Acts 6:1-7; John 10:22-30
4th Sunday of Easter
St Barbara’s 08.05.2022 8am
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Our story from Acts gives us a real insight into the excitement, the energy and the commitment of the first Christians, and also some of the very human challenges they faced.
We saw two weeks ago that the Christians in Jerusalem saw themselves as a family with a responsibility to care for one another, especially those who might be struggling or in need. And some of those who were most in need of help were widows. There were no pensions or care homes, no welfare state, so the only support they would get was from their families. But sometimes, becoming a Christian meant their own families rejecting them, and so they were in desperate need. The church responded. People brought food and gifts to the 12 apostles and they gave out the food to those in need.
From the earliest days of the church there was an assumption that caring for those in need was a central part of what living the Christian life was about. Of course this is what Christians did. It was what Jesus did, and as Jesus makes clear in our gospel reading, those who come after him, the sheep of his pasture, are to follow in his footsteps. That is important for us too. Caring for others is not an additional extra which we may choose or choose not to add on to coming to church and believing in Jesus. It is at the heart of our faith. It is good to be reminded of that.
I wonder in what ways are you living that out today? In your workplace, in the community, in the church? How are we living out that commitment today to care for others?
Our story highlights a couple of problems. The system of the 12 giving out the food worked fine when numbers were small, but now lots and lots of people need help. The 12 were struggling to cope. So they ask the church to identify others who can help with this task.
Sometimes we can be guilty of the “I have to do everything myself” complex, whether at work or in the things we volunteer for. We feel we need to be in control of things. We find it difficult to let go, to let others use their gifts, to trust that others will do things in a good way. The 12 had to learn to let others do things, indeed so that things could be done better. I wonder if that is true for us too?
The other problem was that some people were getting overlooked. The Greek-speaking widows may have been seen as outsiders. They were not being treated as well as the more local widows – they were missing out on the food and help. It was not right. The apostles weren’t being deliberately mean, but they just hadn’t thought through whether everything was fair – they had just assumed it was. They have been guilty of what we would today call “unconscious bias”.
Equality and fairness have become important values in education and the health service and elsewhere in society in recent years, and its important that as Christians we should do our utmost to support that – to make sure that everyone is treated well and with respect, no matter their gender, age, race – and that we should bring those values to our workplaces, our community, our church. We cannot just assume that because we are doing things with good intentions, no-one could be left out or excluded. All too easily that can happen. It is good to step back and ask, is what I am doing including everyone, or are some of the neediest excluded by my actions?
The 12 disciples sorted out the problem by asking the church to appoint others who could give the food distribution their full attention. It was a good decision.
I have sometimes heard this passage used to justify a hierarchy of roles within the church with the teaching of the word and prayer being regarded as more important and more spiritual than serving at tables. But there doesn’t seem to be much grounds for this. Those who were to help with the food distribution were to be people “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” – this was an important task and one that needed godly people to do it. And as the 12 apostles were in the unique position of having been directly taught by Jesus, it made huge sense that if they were to devote themselves to something it should be to teaching and prayer, so that the wisdom and teaching of Jesus could be passed on to future generations. This wasn’t about hierarchies of importance; it was about recognising people’s unique gifts.
The qualities looked for in the seven appointed to help with the food distribution remind us that we need God’s help and guidance as much for practical, caring jobs as we need it for preaching or leading bible studies. Indeed, in many respects, we need God’s Spirit all the more in caring for those who are vulnerable or in need as the demands and challenges of caring in such situations can be so immense.
The experience of our early Christian community points us the way. Caring for those in need has always been at the very heart of what it means to follow Christ, and we should do so willing to share the load with others, aware of the dangers of unconscious bias, and always seeking the help and strength of God.