Good morning! Today in Acts 6-7, we see two symptoms of the explosive growth in Jerusalem of Christ-believers, along with the responses to them. First, the burden of providing food for thousands of new converts yields a new system of people authorized to lead such service. Second, successful preaching draws the negative attention of those who oppose this movement, leading to fatal conflict. Both these actions bear witness to the clarity and effectiveness of the early church in following Jesus’ example.
A new form of organizing for service to disciples of Jesus arises because of conflict between Greeks and Jews about the proper provision of food for widows in their respective communities. This seems so mundane, yet also very real to church life! Seven disciples are chosen and authorized to oversee the task of food distribution. They are named before the other disciples and prayed over, in order to have the church’s full support and authority. Out of this church problem a new form of service ministry is organized (and comes to be called “deacons”), which still informs how churches do our ministries today. Some traditions like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America ordain people to diaconal ministry (“Word and Service”), on equal standing but with a different focus than sacramental ministry (“Word and Sacrament”). I like this story because it shows how congregations can find healthy systems for dealing with conflict and problems, which can then become successful templates for centuries of ministry. It’s a reminder that we never know what will come from contemporary efforts at solving the problems of churches, but we want to set precedents that might still be useful generations down the line. Some essentials of successful empowerment based on this story are the importance of community “buy-in”, clear delineation of duties, and recognition through prayer. Come to think of it—that’s good for every congregational ministry to succeed, not just new efforts. But I digress…
The other focus of these chapters is what happens to Stephen, the first of those deacons. Stephen is a powerful preacher and apologist (“one who argues on behalf of a cause”) for the gospel. He incites resistance from non-Christian Jews, and is then accused with trumped-up charges of blasphemy. He is called before a court of Hebrew priests to face these false accusations, and Stephen’s speech before the council gives a thorough illustration of early Christian theology. Running from the patriarchs of Genesis through the high points of the Exodus, royal leadership and prophetic critique, Stephen shows an almost-memorized grasp of texts that we read in the first part of this year. Mentioning Moses repeatedly being misunderstood by the Hebrews he was trying to rescue, Stephen tries to draw an analogy with his own situation. He places himself rhetorically as a latter-day Moses or other prophet, but fails to persuade those who sit in judgment at the priestly court. They disregard his speech and the heavenly vision he has afterward. Instead, they stone him to death. His last words are modeled after Jesus’s words on the cross: he entrusts his spirit to Jesus and prays forgiveness for those who kill him. Because of this story, Stephen is remembered as the first martyr (one who dies because of their Christian faith). The young man Saul, who watched the coats of those who stoned Stephen, features prominently in much of what’s to come next. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is Acts 8-9. Thanks for reading!