Sermon: Caring for Each Other

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Sermon: "Caring for Each Other"

3rd in the "Inwardly Strong" series.
Delivered January 15, 2012 by Rev. George Antonakos.
Sermon Text: Acts 7:1-7

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Well, welcome once again to Central Church and to week three of, and final week of, our Inwardly Strong series. As already has been mentioned, the previous two weeks, the first week was Growing Strong, taking care of ourselves by staying close to God. Second week, last week, was talking about caring for our loved ones through intentional communion and communication around the meal table. Today we're calling attention to the topic of caring for each other in the local church.

Not too long ago, in another congregation, some new members felt very excited about their new affiliation with their congregation, and so the congregation, in it's desire to communicate with them, sent them a letter to all new members that began in the following way (if we could have that slide; not that one, there it is): "Dear Blank, We want you to know that we care about you." That's a true story.

Now we all know that that was inadvertent. Nobody would do that intentionally, but when you think about it, it just wasn't, let's see, careful, right? Here at Central we like to think that we're a caring bunch. Surveys that we've taken indicate that we're a caring bunch, but as pastors we scratch our heads because in the same week we can get a note indicating that somebody felt really cared for and then, on the other hand, a note that said they didn't feel cared for. So every congregation has hits and misses because we're just imperfect people.

And so it's somewhat comforting that we turn to a passage in the Scripture where the church, at its infancy and vibrancy and full of the Holy Spirit, had this kind of problem. Some people weren't feeling cared for in the church, and it's in Acts, chapter 6. It's here for everybody to see that some folks in the church were not feeling treated properly, and that also records the tension that often comes along with those kinds of experiences. So, let's pray. This is on page 998 in the Bible you can find under the chair in front of you. I'd like to pray, and then we'll just look at the first seven verses together, okay?

Our Lord, we thank you so much that your Holy Spirit is with us. You promised to send the Spirit into the world to guide us into truth, and so we ask for your Spirit's work to combine with your Word, so that what we say are not the words of human beings but are actually your words to each of us in some way, so that we might follow you in a more faithful way. We ask in Christ's name, Amen.

Chapter 6 of Acts:

"In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, 'It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.'

This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. Then they presented them to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith."

From this text, let me share with you what I think are three significant elements of a healthy, caring congregation, and these same elements can also be applied to a healthy group of any sort, even a family, maybe especially a family. And so since we've been talking about families in the last week and all the meals at home and stuff, this applies that way too. Here's number one.

1. Healthy, caring congregations accept conflict as inevitable, but respond with love and maturity. We got all three up there at the same time, but that's fine because repetition aids learning. But the first thing is this: Conflict is inevitable. How you respond to it is the test of your maturity. More bluntly, all churches have problems because they are populated by people, and all people have problems. Even people who follow Jesus have problems, and there's no perfect church.

The old joke is that if you or I join the perfect church it wouldn't be perfect anymore. But Christ followers are called to love one another and conflict is the best context for testing that commitment. (We can take that slide down.) Care was exercised in how conflict was approached, and what exactly is the nature of conflict here? The text notes that the numbers in the church were increasing, so growth and change always invite conflict.

Any family, any parent knows that with every stage of growth and change, there's going to be some kind of new conflict. But specifically here, even though Jews were becoming Christian disciples (and this is the first time that the word disciples is used in the book of Acts), even though Jews were coming into the church, were becoming the church, not all were from the same cultural backgrounds, so there were people who were influenced by Hellenistic customs (Greek customs) and backgrounds and culture.

Then there were the more "homespun" Israelites in Jerusalem, and these two groups always had been separated. They probably worshipped in separate synagogues, and now they're all coming under the umbrella of the church. It's kind of like, I guess one illustration might be I'm not sure what it's like for American Jews to emigrate from here to Jerusalem, to Israel, but obviously, the American culture is different from what they might find there embedded, and so there would be separation. There would be togetherness but separation.

Now both groups are believers, but now in this context, old, cultural prejudices raised their head, and as a result, it says a murmuring arose from the Hellenists because they felt that their widows were being overlooked in the distribution, in the service, of goods. Now you remember in Acts, chapter 4:35 there was a great outpouring of generosity, and people brought money and goods and resources to the apostles. They were in charge of distributing them up to this point.

And the Greek word "murmuring" here is the same word that, when translated, was what happened to Moses in his leadership. When people weren't all too happy with him, they were murmuring about it. That's what was going on in the Spirit-filled early church. Anyway, know what the apostles don't do. They do not focus on the complaint. They do not take names. They focus on a solution. Perhaps you know the saying that "unhealthy families fix blame; healthy families fix problems." How? By, in this case, calling everyone together to share the problem and discuss the need.

They overcame the three weaknesses of the dysfunctional family: Don't talk, don't feel, and don't trust. They overcame all of that quickly. They were not conflict avoidant, and even more than that, they exercised power in a way that Jesus taught them to do. See, back in the first century when people were in power, you were just told what to do.

And remember when Jesus said to his disciples, "The Gentiles lord it over them, and you're not to be that way"? And here they're exercising what they learned by sharing power. They weren't up here. They were coming down, calling everyone together, and valuing each person enough to do that, and that leads to the second point.

2. Healthy, caring congregations value each person and minister according to call and giftedness. Look at what it says in verse 4, when it says that, "we will give our attention, we will give our attention, to prayer and the ministry of the word." In other words, here it is more bluntly: No one can do it all. Put it in a more positive way: Everyone here in this room is a "10" at something, and God wants you to exercise whatever that is for his glory.

It takes everyone operating in their strengths to fulfill the mission of the church. Every believer in Christ, everyone who has named Christ as Lord and Savior and seeks to follow him, by virtue of their baptism is called into ministry, but there is a specific sense in which God wants you to minister through the use of your spiritual gifts.

Now in verse 1, the New NIV here uses the word "distribution of food." If you look at verse 1, "the daily distribution of food." The word distribution in the Greek is "diakonia," and it's where we get the term "deacons" from, but that's a little misleading. The word really means ministry, so it maybe could be translated in the daily ministry of distributing resources. And notice in verse 4, the apostles are described in their work as doing the ministry of the Word.

So preaching and caring are both equally important in the church. The ministry of the Word and the ministry of the administration of care, whether that's physical or emotional. They're both equally important, and both require spiritually mature leaders. When you see the requirements for who was going to fulfill this new role, they're very deeply spiritual people, and only their forms are different, only the forms of these ministries are different. They just require a different calling, different gifts.

We really mess it up when we say, about the pastorate, that somebody enters the ministry. That is a poor choice of words. I mean, it's true, but when we speak of ordination in terms of entering the ministry as though it's different from everybody else, we do a disservice to the church.

One time a preacher was preaching in an evening service and swallowed a moth while he was preaching, and he tried to figure out how to collect himself, and he goes, "A moth has entered the ministry." It's a cute joke, but it's terrible theology, as though only he was doing ministry. Every member of the body of Christ is to be a minister. Every member, as in a physical body, is essential to wholeness.

So "diakonia" (service) is a general word for all kinds of service, and you have to put an adjective in front of it to figure out what kind of service you're talking about. So pastoral ministry, social ministry, medical ministry, political ministry, missionary ministry, counseling ministry, all these are the things God has blessed and gifted us with are to be exercised for the up-building of the body.

Now note the apostles go even beyond the presenting problem, and they identify a deeper problem. They said if they continue to deal with this very important role, this very important social need, in terms of organizing and in terms of settling complaints, it would occupy all their time, and it would keep them from their primary call of preaching and teaching and prayer.

And you note verse 42, before, at the end of chapter 5, it says, this describes what the apostles are doing. "Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah," and they're saying, "Gang, if we do all of this over here, that's going to suffer." They led by defining what their role and their responsibility was, and in so doing, they were giving everyone in the church permission to say, "No." Permission to say, "No." Not to avoid service, but to say, "Yes," to the right service, based on how God has created each person.

See, none of us needs to be overworked. No one's looking for anybody to be overly burdened by church work, and every one of us can benefit when we're all operating according to our call and giftedness. And if we are feeling overwhelmed, and we are feeling overburdened, either in our families or in the church, something's amiss because Jesus said, "My yoke is easy; my burden is light."

One of the best definitions, I've shared this with you before, of a healthy family I've ever heard of is that it's a place where everyone benefits and no one is burdened, and that requires us to recognize that we have a role to fill, but it's okay to say, "No." It's okay to do one thing well, but it's based on the answer to this question, and this is a question that we all have to ask of ourselves before God: What am I as a Christian responsible for before God? What is God calling me to do? Those are profound questions.

This past Wednesday morning, our life-journaling group was working away, and a guy sat down next to the table, and he saw us, what we were doing, and he said, "What are you guys doing, Bible study?" We said, "Yeah, sort of. We're doing life journaling," and we explained it to him. We engaged him in conversation. We found that he was a director of a local house church somewhere. I think it was in the city limits.

And so he said he used to be the pastor of a more traditional congregation but now he was operating in this house church, and he said, "We operate on the basis of two questions in this house church," and I was like, "Yeah, what are the two questions?" He goes, "What are you hearing from God and what are you going to do about it?" Those were the two questions. That's it.

Now much more complex than that, I'm sure, but those are great questions, and they're not bad for any of us here to ask the same questions, and so if you're engaged in ministry in some way, you now have permission to reevaluate it. You have permission. There it is. Boom! Just wave the magic wand over everybody. You can reevaluate it. If it's not fitting you, then you... But listen, no one has permission as a disciple of Jesus, to avoid the call of God and the exercise of what God has given you.

Now you may be sitting here saying, "How do I even know what that is?" I'm glad that you asked that question. Honey, you have come to the right place because after services today, if you are not aware, if you say, "You know what? I need input. I need help with this," then there are some very helpful folks who will be in the Covenant Room to just talk to you and help you think about what that might be for you. Just go on down there and talk to them, and they'll be glad.

And if you don't have the time today, on the Connection card there's a little box at the bottom of the Connection card that says, "I'd like to know a little bit more about spiritual gifts, how I might serve."

Okay, well, as the apostles operated on the two principles that we already mentioned so far, the Scripture records a great miracle in verse 5. "This proposal pleased the whole group." That is a miracle! I mean, you think about it. If we could please everybody here today in some thing, that would be a miracle. So they went to work implementing the plan, and this leads to our third and final point.

3. Healthy, caring congregations operate through the use of functional structures. Now that sounds... I mean, how do you apply that one to the family? Oh, this applies to the family. Mom and dad have to speak with one voice in order to have functional structures. Children cannot stand on the shoulders of either parent, and have a healthy family. You understand what I mean, don't you? They can't be empowered beyond their place in the structure.

Anyway, it's not always a bad thing to elect a committee, even though the concept has been the butt of jokes. Stuff like, "A camel is an animal put together by a committee," but the key is choosing the right team, and in the early church, seven were chosen. And notice again, they had to be by reputation (the literal Greek word is they have to have witnesses), that they are people who are Spirit-filled and practically wise.

So they possessed a deep connection to God and the Spirit and were filled with wisdom as well. Many commentators note the Greek-sounding names that were used, but I think a little too much is made of that interpretation. Many Jews had Greek names, even some of the apostles did. Those chosen were probably from both groups (Hellenistic and Hebraic) based on their giftedness and sense of wisdom, and this is a beautiful example of functional structures.

Now in a congregation our size, healthy interactions are not limited to our structures, but our structures have to be functional in order for us to be healthy and express our love and care in the name of Jesus. One of Central's philosophies of ministry statements keeps reminding us of this very fact, and I love this statement: We value thoughtful experimentation, success, and failure, as learning opportunities and change for the sake of fulfilling our mission.

And that's what was going on in Acts 6. They decided that the structure was not working the way it needed to, and so that needed to change. Not the mission, the structure. No one was purposely messing up here. The structures were breaking down, and they needed to be altered, and so when structures get in the way of mission, the structures go, not the mission.

Now you would think that that would be self-evident, but if we've been around the church for very long, we know that that's not the way it goes often. Many times, the old way of doing things takes precedence over new alterations of authority and ministry. You might think about how our church staffing has shifted in the last year. You might think about the structures that Central Church has made behind the scenes, and how we operate without much reverberation at all. I'm convinced it's a sign of the blessing of God. It's a testament to Pastor John's leadership as well.

And now that that shift is taking place, I'm being called to something new, something that allows us to focus on the very thing that we're talking about this morning: stronger congregational care ministry. My call as a pastor hasn't changed. My responsibilities have shifted a little bit, and so now new structures are called for, and one of my great hopes is that the base of congregational care will be broadened, that no one who's overly burdened or distressed or in crisis falls through the cracks.

No one person can do it alone. No one team can do it alone. The deacons themselves can't even do it alone, and so we need some of you to perhaps hear the call of God today, and at least enquire whether or not this might be something that fits you. Now care for one another certainly occurs through small group ministry. It just happens organically, but I see two other practical ways to do this. One way has traditionally been in place; the other way is a new initiative.

The first way that we can exercise care in a structured way, you can find on the back of your bulletin today. If you'll turn to the back of your bulletin, you will notice that there are, on the second half of the bulletin, six subgroups under the direction of the deacon's ministry here at church. These are ways that the deacons, besides other things, help people in need, and I'm not going to read it all, but you can see those six groupings.

Some require training; others require no training at all, just time and energy, and so today, also, just like we have somebody that wants to talk to you about spiritual gifts, you can check the box on the Connection card and say, "I want to learn more about how to help with the deacons," or, again out in the concourse today, you can go and speak with some deacons. They'll answer questions for you, help you figure out what, maybe, time commitments are, that sort of thing.

So you can respond to this message in a very structured or specific way by looking this over and saying, "You know what? I'm going to be part of a deacon's subgroup," or "I'll help them out as I'm able in one of these ways." And check that off on the card if you can't spend time today to talk to them.

Now the second practical way is this new ministry. For the time being, maybe it will stick. I don't know. We're calling it Lay Caregivers. We used to have Paraclete Ministry. Now we're going to resurrect something similar. Lay Caregivers, a ministry that will invite compassionate and gifted individuals to intentionally care in a ministry that's organized and structured, where there will be supervision, where there will be training in order to do it.

Everyone need not apply. This is according to call and giftedness, and the deacons are first responders, but they can't keep going with folks. We need lay caregivers who can keep going with folks on a more emotional level when maybe a crisis has passed. Now all of this, next two Saturdays I'm going to explain, I'm going to unpack in the Growinar. I'm going to try to give explanation to it all. I don't have time to do that now, but you'll hear a vision for this ministry, and it'll help you, maybe, discern what God is calling you to, if any of this resonates.

So as a result of these three principles, let's see how it all turned out in verse 7. In verse 7 of Acts, chapter 6, it says, "So the word of God spread." Yes! The Word of God spread. It wasn't being neglected, right? It was being exercised. Then "the number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith." I think that simply means that the Hebraic element was being reached in even stronger ways, and so people were valued. Needs were being met.

Let me just close with this. Anyone who follows sports is aware of all the hype about Denver Broncos' quarterback, Tim Tebow. Sadly, if you're a Denver Broncos' fan, all of that came to a crashing halt last night. Forty-three percent of people surveyed said that they believed that he was being helped on the football field by divine help, by divine aid, and he's been poked fun at because of his outstanding Christian testimony and witness, whether it's Saturday Night Live or the Conan show. They've been kind of doing a little bit of poking fun at him for his faith.

But I'm not sure if you knew something about him, that prior to... I want you to think about this a minute. What would it be like if you were a quarterback of an NFL football team and, 15 minutes prior to a game, you took time to care for somebody? I just find that unbelievable. I mean, I'd be so... We're fans. We get intense, right? Fifteen minutes before a game, he will meet with somebody who has been connected through his... what's called the Tebow Foundation Wish 15 program that helps with young people who have been diagnosed with serious medical issues.

And he's stated more than once that losing on the football field is nothing compared to what some people are suffering, and so he's inspired by these kids. Just last weekend, the foundation created a meeting for a 16-year-old girl named Bailey. She and her family were given four tickets and other stuff to attend the Broncos/Steelers game, which was last weekend in Denver.

Bailey suffers from a rare vascular disorder that has led to more than 70 surgeries in the last decade including the removal of her left lung in 2010. Less than 15 minutes before kickoff, after Tim Tebow finished warming up, he goes over and meets the girl on the sidelines, and he says, "Bailey, I have been really looking forward to meeting you." He gives her a big hug, and he autographs a football.

Bailey's mom, who is standing there, says, "It's very emotional. We haven't seen her happy in this long of a time." You could tell by how he was talking to Bailey that he wasn't doing this for publicity or any other reason than that he likes kids. He's an exceptional guy. Unspoken words: He cares. Bailey was quoted, too. She goes, "My heart was going a million miles an hour. He just made me feel so special. It was the best day of my life."

Now not many of us have that kind of platform for care, and many who do don't use it that way, but each person has the ability to make somebody's day by just caring a little bit. It might be a divine appointment, or maybe something that you intentionally do. That's the challenge today for all of us, whether it's structured or unstructured, to care. To commit ourselves as a servant of Jesus, the one who said, "I came not to be served, but to serve." Each one of us expressing God's care in whatever way God leads us to do so. Our God cares, so that we can care for each other.

Let's pray: Lord, we ask that you would help us to understand what you're saying to each of us individually. That one person's call may not be another's, and yet you call each of us to care. In some specific way, that fulfills the mission of the gospel and of the church, so we ask you to help us understand, to help us grow and discern, to interact, to communicate, so that we might be a more deeply caring people and express and glorify your care and love through Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

© 2012, Rev. George Antonakos
Central Presbyterian Church, Baltimore, MD 21204 410/823-6145