By Bill Mefford
This is part of a multi-week study of Acts and how we can continue to build a progressive Wesleyan movement that manifests God's Kingdom on earth in our local churches. Any study of the New Testament church will both critique where we are currently as a church as well as stir up visions for where God is leading us. That is the goal here.
There are discussion questions below for you to use and discuss with your Sunday School class, youth group, Wesley Foundation group, or local church or other band of believers you meet with (whatever you call church). Begin by reading the adjacent chapter in Acts and then the post below. End by answering the questions. Please let us know what happens and what you learn at Bill@figtreerevolution.com. We would love to share any new insights or missional engagement with others! Let's build the Wesleyan progressive movement together!
As we read of the continuing growth of the New Testament church in this chapter it is interesting to recall their experience at the birth of the church on Pentecost. This is especially intriguing when we recall that Peter stood up after the Spirit is poured out and they each witness in other tongues. Peter's sermon is built entirely on the prophecy of Joel and its fulfillment in the founding of this new community. Joel prophesied that in the last days God will pour out the Holy Spirit "on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophecy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit and they will prophecy." (Acts 2:17-18)
As we said several weeks ago, this pouring out of God's Spirit on this unlikely group of Jesus' followers establishes a new community who are beholden to no one but God. This new community is a sign of a beginning of a revolution; a complete upending of a repressive social and political system. No longer will youth be silent - they will prophecy and see visions. No longer will women be quiet subjects in a social and political patriarchy, they will lead and teach and will prophecy as well. And no longer will leadership be relegated to only the affluent and privileged as the poor will also lead. Indeed, the disciple James will later write in his letter that the Kingdom of God belongs to the poor.
Jesus spoke of a coming Kingdom that was first birthed with his presence and ministry and has now become even more powerful in the presence and witness of this new community, which is a transvaluation of all that the world holds dear.
Yet, chapter six shows us that revolutions are not smoothly-run, linear movements where actions build neatly one upon another to be ultimately completed in a pristine picture of what was originally predicted. Revolutions are never neat and clean. They are often characterized by sudden and abrupt and even violent actions or events that shake everything and everyone to their very core. Revolutions can also be experienced in small and subtle changes, unseen to the naked eye, but change that is riveting and powerful nonetheless. Revolutions are giant leaps forward and, all too often, several steps back.
Chapter six is more about the several steps back.
It is in this chapter that we see some internal discord in the life of the new community for the first time. Though we are once again told of increasing numbers in the size of the community, there is tension within the ranks. Hellenist Jews complained about the distribution of the food because their widows were being left out. What is significant here is that their complaint was directed towards the Hebraic Jews and not towards the disciples or those who ran the distribution efforts. In other words, they were not complaining about the efficiency of the system. They were complaining about favoritism and feeling looked over by another group based on their culture. This was about feeling discriminated against.
The differences between Hellenistic Jews and Hebraic Jews were primarily around language and culture. Hellenists were Grecian Jews who obviously spoke Greek and the Hebraic Jews spoke Aramaic. Even more, the historical differences go back to the Babylonian captivity and the resulting diaspora of the Jews around the world. Speaking very generally, the Jews who remained in Israel - the Hebraic Jews - often regarded themselves as more faithful to their original calling - to love God and to set up a nation faithful only to God. They were orthodox in their beliefs and behaviors and they often looked down on those who they judged were not as orthodox (oh yes, this still happens today!), such as the Hellenists. They believed by not having lived outside Judea or Galilee, they had not capitulated to the Roman culture.
On the other hand, Hellenist Jews were more cosmopolitan and so they could often be resentful of the Hebraic Jews. They could also be just as judgmental of their Hebraic sisters and brothers because they spoke other languages and had an appreciation of the gifts of other cultures. It is likely that the complaint that the Hellenist widows had about not receiving as much food was much more of a language barrier than anything else.
In essence, this conflict was not about the institutional efficiency of food distribution. This conflict was a clash of cultures. This was a cultural problem and not a structural problem. Yet, look at how the disciples respond. "It is not right that we neglect the word of God to wait on tables."
First of all, let's again recall that Peter had echoed Joel's prophecy in his sermon in chapter two of a new community characterized by a flattening of structural roles in the life of the new community. All people, no matter their gender, their age, or their socioeconomic status, will have authority to lead. But now that the community has grown in size, the disciples disregard that and in an elitist response to the issue before them, insist that their teaching should not be interrupted by something so trivial as "waiting on tables." They have introduced the first (but definitely not the last) hierarchy of gifts into the life of this new community. Some roles are more important and those that are more important are decided by the teachers and preachers themselves.
Further, they ignore the cultural conflict altogether as they see this as a problem of institutional efficiency. Dealing with institutional efficiency is so much easier than dealing with issues of discrimination and cultural conflict. One reason that institutional challenges are so much easier to solve is because we can hire specialists whose only role will be to address what we decide is the root of the problem; in this case, to wait on tables. With the increasing growth of the community the disciples obviously feel overworked and spread too thin. Thus, we see that whenever there is any kind of conflict in large institutions it is so much more efficient to frame the conflict not in terms of discrimination or prejudice, but rather, to frame it around the need to restructure. Restructuring means that we can focus on what we can fix: hiring more personnel that increases the centralized power and wealth of the institution.
I want to suggest that, like so often today, the disciples missed the heart of the conflict when they focused so much on the welfare of the institution more than the conflict between people. And this was a conflict that would play itself out through much of the life of the church in the New Testament. In fact, it was not adequately addressed until we see the rise of Paul. Paul did much more than just plant churches throughout the Roman Empire; Paul bridged the cultural conflict between these two camps of Jews. Paul identifies himself as a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Philippians 3:5), yet he spoke Greek fluently and had Roman citizenship. He was a Hellenist Jew who was deeply immersed in the values of Hebraic Judaism. And, unlike the disciples in this importance instance, he recognized the cultural clash and spoke of the possibility of reconciliation. (Galatians 3:28 is one place)
As progressives, we love a good crowd as much as anyone else as we seek to build a vital and viable movement. But like the disciples, we are prone to look past the cultural clashes that are so often happening in our communities. It is so much easier for us to focus on structural issues rather than the cultural conflicts that actually lay at the heart of many of the conflicts within our communities. Dealing honestly with cultural conflict takes intense honesty, vulnerability, the art of listening, and all of this takes,more than anything else, time. Addressing cultural conflict and discrimination within our communities may impede our ability to continue widespread growth, but it provides a depth to our community life we can gain through no other way. And this is what must be significant to us as progressives if we truly want a movement that seeks the transformation of the world.
Questions for Discussion:
1) Do you believe that some gifts of the Spirit, like teaching and preaching, should be regarded as more important than other gifts like serving? What would the institutional church look like if all gifts were regarded as having equal importance? How would church structures that valued an equality of all gifts be organized?
2) Looking at your faith community, have there been times when you glossed over possible discrimination and instead focused on structural issues or other areas that were safer and easier to address? Please share.