April 26, 2017 by jmar198013
Manuscript for my sermon for Sunday, April 30, 2017. From our ongoing series, “Luke and Acts: The Good News of God’s Salvation.”
Resources used in the formation of this sermon include:
Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Volume 2. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 1249-1482.
William H. Willimon. Acts. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988. 61-67.
Ben Witherington III. The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998. 240-78.
An audio link is embedded for those who’d like to listen.
Acts: a portrait, not a blueprint
The book of Acts is a sort of sequel to Luke’s Gospel. And just as Luke’s Gospel spanned a little over 30 years of time, between Jesus’ birth and his ascension into heaven; so his Acts covers about a 30 year period, beginning with the birth of the church.
In our faith heritage in Churches of Christ we have, for better or worse, looked to the book of Acts as a blueprint for how to do church.
We tend to focus on the faithfulness and courage of those early Christians, and the rapid growth of the church in its first three decades. We hold up those early saints and churches as ideals, reading Acts as an account of a sort of Golden Age for God’s people.
We may even marvel at the utopia in the early chapters of Acts. How:
They all gave full attention to the teaching of the apostles and to the common life, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Great awe fell on everyone, and many remarkable deeds and signs were performed by the apostles … Day by day they were all together attending the Temple. They broke bread in their various houses, and ate their food with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and standing in favour with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being rescued.
The community of believers was one in heart and mind. None of them would say, “This is mine!” about any of their possessions, but held everything in common … and an abundance of grace was at work among them all. There were no needy persons among them. (Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-34)
But these utopian conditions didn’t last for long in the early church. When today’s lesson from Acts picked up, there was a conflict over the sharing.
Luke tells us:
while the number of disciples continued to increase, a complaint arose. Greek-speaking disciples accused the Aramaic-speaking disciples because their widows were being overlooked in the daily food service. The Twelve called a meeting of all the disciples and said, “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables.”
The abundance of grace that was at work among them all seems to have broken down. The church, as it grows, is suddenly having a difficult time being a people with no needy persons among them. Now there’s a division, perhaps discrimination, and inequality. Along the lines of language and culture. More on that shortly. Now there are people who feel ignored, and they’re frustrated. Moreover, the church’s leaders are too busy with preaching and teaching to deal with this growing problem.
All of the sudden, the earliest church doesn’t look as much like an ideal or a model. It looks more like a mirror of problems we’re all-too-familiar with in churches today. There are divisions and hurt feelings among the members. And the leadership in place doesn’t seem equipped to handle it. In other words, the first Christians were flawed people confronting real problems. And they weren’t superhuman. They were like us.
Like his Gospel, Luke wrote Acts for someone called Theophilus. Theophilus was a common name among Greek-speaking Jews, and meant beloved of God. Theophilus was almost certainly a real person. But Luke’s Gospel and Acts live on as a carefully ordered account (Luke 1.4) for future generations of God’s beloved community. That’s us now, too. Perhaps we need to start thinking of Acts less as a blueprint for how the church ought to be; and more like a portrait of how the early church actually was. That’s how Luke meant it to be taken, and I suspect we’ll get more out of it that way.
Neglected members and burned out leadership
A little background on the problem that had arisen with the daily food service. Both the Greek-speaking disciples and the Aramaic-speaking disciples were Jewish. The Aramaic-speaking disciples were the local Jewish population. People from Jerusalem and Judea and perhaps some from Galilee. They had deep roots in the area, family and friends nearby, and lived by local customs. They attended synagogues where services were in their native tongue, Aramaic. They were the old-timers.
The Greek-speaking disciples were mostly part of the Jewish Diaspora, along with a smattering of Gentiles who had converted. They came from families that hadn’t returned to Palestine after the Babylonian exile, but had scattered across the world. These were the devout Jews from every nation under heaven staying in Jerusalem mentioned in Acts 2.5. So they were mostly out-of-towners. These Jewish people had learned to adapt and live faithfully in many different nations and circumstances. They were more cosmopolitan than a lot of their Aramaic-speaking brothers and sisters. And they had their own synagogues, which held services in Greek. Our reading today mentioned one of those synagogues—the Synagogue of Former Slaves.
Here’s another thing: it was popular among some Diaspora Jews to retire to Jerusalem in those days. That meant, on the whole, the population of Greek-speaking disciples may have had more older people. Which would also mean more widows who needed looking after.
But they may not have had those deep family and friendship and church connections like the locals. And there was a language barrier that may have made it difficult for them to speak up. So some of them slipped through the cracks.
So they felt neglected. Ignored. Left out. And the problem wasn’t addressed. The bad feelings festered, and boiled over, and it threatened the young beloved community.
Isn’t this what we would call a low point for any church? When the very real needs of some of the members—especially if they are very vulnerable, like these widows from a minority population—are being neglected? When they are ignored and left to fend for themselves?
When the apostles are finally made aware of the problem, their response doesn’t sound very promising at first. “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables,” they said. That’s kind of an interesting response, because Acts 4.34-35 describes how the distribution had worked up until that point:
Those who owned properties or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds from the sales, and place them in the care and under the authority of the apostles. Then it was distributed to anyone who was in need.
In other words, the apostles had been in charge, up to that point, of making sure the needy in the church—including the widows—got their share. The fact that this problem arose in the first place suggests they were out of touch with a significant portion of the church. And honestly, their response, We’re too busy preaching to feed you, sounds a tad callous. I honestly think they were just on the verge of ministerial burnout.
So not only do you have members who are being neglected, who feel like they don’t matter. You also have burned-out, out-of-touch leadership who sound rather snippy and insensitive when confronted with a problem. Again, this is what I would call a low point for any church. Wouldn’t you?
But here’s the thing: the book of Acts is more of a portrait than a blueprint. And in this portrait, we see conflict; we see neglect; we see out-of-touch, overwhelmed leadership giving tone-deaf responses to a real problem. We see the church at a low point. This is not a blueprint we want to follow.
The book of Acts, however, paints a truthful picture of the beginning of the church. Which means it not only shows us the the ugly stuff—the low points. Luke also shows us the church’s successes—the high spots.
And that’s what we’re going to look at now.
The church adapts
When confronted with the problem of the neglected Greek-speaking widows, the apostles first replied: “It isn’t right for us to set aside proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables.” Now, if that’s all they’d said and left it there, the book of Acts may have gone very differently. But we soon learn they weren’t trying to justify themselves. Instead, this was a confession: The work has gotten away from us. We’re overwhelmed. We can’t do it all.
So they decided to do something about it. And it wasn’t just a top-down leadership decision. They empowered the church to help them deal with the issue. They said:
Brothers and sisters, carefully choose seven well-respected men from among you. They must be well-respected and endowed by the Spirit with exceptional wisdom. We will put them in charge of this concern. As for us, we will devote ourselves to prayer and the service of proclaiming the word.
In other words—the church adapted. There was a new problem, a new situation, and the apostles empowered the people to take care of it. And Luke says: This proposal pleased the entire community.
Acts may be more of a portrait than a blueprint, but we can learn a few things from this story. First, church leadership should confess when they are overwhelmed and out of touch with the needs of the people, and take steps to address the problem. Second, it is not sinful that the church should adapt and innovate to address emerging concerns. Third, new ministries and forms of leadership should be responses to real needs in the church and the community it serves—not because we’re jumping on a bandwagon. Fourth, the leadership of the church does well to empower the people to look for solutions from within the congregation. We don’t always need to look outside our congregation. The seven men selected for this ministry were already well-known and respected within the church.
Luke tells us the church:
selected Stephen, a man endowed by the Holy Spirit with exceptional faith, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. The community presented these seven to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
We’ll talk more about Stephen today, and Philip next time. What impresses me about how the church handled this problem is that one commentator has called it “the first example of affirmative action,” explaining:
Those with political power generally repressed complaining minorities; here the apostles hand the whole system over to the offended minority. 
Here’s the reason for that observation. Every one of those seven men chosen by the church, and blessed by the apostles, to take over the food service for the widows had a Greek name. One of them, Nicolaus, wasn’t even born Jewish—he was a later convert. In other words, they were all from the group that had been neglected—the Greek-speaking disciples. But the entire church had so much confidence and trust in them to be fair in the distribution, they put them in charge of the food ministry to the widows. That, brothers and sisters, was a bold move!
This was a real high spot for the early church. How the leadership admitted there was a problem that was too big for them. How they empowered the church to address the problem. And how the church responded with radical trust, affirming people from the neglected minority to care for the entire body.
Stephen’s heresy trial
Here’s another high spot we see in Luke’s portrait of the early church. But it’s going to sound more like a low point. Stephen, one of the seven selected for the food ministry among the widows, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
In other words, he wasn’t content to only work with the ministry he’d been specifically chosen for. In addition to making sure the widows got their daily bread, Stephen, who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power, was involved in the public ministry of the church. He was a witness to the Good News of God’s salvation to the people of Jerusalem.
Unfortunately, Stephen’s public ministry got him in trouble with some of his fellow Jews. Because he followed Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Messiah, they accused him of blasphemy—insulting Moses, ignoring the Torah, bashing the temple, and threatening their very way of life. And you know what’s really wild? The ones who opposed Stephen came from the Synagogue of Former Slaves. A synagogue for Greek-speaking Diaspora Jews, like Stephen. Who knows—it may have even been his home congregation. Sometimes those viewed as outsiders—like Greek-speaking, foreign-born Jews in Jerusalem—feel like they have to work twice as hard to prove their loyalty and be accepted by the insider group. I suspect that’s what was going on with the members of the Synagogue of Former Slaves who opposed Stephen. It’s so easy for well-meaning people to go on a witch hunt.
But every time they argued with Stephen, they couldn’t resist the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Stephen always won the argument. And this made them so mad they did a very wicked thing. They stirred up the people, the elders, and the legal experts against Stephen. They snatched him up and brought him before the Jerusalem Council, the Sanhedrin. They also brought in false witnesses to testify before the court that Stephen undermined Moses and the law and made threats against the temple.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same thing happened to Jesus the night he was arrested.
Brothers and sisters, let us learn from this. Those from the Synagogue of Former Slaves who railroaded Stephen that day truly believed they were doing God a favor. They were ready to defend God, their religion, their people, and their way of life by any means necessary. But before the day was over, they’d broken at least two of the Ten Words: Do not kill; and, Do not testify falsely against your neighbor (Exod. 20.13, 16). In their zeal to defend God and the scriptures, they defied God and disobeyed his instructions. We cannot and must not ever believe we can do evil that good may come.
Luke tells us during Stephen’s heresy trial: Everyone seated in the council stared at Stephen, and they saw that his face was radiant, just like an angel’s. This should have been a sign to them. They would have known the story from Exod. 34.29ff. How when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, the skin of his face shone brightly because he had been talking with God. Stephen’s shining face was a sign that, far from blaspheming God and undermining Moses’ authority, he enjoyed the kind of intimacy with God Moses had.
But their fear and their anger blinded them to the truth.
And lest we be tempted to judge the Sanhedrin for this, it’s good to remember it hadn’t been that long since the events on the Mount of Transfiguration. Luke told us about that, too. Jesus’ own disciples had seen his face and clothing flash with radiance, and Moses and Elijah with him. But they’d still stayed blind for a long time after, to the truth of who Jesus was and what God sent him to do. That was Jesus’ own disciples. We certainly shouldn’t expect more of the Sanhedrin than we’ve seen from his own followers.
Stephen’s faithful witness
Luke loves recording long speeches in the book of Acts. And Stephen’s defense before the Sanhedrin is the longest speech of them all! We only heard a portion in our readings today. Here’s the gist of it:
Way back when, God called our father Abraham on a journey toward a promise. But almost from the beginning, there’s been fighting among Abraham’s children. Just like when Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Just like you hated Jesus, ran him out of town, and killed him. But God saved Joseph to preserve the lives of his family, to keep his promise to Abraham. And God raised Jesus for the same reason.
God sent Moses to rescue our ancestors from slavery in Egypt. But they turned against him. Just like you turned against Jesus, the one God sent to save you. I’m not the one who’s disobeying Moses. Moses foretold Jesus’ coming!
You accuse me of threatening the temple. Yes, God in his grace chose to dwell with us for a while through the tabernacle and the temple. But even our own prophets have told us God’s rightful dwelling place is not a house built with human hands, but the heavens and earth he has created. But now, the place where heaven and earth meet is Jesus and his church. Jesus is how God dwells among his people now. The prophets also foretold this. The prophets your ancestors harassed and killed. Just as you harassed and killed Jesus!
Stephen showed them from the scriptures that he wasn’t blaspheming God, dishonoring Moses, disobeying the Torah, disrespecting the temple, or threatening their way of life by following Jesus. He was obeying Moses and the prophets, and embracing the true temple.
We have to keep in mind that all this happens before the church and the synagogue, before Christianity and Judaism, are two different realities. This is a war among family members about who is the true heir to the promises God made to Abraham. And we know how ugly family feuds over inheritance can be.
Luke says: Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged—literally, their hearts were torn apart—and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. Like angry beasts. Their hearts were torn, but they did not repent. Now the crowd is ready to tear Stephen apart.
But what got Stephen killed wasn’t his defense, accusing his accusers of disobeying God. It’s when he said: “Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!” They responded by shrieking and covering their ears to drown him out. Why? Because they thought they were hearing blasphemy. They were angry at Stephen for making Jesus—a crucified teacher they had rejected—equal with God.
That’s the moment it went from a legal argument to a lynch mob. There’s no nice way to put what happened to Stephen. The Sanhedrin never issued an official verdict. They never got the chance. The enraged crowd drug Stephen out of town and stoned him to death.
I don’t know if that’s how his opponents from the Synagogue of Former Slaves meant this to go down. But that’s what happened.
The senseless murder of a faithful servant of God—someone the widows of Jerusalem depended on for their daily bread—may sound like a low point for the early church. But Luke records it as a high spot. Because Stephen died like Jesus.
As their stones rained down on him, he prayed: Lord Jesus, accept my life! This was his version of Ps. 31.5: I entrust my spirit into your hands … Lord. Ancient Jews used this psalm as a bedtime prayer. Jesus quoted it from the cross, just before he died. Then, Stephen’s final words were: Lord, don’t hold this sin against them! Just as, when Jesus was crucified, he prayed: Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing (Luke 23.34).
And Jesus, standing at the right hand of God, heard Stephen’s prayers.
We know Stephen’s prayer for Jesus not to hold the lynch mob’s sin against them was answered. At least when it came to one of them. Luke introduces us to a young man named Saul, who held onto the coats of the ones who killed Stephen. And one of the key storylines of Acts is how Saul the persecutor of the church, becomes Paul—the apostle to the Gentiles who is persecuted.
But that’s a sermon for another Sunday.