Acts 6:1-7 (Fifth Sunday of Easter—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT
May 22, 2011
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is from the First Reading in Acts 6:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will 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 gathering, 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 on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
According to the dictionary, an agenda is “a list, plan, or outline of things to be done, matters to be acted or voted upon.” Most business meetings have an agenda. The CEO comes to the boardroom with a plan of what needs to be talked about, approved, and discussed in the two hours of allotted time. Teachers in the classroom have an agenda for the things that they want to accomplish with their students that day, week, or month. We call it a lesson plan. Most people have an agenda for what they need to get done each day—kids to school, dog to the vet, car to the garage. We’d probably call that a “To-Do List.”
Did you know that even the Christian Church has an agenda? The Church—made up of believers in Jesus Christ—has an agenda that was set by our Lord Jesus Himself. We call that agenda the Great Commission. We find it recorded in God’s Word in Matthew 28: “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)
The Great Commission, the agenda of the Christian Church, is the plan or outline for every individual believer and each group of believers in a congregation. The plan itself is really simple—make disciples. The method to carry out the plan is equally simple—baptize and teach the Gospel. That’s your agenda as a child of God and that is our agenda as a Christian congregation, the Church in this place at this time.
But I can almost hear some people saying, “Oh no, Pastor, that’s your job. That’s what we pay you for. Your job is to make disciples and to shepherd us with the Word and the Sacraments.” To which I have to reply, “No and yes.” It is my joyful responsibility, job if you want to call it that, to make disciples but not because I am a pastor. It is because I am a baptized Christian that I have been asked by my Savior to make disciples according to His commission. On the other hand, because I am your called Pastor, it is my joyful responsibility to shepherd you with the Word and the Sacraments of Christ according to His institution.
Perhaps a quick refresher on the Office of the Holy Ministry would be in order here. We read in An Explanation of the Small Catechism the answer to question 277. “The Christian congregation by the command of Christ calls pastors to carry out the Office of the Keys publicly in His name and on behalf of the congregation.” The Office of the Keys, Luther explains for us, “is that special authority which Christ has given to His church on earth to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, but to withhold forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent.” In other words, Christ set up His Church so that there would be pastors to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments of Christ on His behalf and in the name of the congregation which the pastor has been called to serve. But that’s not all.
Listen to what God says in Ephesians 4: “And he [Christ] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastor-teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11-12) As the called pastor conducts His Word and Sacrament ministry on behalf of Christ and in the name of the congregation He is preparing, equipping, training, encouraging, and growing every member of the congregation to be doing the work of ministry, which is the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus.
So let’s ask the real question. Can the Great Commission to make disciples by baptizing and teaching them to observe all these things that Jesus has commanded be accomplished by one person in the Christian congregation, say the pastor? Not a chance. Can the agenda for the Christian Church be done by one or two members of the congregation? No way. Then how on earth does the Great Commission get carried out in our lives and in the life of Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer?
It starts at the cross. Jesus Christ died on the cross to purchase complete forgiveness for the sins of the whole world. As we heard in the Epistle lesson, Jesus was the stone that the builders rejected, yet He has become the cornerstone. (1 Peter 2:7) Jesus died and rose, having completed the work of salvation. Through His cleansing blood, He has made you into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” (1 Peter 2:9) That means you and I as Christians have the message of the Gospel of our Lord Jesus to share and to announce. And Jesus gave us the power to do just that.
The Book of Acts begins with Jesus’ promise to the apostles, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This happened in power on the Day of Pentecost, which we will celebrate in just three weeks. So the apostles are empowered by the Holy Spirit to share the Gospel and the Word of the Lord grew and thousands were added to the Church as believers.
We heard last Sunday in our First Reading that these believers, “devoted themselves to the apostles’’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . . And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possession and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:42ff.) And that’s when the problem of our text today came about. The Greek Christians were complaining that the Hebrew Christians were neglecting the Greek Christian widows in the daily ministry of providing for their needs. So they wanted the apostles to take care of the work of seeing to it that all the widows of the Church in Jerusalem were properly cared for.
But if the apostles were taking on this ministry function, who would be the pastor-teachers preaching the Word, administering the Sacraments, and equipping the people to do the work of ministry if the apostles were doing everything? They said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.” It’s not that the ministry to the widows was unimportant or somehow beneath the rank of apostle. It’s the simple fact that the apostles wouldn’t have time to preach the Word and serve in this way too. The agenda of the Church has to be carried out and it cannot be left in the lap of an apostle then or a pastor now to do it all.
So what was the solution? To take from among those whom the apostles had equipped to do that work of ministry to do the work of ministry. Seven men of good repute and full of the Spirit and wisdom were chosen to serve in the Jerusalem congregation in the important ministry of caring for the widows in the daily distribution. That freed up the apostles to continue to devote their time to prayer and to the ministry of the Word.
From this text we learn that it is pastor and people together that do the work of ministry within and without the Christian congregation. Together we start at the foot of the cross. Our sins have been nailed to the tree with Jesus and He has died for every last one of them. We are forgiven and He has poured out the Holy Spirit into our hearts through baptism in order to be He witnesses. But my role as pastor may be different from your role as people in our relationship together. And that’s okay. Because we are all contributing to the ministry of Christ in this place, carrying out His Great Commission.
In the Church, Christ has given us all different gifts and different abilities and areas in which we are best suited to carry out the Great Commission. I have been called by God through you, His church in this place, to serve Him as your pastor in Christ. I am charged with caring for this flock over which Jesus has made me His overseer. I am charged to equip you to serve in the Great Commission in this congregation and outside of it. And your service takes many different forms.
In a month we will hold elections for new servants on the Church Council. Has the Lord given you the talents and abilities necessary to serve Him in that way? As the Rite of Installation of Congregational Officers makes plain, Council Members “work with the pastor that our life together in Christ may be orderly and pleasing in His sight.” A pastor can’t possibly oversee all the affairs of the congregation—heating, lighting, grounds, maintenance, outreach, in-reach, fellowship, and so on. If he did, the ministry of Word and Sacrament would suffer and he would not be able to give his people proper pastoral care. So the Lord raises up servants in His congregation to fill these ministry needs, just as He raised up Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus in Acts 6.
So where will you serve the Lord as part of His Great Commission? Will you serve with your abilities as a congregational officer? Will you serve as an usher or an acolyte, a greeter or a reader? Will you be one sharing the Good News of Jesus in our Summer Sunday School or in our Vacation Bible School? Maybe you are one that likes to mow the lawn, change a light bulb, or take out the trash. Perhaps you are someone who would consider going to the Food Shelf each month and hand out personal care items, not saying a word, but simply giving people a kind smile. Are you the person who would like to stay at home and pray for others? There’s a need for that ministry too.
Christ has set our agenda as Christians and as a congregation. He has given us His Great Commission to fulfill. As we go about doing so, there are many things that we need to support that Gospel proclamation: a place to worship and grow in faith, a place to gather to study the Word, a place to come together and enjoy the fellowship of sisters and brothers in Christ. We need a place from which to launch out into the community with the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This agenda takes pastor and people together. Please don’t let the mission fall on my shoulders alone or on the shoulders of a select few. That only hurts us and the mission to share the Gospel. Since you are filled with the Holy Spirit, be like the seven and faithfully serve your Lord as His witnesses, as His people who want the Christian Church to grow in faith and in love.
And so we’re ready, people of God, to embrace Jesus’ agenda for our lives. We have a mission to impact the world with the truth of God’s Word in Christ our risen Savior. It’s time to devote ourselves more fully to prayer, to the ministry of the Word, and to Christian service here in our congregation and in our community. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.