Sermon 09-11-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 4: Our Prayers”

September 22, 2016


The apostles faced a problem in Acts 6: One faction in the church was grumbling that their widows were being neglected in the distribution of money and food. What were the apostles going to do about it?

As I say in this sermon, this kind of grumbling is a sin. It goes against Jesus’ own words about forgiveness and reconciliation. But the grumbling—alongside the logistical problem which gave rise to it—wasn’t the biggest threat the church was facing in this crisis: the biggest threat was that the apostles would be distracted from their main calling, the ministry of God’s word and prayer.

Does our church reflect this same priority and why does it matter? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Acts 6:1-7

Just last weekend, my beloved Yellow Jackets of Georgia Tech played football in Ireland against Boston College. There was an article about the game in the Irish Times. The author pointed out that American football is growing in popularity in Ireland, although it pales in popularity to something called Gaelic football—not to mention in comparison to that sport that the rest of the world calls football, which is soccer to us. One challenge that many people outside of North America have to overcome in order to enjoy American football, according to the author of the article, is that there are “many stoppages” in the game. Isn’t that funny? There are many stoppages. The reporter marveled at the rock-star status that these student athletes enjoy in the public, as well as the huge salaries that these college coaches receive. He also wondered why so many people were passionately interested in a school’s football team when they didn’t themselves attend that school. But I especially liked this part:

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

A Boston College defender tries to tackle Justin Thomas. As if!

The fans’ intensity became clear early on when I was warned that Georgia Tech must always be referred to with the ‘Tech’ part included and never simply as ‘Georgia’ – that being the name of their fiercest rivals University of Georgia. Apparently it’s something akin to referring to Manchester United as Manchester City.

My point is, while we have much in common with the Irish; while we speak the same language; while many Americans—including players on both teams—are descended from the Irish, there is much that separates us culturally.

A similar dynamic is going on in today’s scripture. In verse 1, we’re told that a “a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews.” Who are these two groups? Like the Irish and Irish-Americans, they are two groups that had much in common: The Hellenists and Hebrews shared the same ethnicity. They were ethnically Jewish. They both went to synagogues and worshiped in the Temple. And now they both had become members of the same church; they were both followers of Jesus Christ.

But there were also important differences. If you go to Atlanta near I-85 and Clairmont Road, there’s a big building next to the Greek Orthodox cathedral there called the Hellenic Cultural Center. “Hellenic” and “Hellenist” have the same root word: It means Greek. These Hellenistic Jews, in other words, spoke Greek as their first language, whereas these Jews identified as “Hebrews” spoke Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew, as their first language.

The Hebrews were also native to Palestine, whereas the Hellenists were born outside of Palestine and lived most of their lives away from their homeland. They or their families likely moved to Palestine later in life—the way many senior adults in America move to Florida when they retire.

The point is that culturally, just as Irish-Americans have more in common with America than Ireland, so these Hellenistic Jews had more in common with the Greco-Roman world than with Israel. Consequently, Jews who were native to Palestine probably believed that they were more authentically Jewish than the Hellenists—so there were cultural barriers that caused them to view one another with suspicion already. Add to that the fact that they probably couldn’t understand one another’s language very well, if at all—and, well… problems were bound to arise.

In this case, the problem was widows. We’ve already seen in this sermon series that these new Christians were sharing their wealth—selling real estate and homes and bringing the money to the apostles, who would then distribute it to the poor in the church. The poor included widows. In that day, widows were especially vulnerable. If their husbands died, they usually couldn’t get a job, so they had no means to support themselves. This is why, in the Old Testament, in books like Exodus and Deuteronomy, God said that it was the responsibility of God’s people Israel to provide for widows and orphans. And what does the apostle James say? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction…”[1] The first church assumed responsibility for doing this.

But the widows who were Hellenists weren’t receiving their fair share of the distribution. Was this intentional? Luke gives no indication that it was, but the Hellenists probably thought their widows were deliberately being discriminated against. So what did the Hellenists do? What most of us do when we feel as if we’ve been wronged: they complained. But the word for “complain” in verse 1 literally means to “murmur,” to “grumble”—to talk behind someone else’s back.

Do we ever do that? Does our church ever do that?

Do you know that we’re not supposed to do that? Seriously, Paul says in Philippians 2:14, “Do all things without grumbling.” Peter says, “Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.”[2] Grumbling is a spiritually deadly cancer in a church as well as the rest of our lives.

Luke wants to make this point: Consider what we’ve seen in this sermon series so far: We began in chapter 12 with the report that James the brother of John has just been executed by Herod Agrippa, and if he has his way, Peter will be next. The church, in other words, is being persecuted. We see persecution throughout chapters 4 through 8. In fact, in chapter 7, Stephen, one of the seven men mentioned in today’s scripture, will be martyred because of his witness. Persecution was the first attack that Satan used to threaten the early church—and it failed miserably. In fact, in the face of persecution, what does Luke tell us about the church? It grew explosively.

But persecution was Satan’s first attack.

Then, last week, we looked at chapter 5, with Ananias and Saphhira. Satan used their lying and their hypocrisy to threaten the church. This was the devil’s second attack. But that didn’t work. Instead, Luke reports that the church continued to grow explosively.

Finally, in today’s scripture, Luke is telling us that there’s a new threat. As pastor and theologian John Stott says, “The devil’s next attack was the cleverest of all”: to try to destroy the unity of the church and hamper its witness and mission through grumbling, and complaining, and murmuring, and gossiping, and backbiting. Does this sound familiar?

Remember a couple of years ago when ISIS terrorists paraded those Egyptian Christians before cameras on the beaches of Libya and beheaded them as each one shouted praises to our Lord Jesus? Do you think it’s possible that the words that we use to grumble and complain, to gossip and backbite, to tear one another down while we build ourselves up, do more harm to the cause of Christ in the world than even the sharp edge of a terrorist’s sword?

Remember what James says? “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”[3] He goes on to say that no one can tame the tongue; it’s a “restless evil, full of deadly poison.”[4]

Not only that, when we grumble and complain and murmur, we are literally going against Jesus’ clear teaching in Matthew 18. He’s teaching his disciples about forgiveness in the church, and he says that if you believe that your brother or sister has wronged you in some way—has sinned against you—it’s your responsibility to go directly to that person and confront them. To try to work it out directly. And if that doesn’t work, take one or two others with you and talk about it. Finally, if that doesn’t work, take the matter before the whole church.

We disobey Jesus on this issue nearly all the time! All the time!

If we have a problem with someone in the church, what do we usually do instead of going to that person and talking to them? We usually go to our friends and enlist their sympathy and support. We say, “Can you believe what so-and-so did? I can’t believe it! That’s so wrong!” And our friends agree with us, and we feel better about ourselves.

The problem with this is that there’s no reconciliation or forgiveness. We feel resentment instead, which is a sin. Worse, what we’ve also done is that we’ve sinfully judged the other person in the way that Jesus tells us not to do.

Think about it: If we believe someone has done us wrong, we owe our Christian brother or sister the benefit of the doubt. Maybe we misunderstood what happened and it wasn’t their fault after all. Or maybe it was their fault, but they didn’t mean to hurt us, and they have no idea that they did so. But by not going to them directly, we haven’t given them a chance to explain their side or apologize or clear up the misunderstanding. Instead, we’ve ascribed the worst motives possible to them: This person did this because he or she is a selfish, conceited jerk! Or worse

Again, this is the kind of judging that Jesus says is a sin. We can’t often know what’s in someone’s heart, but we often act like we do. And we assume the worst about them.

And that’s the problem in today’s scripture: While these Hellenists were right that their widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food and money, the apostles didn’t hear this firsthand from the people who were being harmed. They instead heard murmurs and rumors and grumbling instead.

But as bad as the grumbling was, it wasn’t the biggest threat mentioned in today’s scripture. The biggest threat was that the apostles would be distracted from their main task, which was to preach and teach the word of God and to pray. I mean, notice what apostles didn’t do when they called this church meeting in verse 2: They didn’t say, “It’s come to our attention that some of these widows are being neglected in the daily distribution. It’s clear that we’ve spent too much time preaching, teaching, and praying and not enough time dealing with these administrative tasks. So we’re going to devote more time administration.” Is that what they said? Of course not! They said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.”

There was nothing, nothing, nothing more important than their calling by God to teach and preach the word of God and to pray.

Why? Because they understood what was at stake! They understood that preaching and teaching and praying could mean the difference between life and death for those tens of thousands of people in Jerusalem who needed to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ. It could mean the difference between salvation and damnation for these souls. It could mean the difference between heaven and hell! They didn’t have a moment to spare for lesser things—even critically important things like feeding and caring for the poor!

Please don’t hear me say—on this day that we are devoting to “Stop Hunger Now”—that feeding and caring for the poor is unimportant or unnecessary. Not at all! But think, for example, about Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. Lazarus was a homeless beggar who had nothing but the clothes on his back—and who often went hungry. And he died and went to heaven for eternity. The rich man, by contrast, was always well-fed and well-cared-for. And he died and went to hell for eternity. So you tell me: Would Lazarus have gone back and switched places with the rich man, so that he, too, could be well-fed and well-cared-for in this life? Of course he wouldn’t! Would the rich man switch places with Lazarus if he knew it meant eternal life? Of course he would! 

They would make these choices because each would understand that life in this world—even a long, happy, and prosperous life—is only the tiniest blip in light of eternity.

So it’s crystal clear what the apostles’ priority needed to be! Just as it’s crystal clear what our church’s highest priority ought to be!

Years ago, the United Methodist Church decided that we needed, like these apostles, to place an emphasis on the importance of preaching the word of God and praying so that others could be saved. So we added language to our Book of Discipline that said that our mission was to make disciples of Jesus Christ. This is why our church exists, we said. But a lot of people didn’t like that, so a few years later they added “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

For the transformation of the world. What does that mean?

It sounds like what it means that we make disciples so that these newly made disciples can then make the world a better place. But that can’t be right. We make disciples of Jesus Christ for no reason other than the fact that our Lord commands it. Whether or to what extent doing so transforms the world is irrelevant.

I think the reason the church added those words, “for the transformation of the world,” is because they understood that most United Methodist churches do a really good job at transforming the world, but a lousy job at making disciples. So if we can’t fulfill the first part of our mission, we won’t be complete failures: we can at least fulfill the second part.

But it’s not one or the other. It can’t be! As Eddie Fox and George Morris, two well-known United Methodist evangelists, pointed out one time,

The United Methodist Church shows tremendous proficiency and commitment when it comes to doing the deed of the gospel. We do the compassionate deed from the best of motives, and we do that deed with skill and commitment. However, we are reluctant to name the Name in whom we do the deed.[5]

Oh, dear God, let us at Hampton United Methodist Church not be reluctant to name the Name of Jesus when we do the deed of the gospel!

Honestly, last week at Hampton High School, our church fed the junior varsity football team before a game later that evening—which is a great and loving deed. But I was so proud of Hettie Chandler! Because she got up in front of these boys and these coaches and offered a devotional in which she also named the Name! Because she loved these kids enough to name the Name!

I’m inspired by her example! Aren’t you? The word of the gospel and the deed of the gospel are married to one another. They go hand in hand. Just as they do in today’s scripture.

If we are failing to make disciples, the solution is not to shrug our shoulders and say, “At least we’re helping to transform the world.” How can we be satisfied with that? How can we be satisfied when Jesus tells us to look around and see that the fields are white for the harvest? No, if we’re not making disciples now, let’s confess our failure. And let’s get on our knees and ask the Holy Spirit to come into our church, and to come into our lives, and to fill us with his power, and fill us with his strength, and fill us with his wisdom—to pray and to pray and to pray some more until we begin to see the harvest!

That’s what we’re doing next week with this new service. That’s why I’ve challenged you to pray for the service. That’s why I’ve challenged you to pray for lost people that you know.

1. James 1:27

2. 1 Peter 4:9

3. James 3:5b-6a ESV

4. James 3:8

5. H. Eddie Fox and George E. Morris, Faith Sharing (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1998), 56.

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