The Threat of Success
Rev. Dr. DeWayne L. Davis
June 12, 2022
Scripture: Acts 6:1–7
When Luke opens this passage with “during those days,” it is a helpful reminder that the early church organized itself and sought to live out what Jesus taught them about the kin-dom of God in a particular context that shaped them and their practices. Those days were characterized by persecution, imprisonment, the world’s resistance to the gospel, and attempts to silence the witnesses to God’s deeds of power through Jesus. The newly-constituted church experienced all of the risks associated with spreading the good news of Jesus Christ, including death. But prison, retribution, and persecution could not hold, hinder, or stop the people of God. One of the rabbis at the time, Gamaliel, cautioned those who proposed a hard line against these witnesses: “Leave them alone . . . if this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” And so, during those days, Luke tells us, “the disciples were increasing in number.” Yes, the early church was successful. However, the church would learn that the threats to its success don’t always come from the outside. Threats may also reside within the gathered community.
During those times of state retribution and persecution of the burgeoning, newly empowered, thriving church, some risks from within the church are just as dangerous to it as the world’s resistance. This early iteration of the church of Jesus Christ is filled with people of diverse backgrounds. It is populated by pilgrims from all over the known world in Jerusalem who heard the gospel and received the power of the Holy Spirit. That diversity included Hellenists, those Jews and Jewish Christians who only spoke Greek, and Hebrews, those Jews who were likely multilingual, speaking Hebrew or Aramaic and Greek. There were differences in language, culture, and socioeconomic status, with widows and other vulnerable people participating in the body alongside people with status and wealth.
And just like with all communities of diverse people seeking to live out their faith and commitments, there is a struggle going on: a struggle for many bodies to be one body. These church people gathered to share in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, a life and ministry that disrupted and confounded all categories and expectations of how classes of people interact and socialize. These are people who are not expected to gather in same place with one another. How will they live this out in a diverse community without hierarchies and divisions? How does this community not re-create the inequality and tribalism of the larger culture in which they live? How do they admit and deal with their biases, prejudices, and indifference to others? How do they prevent the imbalance of power from re-inscribing into the body of Christ imperial tendencies of domination and oppression?
While we can wax romantic about how harmonious the early church was, while we bask in Luke’s encouraging report that “all who believed were together and had all things in common (Acts 2:44), there is a problem in the church. The Hellenists, who have less power than the leading Hebrew apostles, complain that their widows, likely to be the poorest, most vulnerable members of the body, are being overlooked in food distribution. Was it an oversight? Was it intentional? Was it caused by a focus on preaching at the expense of serving the poor? Was this about assuming that ethnic, cultural, and linguistic differences automatically disappear because they share a common faith? These are the tensions and contradictions that prevail in the church. But, I want us to notice how the apostles did not respond to those tensions and contradictions:
- The twelve did not deny, evade, or avoid the breach of faith and their failure to do right by the less powerful members.
- The twelve did not dismiss as divisive or overly sensitive those who complained about the disparities.
- The twelve made no defense of themselves but were honest about their limitations and where they thought their true gifts were better suited.
- The twelve did not diminish the concerns or the needs of the vulnerable. They were willing to engage fully the grievances of the weaker members of the body and propose a way forward to make them whole.
- The twelve did not leave anybody behind or ignore the impact of the breach on the ministry; they brought everyone together and empowered the whole body to play a part in the solution.
And so the whole community selected, formally prayed, and laid hands on additional ministers, people of good standing, full of the spirit and full of wisdom, to make sure that the service of table would not go untended and the poor widows would no longer be overlooked. The solution reinforces the ministry that Jesus shared with them: The Word of God must go forth and God’s people must look after the needs of the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the destitute, and the powerless. Not an either/or solution but a satisfying both/and answer. And the result of this coming together as a body to address a real problem, of hearing each other and respecting each other, of choosing and commissioning additional workers . . . the word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly; and the priests who were expected to be a part of the resistance to this ministry become obedient to the faith. Simply put, the church was successful. The church continued to be successful. Before the word of God could spread, before the invitation to discipleship could be accepted, the church must be willing to confess, repent, and repair the breach in faith within.
Now before we jump to the celebration too soon, before we assume that this text is a lesson in church growth or proper administration or vocational development, I hope we spend some time understanding that the threat to the church this passage highlights remains with us today. Life in the body of Christ has to be intentionally and consistently shared and negotiated over against the human tendency to division, inequality, and tribalism. Life in the body of Christ remains at risk for manipulation and demagoguery just like other institutions. Life in the body of Christ can too easily reflect and re-create the racial, ethnic, and economic cleavages of the world. The differences between the Hellenists and the Hebrews could have easily been manipulated or put the twelve on the defensive. And the solution to the problem could easily mask other potential landmines.
Could it be that the conflict here is arising not only in the neglect in the distribution of food, but neglect also in the women and widows “not being given their proper turn to serve”? Is it possible that these widows may not have been overlooked if the widows themselves were selected both to preach and serve and were anointed as servants just like the men were? Can we see the dangers inherent in failing to recognize and honor the power of the Holy Spirit making witnesses of all who encounter and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ, especially those whose race, ethnicity, language, and experience may be different from our own? These are some of the threats within the church. The body of Christ needs all of its disciples doing the work of the gospel. The body of Christ needs all those gifted to preach and gifted to serve because of their unique identities.
Even as we celebrate that a crisis in the early church was averted because of the apostles’ willingness to hear the complaints and respond by bringing together the entire body of Christ, I hope that we see that being church today means that we remain vulnerable to neglecting to share not only food with those on the margins but to share power, opportunities, and radical inclusion. That perhaps the word of God is not spreading as far or our numbers are not increasing as greatly because we have neglected to make room for Black and brown people, our Indigenous neighbor, and our transgender siblings. Perhaps the word of God is not spreading as far or our numbers are not increasing as greatly because we have become too comfortable with the church we created to fit us rather than to welcome others not thought of. Perhaps the word of God is not spreading as far or our numbers are not increasing as greatly because we assume that our success makes our growth inevitable. Perhaps the word of God is not spreading as far or our numbers are not increasing as greatly because we assume that our tradition and memories communicate a consistent gospel to increasingly diverse people seeking meaning and community.
There is a struggle going on, a struggle to live out the mission and promise of the kin-dom of God, a struggle to avoid weaponizing and codifying differences that maintain hierarchies, a struggle to not reinforce the worst divisions of economic and political life. But there is also a spiritual struggle in which God surrounds us and pours out God spirit on us . . . the struggle to build a beloved community where “many bodies are moving toward becoming one body.” The church needs all of us, not to grow the church but to spread the word and increase the number of disciples. If our witness does that, the church will be blessed indeed.
Barbara Reid in A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles, Amy-Jill Levine, ed. (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2004), 83.
Willie James Jennings, Acts (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017, from the series Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), 66.