Called to Serve

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 6:1-6

Authentic Christian ministry is holistic. It meets every kind of human need, physical and social as well as spiritual. But no one person or group is expected to do it all.

A little knowledge of Greek can be a useful thing for studying the New Testament. In fact, you might not even realize how much Greek you already know! Maybe, for example, you know the meaning of the word agape. That’s the self-giving, self-sacrificing kind of love that God first shows toward us in Christ and then inspires in us, so that we can love others in the same way he loves us. Or you may have heard about koinonia, another wonderful, rich word that refers to the fellowship of Christian believers.

Now let me introduce you to another important Greek word, which describes another key Christian value. The word is diakonia, which means service or ministry. In the New Testament those persons who were formally commissioned for particular types of service were called diakono – deacons or deaconesses.

PROBLEMS IN JERUSALEM

All was not well among the first Christians. There were problems in the church in Jerusalem as we learn from Luke’s honest, unblinking account in the book of Acts. In chapter five he relates the sorry story of Ananias and Sapphira, the church’s first (though sadly, not the last) liars and hypocrites. But there were also problems that were not connected to any particular sins, at least not blatant and obvious sins like those of Ananias and Sapphira. The Jerusalem fellowship experienced some pretty severe growing pains. And it had its share of misunderstandings, conflict and hurt feelings – often due to social and cultural differences among the members.

Luke describes the situation in Acts 6:

A lot of people were now becoming followers of the Lord. But some of the ones who spoke Greek started complaining . . . that the Greek-speaking widows were not given their share when the food supplies were handed out each day.

The twelve apostles called the whole group of followers together and said, “We should not give up preaching God’s message in order to serve at tables. My friends, choose seven men who are respected and wise and filled with God’s Spirit. We will put them in charge of these things. We can spend our time praying and serving God by preaching.”

This suggestion pleased everyone, and they began by choosing Stephen. He had great faith and was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they chose Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and also Nicolaus . . . These men were brought to the apostles. Then the apostles prayed and placed their hands on the men to show that they had been chosen to do this work. God’s message spread, and many more people in Jerusalem became followers. Even a large number of priests put their faith in the Lord.

Acts 6:1-7, cev

The church in Jerusalem, we must remember, was made up entirely of converts to Christianity from Judaism, but there were still ethnic divisions within the congregation. As a result of the Jewish diaspora (the migration of Jews to various cities throughout the Greek world), two distinct groups of Jews had come into existence in the first century. The first were Grecian Jews, sometimes called Hellenists. These were members of the immigrant communities throughout the ancient world. Their primary language was Greek. Their culture and outlook were influenced by Hellenism (that is, by the Greek philosophical world-view). The other main group were the Hebraic Jews, the natives of Palestine who spoke Aramaic (related to Hebrew), as did Jesus and most of his disciples. Members of both groups became converts to Christianity with the result that there were increasing social tensions in the early church.

The gospel, you see, does not automatically cancel out our cultural distinctions. God’s purpose in salvation is not to make everyone exactly the same, but to preserve a wonderful human diversity in the unity of love. He has chosen to reconcile people from every nation, race and cultural background to himself and to each other through Jesus Christ. The Christian church is God’s new community whose genuine fellowship is intended to demonstrate this reconciliation here and now to the whole world. But, it isn’t easy to overcome all the consequences of social or ethnic bias in practice. It takes God’s grace – plus real effort – to make the new community of the church what it is actually supposed to be. And that’s the lesson we learn when we read about the early church in Acts 6.

Note again that this Jerusalem church, like every other church in every other place and time, was not perfect. These believers may have experienced Pentecost. They were filled with the Holy Spirit. They profited from apostolic leadership. But, they had significant problems as well. No church has ever been without them. If you’re going to insist on having a perfect church before you’ll join it, you have a long wait ahead of you.

Now in Jerusalem, the tension between the Hellenist Jewish Christians and the Hebraic Jewish Christians came to a head over the suspicion of unfairness in the way help was being distributed to the church’s poor, many of whom, naturally, would have been widows. When they became aware of the complaints, the twelve apostles dealt with the trouble promptly and fairly. They created a new kind of official to solve that particular problem. The apostles instructed the believers to select seven leaders who were, in Luke’s words, “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (v. 3, rsv). They had to be persons of integrity so the church would have confidence in their handling of difficult issues involving money and people. These deacons, as they may be called, also had to have real ability so their decisions would be sensitive and wise and their administration skillful. At the same time they had to be filled with the Holy Spirit, possessing spiritual discernment. Leadership in the church requires more than ordinary competence. To be fully qualified one must also have a genuine experience of God. Conversely, being filled with the Spirit does not make up for practical incompetence. The Lord demands – and supplies – both practical and spiritual capabilities. So Christians must be careful in choosing their leaders to look for both practical gifts and real, genuine spiritual life.

THE OBLIGATION OF MINISTRY

It is very important to recognize that diakonia – ministry to the needs of people – is expected from every Christian. The seven deacons and twelve apostles were leaders in the Jerusalem church. Leadership is very important. We continue these leadership gifts in similar officials in our own churches today. But whatever official titles some may have, whether “bishop,” “pastor,” “elder,” or “deacon,” diakonia (Christian service) is every believer’s responsibility. It is an essential part of the Christian life. Jesus defined his own role in terms of service. “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). He also said this to his disciples:

You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master. . . If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

(John 13:12-17)

The distinction in ministry between the “clergy” and the “laity,” so called, is a false and an unbiblical distinction. The New Testament uses the word laos from which we get “laity,” to mean the whole people of God, all believers. “Clergy” is a later term that appears nowhere in the Bible. We have turned these words into synonyms for, on the one hand, professional “ministers” and on the other, supposedly lesser-skilled amateurs who are not expected to do much of anything in many churches except show up for meetings. The clergy are the “servers” and the laity the “served.” That’s not how it is in a church that takes biblical teaching seriously. In churches where the apostles’ teaching (see Acts 2:42) has authority, all Christians are part of the laos, the people of God. Some will also be designated pastors or teachers. Some will serve in other official leadership roles. But each believer will be a diakonos, a minister, because everyone will be a servant of Christ and therefore a servant both to the believers and to people in the world.

FORMS OF MINISTRY

Christians have a diverse group of tasks to accomplish and a corresponding diversity of spiritual gifts with which to accomplish them. But there is only one ministry – the ministry of the Lord Jesus himself. So too, while all followers of Christ can and must be servants, each is called to serve in a particular way. No one has to do it all. Together we perform the very same wide range of acts that Jesus himself did. This point is made in Acts 6 by the repeated use of the term diakonia. In verse 2 it refers to the service of tables, the very mundane task of seeing that everyone in need was helped with the basic necessity of daily food. In verse 4 the same word is used for the ministry of the Word of God, a service we rightly think of as being the highest and most spiritually significant work of the church. But the point is that both are forms of ministry, and thus both are important.

Acts 6 reminds us of the importance of the ministry of prayer and the word of God. One of the reasons the apostles refused to get personally involved in practical work for the poor, and instead delegated that to others, was that they believed prayer and the ministry of God’s word was the most important thing. How many of us think the same way? You know, it’s relatively easy to get people to give money or even time and work for the sake of the hungry or the poor. Most of us have a spark of compassion that causes us to want to help meet physical needs. We feel those deeply. But it’s much more rare to find people who are equally or even more concerned about spiritual needs, including the single greatest need of every human being – to be reconciled to God through faith in Jesus Christ. Who is willing to sacrifice in order to serve the gospel? Who will give themselves in the service, the ministry, of praying for lost people and for our broken world? Who will give and who will go so that all the earth’s nations and peoples can hear the good news of Christ’s love?

But, we must never forget all the other kinds of ministry. The only limit to the forms of Christian service in a world as hurting as ours is our own sensitivity and imagination. The Lord expects us to be creative in the ways we serve him by attempting to meet people’s physical, emotional and social needs. We must all take our place in the same battle against evil which Christ fought throughout his ministry – to heal sick people, to fight for any who have been oppressed or abused, and work for justice, to relieve all forms of suffering, to help those in need, feeding the hungry, housing and clothing the poor. The battle is not only for the souls of people. The battle is against Satan and all his works, every injustice and suffering of every kind. Our Christian service involves nothing less than joining God in his work of reclaiming and restoring his whole creation from all the polluting injurious effects of sin.

Acts 6 and the diaconal ministry of the Christian church remind us that God cares about the whole person, about bodies as well as souls. He is deeply concerned about fairness and justice, including ordinary matters like the distribution of material resources to individuals as well as huge issues like the care of our planet or the establishment of just government.

What this really means is that God cares about you, all of you, every part of you. He knows what you most need, whether that’s physical or spiritual. And, he is concerned that all your needs are met. Jesus Christ came for this very reason. In fact, he not only will meet your needs; he wants to use you to meet the needs of other people as well. And there is no greater joy in life than doing that.