“Hospitality + Service = Discipleship!“
Acts 6:1-7 – July 5, 2015
I attended an Interfaith Panel discussion last Tuesday evening at the Muslim Community Center here in Morton Grove. The panel had representatives from five major faith traditions here in the Chicago area: Baha’i, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh. Each gave their religion’s basic approach to serving those in need. Charity. Service to those less fortunate than ourselves. I appreciated listening to diverse views on charity and assisting the needy.
I want us to focus on the New Testament reading from Acts on—surprise! Charity and assisting the needy! My recent evening with the Interfaith panel has an unexpected tie-in to the bible passage from Acts this morning. I planned and set out these passages and these sermon topics almost two months ago, before I was ever contacted by the Interfaith Outreach Committee at the Community Center. Was I surprised to find out that the topic of last Tuesday’s evening fit right in with today’s reading from Acts—and today’s sermon.
What is the situation for the group of believers in the Risen Jesus? The early church?
Let’s turn back to the beginning of Acts 6, and take a look at this particular Postcard from the Early Church. The first sentence of the chapter tells us a lot: “In those days, the number of disciples was increasing.”
That’s the situation. Everything seems to be going well for this growing group of believers! Attendance in services is up. Plate income is increasing. The apostles—the pastors of this growing flock—are busier than ever. Everything is on the upswing. When—a complication comes up.
I need to give you all some backstory, so you can get the full picture. (I appreciate the Rev. Bryan Findlayson’s concise explanation.) At this point, just a couple of months after that first Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, all the believers were Jewish. Jerusalem was a large city in that area. It was the time of the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, and Jews from all over the known world returned to the city of Jerusalem and settled there.
As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”
Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Or, rather, that their poverty-stricken widows, who were part of the group of believers, were being left out in the charity distribution. Welfare budget. Or almsgiving to the poor. Whatever you call it, a group of people was getting left out.
I don’t think that anyone was left out on purpose. What I do know—by Dr. Luke’s report—is that the Church in Jerusalem was growing by leaps and bounds! This is a good problem to have! In a large group of people going through such rapid growth, unfortunate things happen. And, it’s inevitable that someone ends up getting overlooked. Some people’s needs just aren’t met.
What happens next? This is the perfect situation for a church-splitting conflict. Hospitality was huge in the Middle East, as well as in other areas throughout the world. Of course people opened their homes to friends and acquaintances, even strangers, invited them in, offered things to them of what they had. Listen to Chapter 6: “So the Twelve apostles gathered all the believers together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.’”
These verses in Acts show us the first rumblings of church conflict. The Apostles could have gotten anxious and started to fret. Or, possibly started micro-managing and overseeing each little thing in the distribution of food. Or, called a board meeting, and appointed a task force to study and look further into the treatment of the Greek-speaking widows. But did they? No. The Apostles faced the conflict directly, and responded in a proactive way.
What about today? People have definitely not stopped being hungry. What about communication problems? What about the local food preferences? How should those be handled? What if several different faith traditions in our area have conflicting methods in the distribution of food? Are there any hungry or needy people—unintentionally—getting left out?
Let me tell you more about the panel discussion and dinner at the Muslim Community Center last week. I heard diverse views on charity and assisting the needy. Yet—they were not so diverse, after all. I saw in all five faith traditions a deep concern for those with less, and a desire to come alongside and help where possible. I also appreciated breaking bread with such a diverse group of friends, after the evening service.
Yes, Baha’i, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Sikhs do come from different faith traditions. Yes, the Muslims are observing the holy month of Ramadan. Yes, Muslims commonly fast every day during the daylight hours during this month. The Community Center invited a large group of people to join together with them for this discussion and for the Iftar dinner after sunset, to break the fast at the end of the day.
Back to Acts. True, these Aramaic-speaking Jews and Greek-speaking Jews from the book of Acts were both of the same faith tradition. However, there were big cultural and language differences between them. So, what happened? How did they solve this problem? The Apostles had the whole group of believers choose seven upright, worthy individuals to be responsible for the distribution of food and goods to this minority group.
What I find the most interesting? The seven men all had Greek names. I suspect they all were Greek-speaking Jews, themselves! How awesome is that. The other believers showed great sensitivity in selecting seven servers, seven people who could oversee distributing of food. Seven men with Greek names. What’s more, one Greek man was even a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. Imagine that!
Paul Waddell, writing for the Center for Christian Ethics, tells us more about this calling, this service to the church: “Christian hospitality is a matter of welcoming, caring for, and befriending the stranger, the poor and needy, the homeless and destitute, the unloved and the unlikable, the weird and the strange, in gratitude to God and in imitation of Christ. For Christians, hospitality is not an occasional gesture but a whole way of being. It is not an interruption to our normal way of life but a habit, practice, or virtue that ought consistently to characterize our lives.”
Dr. Waddell asks: how do we become this kind of person/or these kinds of congregations in the Church and for the world today? Great question! We can start small, with a small act of kindness each day. A small act of hospitality, of welcome and greeting each day. Each one of us is called to be welcoming members of this church today. Each of us is an individual, true. However, Lone Ranger Christians are not a good idea. We need to support each other, be kind to each other, and support the wider community.
What about you? Are you going to be a welcoming person, both here at church, and at home, as well? No matter what the cultural differences, no matter where people come from, we are all called to be welcoming. Just as Jesus was kind and welcoming to all people, throughout the Gospels, we can all follow His excellent example. That’s what His disciples do, to the best of their ability, in the book of Acts. And, that’s what all of us can do, here in the church, and everywhere else, too!