The Glorious News of Easter is the foundation of the New Testament church that we all enjoy to this day. And so remembering the very beginnings of Christ’s Church during the Easter season is most appropriate … and worth while! The old saying goes that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it. And let’s be honest, Who here hasn’t wondered about the future of this congregation? Who here hasn’t worried about the numbers of its members, it’s potential for growth and sustainability? Knowing better where we came from, and what we have already faced, will better prepare us for all the challenges yet to come.
Case in point … would it surprise you to find out that even way back then – in the days of the apostles – when things were going well, there was still a lack of commitment, and an undercurrent of grumbling and murmuring among the believers? And here you maybe thought that was something we only deal with today? (6:1-2) Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables”.
Notice what is happening here. There is no great doctrinal controversy, there is no open opposition to the mission of the church, disciples are being added daily we are told. But there is still grumbling and dissension and people are becoming dissatisfied. Why? It all boils down to the distribution of manpower. The future of the church was so bright that they were encountering troubles keeping up with it all. Up until that time it was the 12 apostles who looked after everything in the Jerusalem church. Those of you who have been following along in the book of Acts this Easter know what the Apostles faced. There was the preaching in the temple, the healings and the confrontations with the religious authorities on a daily basis. They were continually being hauled off to face the Sanhedrin, or to spend the night in jail.
In the midst of all this, is it any wonder that much of the other work of the church was beginning to be neglected? The apostles simply couldn’t keep up. So what did the church do? The 12 gather them together and say: (3-6) “Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
In the face of all of God’s blessings, it became important for the church to redefine itself and the work, and the workers within it. They began having trouble because there was an inadequate allocation of their people resources. The Apostles had been called to a ministry of prayer and the Word. The rest of the thousands of believers, as they were qualified, were given the calling to serve in all the other areas of the work of the kingdom. There is an important lesson for our Churches today.
In Lutheran Church Canada there are a few hundred pastors (like me) and over 75,000 lay members like yourself. Pastors have been called to a ministry of prayer and the Word. The office of the ministry is all about, preaching, teaching, and caring for You, the believers. It is a full time calling to the Word of God and the administration of His Sacraments. Yet in our day and age, how many pastors are doing a hundred other things in their congregations? Doing these other things to the detriment of the ONE thing they were called to do? And Why? Are pastors the only ones capable of working within a congregation or of fulfilling the mission of the Church? Of course not. So why do the majority of church members not take part in the mission of the church today?
For the same reason it was an issue in the early church. Everyone simply thought that all this … was the work of someone else. Someone better than “me” … Someone more qualified than “me”. Someone with more time, more desire, more experience. It is the same problem Stephen spoke out against in his last speech. People who are stiff-necked; unwilling to change. People who continually resist the Holy Spirit. That indictment applies to each of us as surely as it did to Stephen’s opponents. How many times have we personally resisted change; or been unwilling to commit ourselves to something more or something different from what we have done before? How many times have we been convinced that certain things simply CANNOT be done, despite what God might have promised? That idea will never work … this church will never grow … that person will never listen …
But the apostles made it clear that the work of the church was up to the members of the church, and no one else. It is the work of the church to call and appoint every and all workers for the good of the church. From the calling of future pastors, deacons and lay workers, to the calling of secretaries, Sunday school teachers, janitors, faithful stewards and willing evangelists, the responsibility lies with you, the members. And even more, the calling of individuals to study the Bible, to pray for one another, to visit one another, to witness to Jesus crucified and resurrected … that’s all you too. And if it is not you, then it simply will not get done.
The early Church realized this before things got out of hand. So too, can we with something as simple as keeping the following in mind: One Bible Study, one job, one friend to pray for and invite to meet God. This is Church Growth the only way it truly works. One attempt to understand your blessings in Christ better, one opportunity to share your talents and time, one relationship to be anchored in the promises of Christ. Consider it a God-pleasing plan of action for our mission and ministry here at Christ Our Hope. God has richly blessed us in the Lutheran Church, and in this congregation with countless gifts and the opportunity to use them. But without each and every single Christian making an effort to know Christ better and then make Him known; we simply cannot keep up.
And yet in this paradigm of Church Growth, there is not only the conviction that we all have been falling woefully short; there is also the blessed promise wonderful possibilities and unlimited potential if we stop trying to do it our way, and trust in God enough to do it His way. We see the results almost immediately when the Church begins to take responsibility for the work it has been entrusted with. The Apostles went back to doing their work, unencumbered, and the church set forth men to serve in the rest of the work that needed doing. (7) And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
And so it is that Stephen whose words once convicted us, becomes a beacon of hope and comfort for each and every follower of Christ. For a simple man, given faith, and grace by the Holy Spirit, CAN do powerful things in God’s kingdom. Stephen, by the grace of God accomplished so much more than anyone was expecting. He stood firm in his faith, even when opposed and threatened with his life. He did great wonders among the people. And he became a powerful witness of Christ and Christ’s love even as he died. Through his prayers Saul the persecutor would later come to be made into Paul the apostle. Not bad for someone who was appointed to wait on tables!
How was it that one lay person could do so much? Stephen knew that he had been called and appointed to serve his Lord. And He knew this was not because he deserved it, but because Christ himself had once been called and appointed as his servant. The love that God had shown Stephen in sending His only begotten Son; a Son who suffered, died, and rose to life again, changed his simple life forever. (55-56) But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”
That same love for Stephen has been lavished upon each and every one of you. What Christ did, He did not for the church in general but for you specifically. That same Spirit which lead Stephen to greatness was given to each and every one of you in your Baptism, the same faith, the same forgiveness, the same eternal life. They are all yours too. In the Word and in the sacraments you have been blessed with more than you need to do even more than Stephen accomplished. Furthermore, in your family, friends, classmates, and co-workers and yes, especially this congregation, you have been given hundreds of opportunities to serve the Lord faithfully. Let us commit ourselves to the work of God’s kingdom. Let us put our trust in the One who watches over all that we do. The one who brings success to all that we try in His name. The Son of Man, Jesus Christ, who is even now standing at the right hand of God ruling all things for this church and its members.