Acts 6:1-7; Ephesians 4:10-13; Ex 18:19-21; Numbers 17; Deut 34:9
We may be surprised that we are running ahead this week in Acts’ story of the early Church, when we have not yet reached Pentecost. But it is indeed appropriate for us to be thinking of the burgeoning life of the Church at this season, since Easter is the beginning of new life for God’s people. God the Son did not simply descend to the depths of human existence—to Hades—to rescue humanity, wonderful though that victory is. He delivers us from sin and death to bring us to divine light, life and vitality. He became what we are, that we might be transformed into His image. And so the epistle to the Ephesians reminds us,
He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:10-13).
But being brought to maturity and to fullness does not happen automatically, does it? It happens as the saints, the holy ones of God, are equipped for ministry, by the ministrations of those who have been given gifts of leadership. And sometimes there are difficulties that need to be removed for growing to take place.
We hear of one of those difficulties in Acts 6, our reading for this third Sunday of Pascha. And this story does not simply show us how the early Church engaged in trouble shooting. It also shows us how an unfortunate dispute among the early community led to a permanent positive feature of our Church—the office of deacons.
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily ministry. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and minister at tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this necessity; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7)
Even in the earliest Church, where members had been baptized into Christ, and told that there was no Jew nor Greek in that body, complaints and problems were colored by racial tension. The community was of the same faith in Messiah, and largely of the same faith background —“Hellenists” probably means Hellenistic Jews who had come to believe in Jesus, and so Luke is talking about Messianic believers who had come from the same Jewish background, but spoke different languages and had different immediate homelands. Remember that the multitude who heard Peter on Pentecost were all faithful Jews, in Jerusalem for a feast from all over the civilized world. Among them, it appears, were “proselytes” as well—that is, those who had been Gentiles, then converted to Judaism. These were among those Jews who heard the apostle and now had accepted Christ along with other naturally born Jews. We can surmise that there were proselytes because of the list of deacons chosen to please the Hellenistic Jewish Christians—among the seven was Nicanor, originally a convert to Judaism. No doubt he represented others from a similar chequered background.
But you would think, wouldn’t you, that since they had all been believing Jews, and all had accepted Christ, that there would be a foundational unity? And, of course, there was—they held all things in common, and gathered around the teaching of the apostles. But old habits die hard. And when it seemed to those who weren’t native to Jerusalem that the widows of the Jewish-speaking Christians were being tended to more carefully than their own group, tension bubbled up. Fortunately, the aggrieved group didn’t simply seethe in silence, but came to the apostles. And here is where it gets interesting, especially as we compare this story with other leadership crises reported in the Bible.
We have a similar OT story of Moses not being able to manage everything on his own. His father-in-law Jethro tells him he is wearing himself out, instructing him:
You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him. Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave. But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves. (Ex 18:19-21)
And, again, in Numbers 17, and Deut 34:9, we hear how Moses laid hands on Joshua, who received some of his authority, and the spirit of wisdom, to help Moses with leadership. But that is not quite what happens here in Acts, is it? Along with parallels, like a division of responsibility, so that the leaders do not tackle every practical tasks, there are differences. For in our story, the apostles trust the people themselves to make the choice of assisting leaders. The apostles call together what looks to be the full complement of the Hellenistic believers, and tell them to find seven men who are witnessed to positively by everybody, because they are full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. This delegation of choice to the assembly breaks a normal pattern of the leaders themselves selecting their assistants. And it greatly pleases the Hellenists, who fulfill this task, and then bring the men to the apostles to be ordained, with the laying on of hands.
So the first thing to notice is that there is a kind of authority seen that is both top-down, and bottom-up. The apostles listen, and they delegate: they respect the integrity of the whole body. The people assume authority, but also submit their choices to the apostles for validation and for ordination. This double and intertwined authority reminds us that there is both a continuity and a difference between the older covenant. *In the older days, the Holy Spirit visited select people in Israel to empower them for their tasks. But, with the coming of Christ into the world, with his filling Hades and exploding it with His light, and with the promised coming of the Holy Spirit, every member of God’s people has been entrusted with a measure of wisdom and power. Our Orthodox Church reminds us of this in every ordination, when the people must say Axios! It reminds us of this in every liturgy, where the people must themselves serve with prayers, and say, Amen! We are reminded of St. John Chrysostom himself, who insisted that every worshipper serves in the liturgy, but the priest lends his hands in the consecration as our representative.
On the other hand, the apostles are not superfluous. We need their ministry as the eyewitnesses of Jesus, and also the ministry and guidance of those who come after them. Bishops, priests, and deacons are all part of, can we say, the DNA of the Church. They are given to us to equip all of us for ministry, and since they are the gifts of Christ, we must love them and cherish their role among us. It may not be clear from our English translation, but the word “ministry” occurs throughout this passage, and not simply in association with the apostles: there is the MINSTRY to the widows, the MINISTRY of the prayers and word, and the MINISTRY of tables. To this we can add the reference in Ephesians with which we began, to the ministry of all the saints. Ministry, or service, then, is for the entire church! But, there is an order, as well, and the ministry of the apostles, as they devote themselves to prayers and to preaching, is irreplaceable.\*
Consider, too, the division of responsibility in this early scene, and what it reminds us about our leaders—we should not expect everything of those whose lives have been dedicated to the prayers and the ministry of the Word! They should be released by us to do the work to which the Holy Spirit has called them, and so not only the deacons, but also others among the laity should be glad to shoulder other responsibilities for them. Our loving fathers in Christ are unlikely to complain if the baking of prosphora, the administration of weekly and daily matters, the cleaning of the church, is left to them. After all, they never leave behind the servant-spirit of the diaconate when they become our presbyters: it is up to us to see and to notice when they are over-extended and distracted from their main role! This is especially important in smaller parishes where our priest may have to be involved in secular employment as well.
There is also the deep honor given to the deacons in this early scene. They are not primarily called to preach the word—though, interestingly, the protomartyr Stephen has the longest speech in the entire NT! But the work of helps and serving is ministry, too, and it requires wisdom and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Our faith is not a dualistic philosophy. It does not tell us that what affects the body is on a human level, but only what affects the soul and spirit is imbued with God’s power. No, these seven—and notice the holy number here—are selected for three things: their wisdom, their being indwelt by God’s Spirit, and the “witness of others” regarding their character. Three things come together—the witness of the Spirit, the witness of their own wise beings, and the witness of other Christians. And then, to this is added the laying on of hands, that is, the witness of the apostles. All this verification is given for those who will serve others on a practical level.
And there is one final thing to notice. Our passage begins and ends by speaking about the multiplication of the believers. The problem that they experienced was catalyzed by the rapid growth of the Church—would that we had similar problems everywhere today! But then, once the dispute is adequately addressed, we hear that the Church continues to multiply. Indeed, we hear that a large number of Christ’s original enemies from the Sanhedrin, the priests, become obedient to the faith, and join the early Church. What was it that attracted them to the early believers in Jerusalem? Of course, it must have been the new quality of life that they saw among these believers, just as Nicodemus was won over by Jesus’ instruction concerning a new birth from above. But, I suspect, it was also because the early Church was practical, and had all its ducks in a row. The priestly group put a great premium upon orderly life, and the way that things were done. Here was a winsome body of believers that was both teaming with life, and could manage its affairs—it had both the prophetic AND the priestly charism. It had soul AND body. And so it reached out to many, even to those who had been suspicious of the One who had come among them as Prophet, Priest, and King. Here were His very own, witnessing about Him as they multiplied, as they learned how to engage in ministry of every kind, and as they grew into maturity. May this also be true of us.
Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem!
The glory of the Lord has shone on you!
Exult now, and be glad, O Zion!
Be radiant, O pure Theotokos, in the Resurrection of your Son!