Challenges facing the early church 1: new circumstance

In this series we will be looking at the challenges faced by the early Church as recorded in Luke's account in Acts.  
In the first of this series Chrissie Foster explores the challenges the Church faced as a result of physical growth and growing diversity.  Circumstances we also experience.  The lessons gained by them also have relevance for us. Not least as we work together in community to see the Kingdom God grow.
Acts 6:1-7
1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples 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, 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."
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.                                           

Let’s look at what we know from this story.

The church had grown and had spread beyond the Hebraic boundaries, because there were Grecians.

Why? We need to look back at the previous chapter Acts 5:42 says, ‘Day after day in the temple courts and from house to house,(they went out) they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.’ This was despite being flogged for doing this. Persecution does not stop the word spreading as we have seen in other countries.
We know that church growth changes the dynamic. New people bring in new ideas. This is what makes us so interesting. Life would be very boring if we were all the same.
Among the people were those who were needy. They had a programme of feeding those in need, the widows in this case. Taking care of others was considered important. Tim spoke recently about the importance of community. As we spend time with one another we will become aware of needs. If we don’t listen we won’t know and if we don’t tell others what we need, they won’t know.  However there are occasions when God prompts someone to help another.
Hunger was obviously a problem then as it is today, and we see many towns and cities where the Trussel Trust is active in helping to feed the needy. I read a comment on face book by someone I know who shared his pleasure at being able to go and buy provisions to help people in Wickford. Doing something for someone else blessed him and would no doubt bless the recipients. It is important we learn to receive as well as to give. My friend decided to bless me by taking me away for a few days. She insisted on paying for everything, despite not having much spare cash. She was meeting a need in me, to learn to receive. I I had refused she would not have been blessed and nor would I.
In our time of prayer and fasting in Sept/Oct these words were brought Feed those who are hungry – felt this was about those who are hungry for the Gospel but may mean the physically hungry.
The early church was looking after those in the fellowship, but some were obviously considered more in than others, hence the problem. It would appear that people were being selective in who they helped. James challenged people in his letter about this.

James 2:1
My brothers, as believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, don't show favouritism.

Are we selective in who we befriend? Do we just befriend those we like? We have to face the fact that people will come into the church who challenge us by their lifestyle. What will we do about it? The first thing they need is our love, our acceptance and friendship, not our judgement. Think of the story Brian told you in the summer about the group who went to the church and found a caring pastor who nurtured them on their journey. If the other members had had their way these people would have been rejected.

Not everything was fair and there were grumblings in the church

It’s easy to start grumbling if we think things are not right. I’ve done it myself I the past when I had to go into hospital and my parents were away. I felt neglected because I did not have visitors from church while I was there. I decided I could make sure others did not feel like that. Sometimes there is a need for us just to get on and do something about it. We have to recognise that life is not always fair. However we can make an effort to be fair.

A solution needed to be found

This problem had been brought to the notice of the apostles so they had to work something out. The situation could not go on as it was. Without dealing with the problem there was conflict in the church.
The twelve could not do everything. There had to be delegation.
The twelve realized that they had a priority and that was preaching the Gospel, so they realized they needed help. If we look at the story of Moses, his father-in-law had to persuade him to delegate because he saw that Moses could not do everything alone. Today we talk about ‘each one hath’, so the responsibility for caring is spread across the church. However, as a leadership we have recognized the need for people to have someone to care for them. We have one to one in place and we also have a group of people who are considered to be pastoral.
They did something about it.
They went to the people and asked them to choose people to serve at tables. This took the responsibility from them. They gave the people the chance to have their say and they listened to them. The criteria given for the choice - They had to be full of the Spirit. To be full of the Spirit you need a close walk with God.
They chose seven men full of the Sprit and wisdom
They were Stephen, Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Parmenas, Nicholas. Note the criteria. They were full of the Spirit and wisdom. We know from Acts that Philip did not just wait at tables but also performed miracles and preached the gospel. They were given the ability to perform the original task, but God used some to do even more. God often gives us one task to begin with and then we find we are in a new role with more responsibility. They were prepared to respond.

The apostles laid their hands on them and prayed for them.

This was common in the Old Testament and followed through in the New Testament. It represents commissioning. We still practice it today when people fill a position in the church. Praying for those with responsibility is important in helping them to do their work.

The end result. The word of God spread and the number of disciples increased rapidly.

Why? They were doing what God had called them to do. Nobody was trying to do everything. I wonder what would have happened if they had ignored the complaints. The world around would have seen a very disgruntled group of people.  People outside observe what we do. They are more aware than we think they are.
And Yet
 They saw a group of people willing to help others, deal with problems and move forward.

So what are the issues for us today?

We are in the process of change. Things will be different. We may not find everything easy.
As we grow we find the dynamics change. We have to be ready to accept this and be all embracing, not selective.
When problems arise we have to deal with them sensitively in keeping with God’s direction.
Serving others was important and should be for us today .It is so easy to ask what can I get out of this, but it is more important to ask how can I serve?
It is important that in this we have communion with God, build on community and go out into the neighbourhood in a missional way.
We can do it church if we are prepared to follow these ways. Let’s go forwards together in the knowledge that God is with us and will help us face every situation.
Christine Foster, 03/02/2014