated because the committee sees specific gifts of wisdom, organization, practicality, care, love and creativity in them.
While we choose specific people for leadership ministries at specific times in the church’s life, that doesn’t change the bedrock fact that each of us who follows Jesus also has a calling. This is not a church of leaders and spectators. Like the early church, we are called to be a community of disciples. We are each called to follow Jesus, to grow in our faith, to minister to each other and to the world in Christ’s name. Some people are called to specific jobs, but all Christians are called to lives of faith and service.
As we’ll see next week, the folks the church chose for the ministry of “waiting on tables,” didn’t limit themselves to that. One of these new servants, Stephen, preaches powerfully, maintains his courage in the face of persecution, and becomes the first martyr for the good news of Jesus Christ. That wasn’t in the job description to which he was elected, but it was a consequence of following his calling as a Christian and as a leader in his time.
I hope none of the folks we elect today will have to face trial and execution. At the same time, the reason the church was so successful in those days was that the leaders and members of the church were ready to die for their faith. Everyone who joined the church was actively choosing a new life committed to Christ and to community and different from the society around them. That situation created a church that was strong, compelling and knew its purpose.
I pray that the loss of the church’s power in society renews our sense of purpose. I pray as we lose the material benefits of belonging to the in crowd of a culture that thinks it is Christian, we will gain the spiritual benefits of freely choosing a path different from the majority and clearly committed to love. That is my prayer for our new and continuing leaders and my prayer for the whole church as God recreates the church in this age. May it be so for you and for me.
Thanks be to God.