Sermon for 11-07-10: “Keeping the Promise, Act 4: Service”

Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7

The following is my original manuscript.

Are you like me? Now that Halloween is over, are you all of a sudden realizing that the holidays are right around the corner? They always sneak up on me, which is good, because it’s a very nice surprise. The period from Thanksgiving week through the end of December is my favorite time of year—some might even say the “most wonderful time of the year.” But maybe you’re like me in another way: As my family has grown, and my siblings and in-laws’ families have grown, it seems like we have to continually make adjustments to the way we celebrate the holidays. Who can be at whose house this year and at what time? How will work interfere with this or that get-together? Why can’t Mom change her dinner time to accommodate us for a change? What do you mean my sister can’t make it then?

As families grow, it takes a lot of organizing—not to mention a lot of little compromises and negotiations—in order to pull off holiday get-togethers. Growth is a good thing, but it means that things have to change in order to accommodate that growth. That’s what we see happening to the young church in today’s scripture.

“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.” What’s going on here? Widows in that day were the most vulnerable members of society. They had no means to support themselves. They were completely dependent on their husband’s families and sons, who may not be able or willing to help them. Through their baptism, however, they’ve became part of a new family, the church, and the church took responsibility for caring for them and supporting them.

There’s also a reference to Hellenists and Hebrews. Hellenists were ethnically Jewish Christians who were born and raised outside of Jerusalem and Palestine. They spoke Greek as their first language and were influenced by Greek culture. Hebrews were ethnically Jewish Christians who were born and raised in and around Jerusalem and Palestine. They spoke Aramaic, a form of Hebrew, and were more influence by Jewish culture. So these Christians from different cultures were having trouble getting along.

It may be somewhat comforting to know some things never change. Here, near the beginning of church history, members of the church were fussing and fighting with one another. Surprise, surprise. Only it shouldn’t surprise us because if the church is going to be a family, they will sometimes fight like a family. Some of you remember the Smothers Brothers, and Tommy Smothers’ frequent complaint to his older brother, Dick: “Mom always did like you best!” Same thing going on here!

So, some things never change… But other things don’t change either. Set aside for a moment the dispute itself, take a step back, and appreciate what the church is doing in caring for these widows. From that time until now, we Christians have always been about not simply saving souls but also meeting real, physical, tangible needs. In fact, these two activities are closely related. How we care for and love others by meeting their physical needs is a powerful testimony to our faith in Jesus Christ. It is essential in spreading the gospel, making disciples, and transforming the world. Many people, then as now, are attracted to the Christian faith because of the love that we demonstrate. As Jesus said in John chapter 13, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”1

If you recall from world history, the Roman Empire officially recognized Christianity under Constantine in the fourth century, at which point state persecution of the church ceased. Not long after that, Christianity became Rome’s official religion. From that point on the empire had a series of at least nominally Christian emperors with one exception: the emperor Julian, who is known as “Julian the Apostate.” He renounced the faith and wanted to restore paganism to its earlier privileged place in the Empire. He knew it was an uphill climb, however. In a letter to a pagan priest, he wrote, “It is a disgrace that these impious Galileans”—meaning us Christians—“care not only for their own poor but ours as well.”2

Some things never change… The people of Alpharetta Methodist know all about loving and caring for the poor, the marginalized, the dispossessed. When we rebuild and repair homes on the Gulf Coast, which a group of servants from our church is doing even this weekend; when we build schools in Paraguay; when we build clinics in Honduras; when we dig wells in Mozambique; when we stock pantries at North Fulton Community Charities, when we help hurting families through the Drake House and Atlanta Urban Ministries; when we minister with the homeless living under bridges in downtown Atlanta, we are continuing to do what disciples are doing in today’s scripture.

All this work is part of our church’s mission, as stated in our Book of Discipline, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If you’ve spent time with Dr. Martin, you might have heard him say that his top priority is to “win men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ.” He repeats it often. I like that! It’s no exaggeration to say that everything we do as a church should be directed toward that end.

The apostles made that same point in today’s scripture. That’s why solving the problem with these widows was so urgent. It was distracting them and taking time away from their top priority: which was teaching and preaching the Word of God, spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ, making disciples of Jesus Christ.

This scripture convicts me to think about how everything I do at church ought to be connected to the main thing of winning men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ. And I hope it convicts all of us church members who have promised to serve Jesus Christ through this local church. How is the work that we do—no matter how small, how humble, how ordinary—connected to the main thing: to win men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ?

For example, think about the massive volunteer effort it takes to pull off church every Sunday morning—and I’m not even talking about us paid staff. I’m thinking of Shirley Goldsmith, for example, making coffee for the church, not only in Vinebranch but for the whole church. She’s doing it as an act of hospitality: so that people who come to church will feel welcome and comfortable; so that people will stay awake during my sermon to be able to hear the gospel! She’s doing it, in other words, to do what? To win men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ. I’m thinking about parking lot attendants. I don’t give a thought to parking. I come in at 6:00 in the morning and park at the far side of the MYC parking lot. It’s empty when I park there. I park there to ensure that the Baptists don’t steal what for them might be a premium parking space. But the point is I don’t have to give a thought to parking, because there are servants each week who do think about it. And because they think about it, there are people who don’t have a saving relationship with with God through Jesus Christ who find a place here. Otherwise they could drive around, get frustrated, and leave. Why do parking lot attendants do the job they do? To win men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ.

I’m thinking of the people who volunteer to bring food and baked goods to the Vinebranch chapel each week. I’m thinking about volunteers like John, Renéee, and Jim who work our MediaShout system. I’m thinking about ushers and greeters. Nursery workers. Sunday school teachers. Musicians and singers in Vinebranch and traditional service. People who volunteer at the help desk. Communion stewards. Sanctuary stewards. Youth who help with special needs kids. The youth praise band who volunteer in children’s church. I’m thinking of confirmation class teachers. I’m thinking of people who drive some of our elderly to church each Sunday. I’m thinking of acolytes. These acts of service, big or small, visible or invisible, are all directed toward one main thing, which is? To win men and women, boys and girls to Jesus Christ.

Our problem in church is that we often forget about this… We minimize this… Have you ever been asked to serve in some way at church and the person doing the asking says, “All you gotta do is…” Or “It’s really easy. It won’t take much of your time.” Or “I need to get somebody to do this thing. Would you mind?” I’m guilty of this, too! Brothers and sisters, this is setting the bar way too low. Everything we do as a church is about doing the work of God’s kingdom, and yet we act sometimes like any trained chimpanzee can do it! We’ve got to stop that! The work we do may not always seem important in the eyes of the world, but guess what? God’s kingdom is not of this world—we live by different rules, different values, different principles.

Consider today’s scripture. The role that these seven men were being asked to perform in many ways didn’t seem very difficult. It took a little time, a little organizational skill. It was “only” an administrative job; they weren’t being asked to preach before tens of thousands at a Billy Graham-style revival; they weren’t being asked to risk persecution and martyrdom for the sake of the gospel; they weren’t being asked to go on a mission trip to the other side of the world. But notice the apostles didn’t consider the job trivial or easy or unimportant. Look at the great care with which they chose these seven. And when they were chosen, they weren’t told, “Go take care of this problem.” Instead, it says in verse 6 that they stood before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Can you imagine? Some of you watched the bishop lay his hands on Larisa and me when we were ordained in June—can you imagine St. Peter himself laying his hands on our church’s parking lot attendants and commissioning them to do their good work! That’s what’s going on here. Don’t think for a minute that how you serve isn’t important. It’s the work of God’s kingdom!

Everything we do as a church is focused on the main thing, which is: To win men and women, boys and girls to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Think about how that relates to Coffee House. Some of you have never been before. I’m inviting you to come this Friday from 7:00 to 9:30. You can drop in any time. On the one hand, it’s a first-rate concert and entertainment event. It’s a great opportunity to hang out with friends, enjoy great music, and coffee and dessert. It’s a great date-night activity, which includes free childcare for children in third grade and younger. But more than anything it’s an opportunity to invite your friends, who may or may not have a church home, who may or may not feel comfortable coming to church on a Sunday morning, who may or may not have a saving relationship with God through Christ. This is a good opportunity for them to feel welcomed and loved at church. It’s an easy low-pressure way to invite people to church. And you can even hand them this card, which gives them more information.

1. John 13:34-35

2. David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions, (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2009), 45.

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