Electing Immigrants - Acts 6:1-7

Power structures and the gospel are basically at odds with one another. Politics and social institutions by their very design prop up our social structures, political institutions, and cultural norms. This has been true from the beginning of human society in nation after nation. We protect ourselves and our ways of doing things, often without considering how we impact others. While this is often little more than following established norms, it may also turn to active discrimination of the other as a way to increase power and control. By contrast, the gospel would have us look first to the disenfranchised and only then look to our defined patterns for living.
When do we ever take the powerless and elect them to positions of responsibility? Why would we? Would it ever make sense to even consider it? Apparently, the early church did. They followed Jesus' example of calling fishermen and tax collectors as his disciples. Electing the powerless to positions of responsibility is exactly what transpired in Acts 6 as the church elected its first deacons.
We often miss the significance of this election, as we do not speak Greek and are not Palestinian Jews. What happened in Jerusalem was that as the believers brought their tithes and offerings to care for the poor in their midst, a group of them was being overlooked. This was apparently not intentional. It was just a fact of life that we do not interact with everyone around us. Without being specifically tasked to do so, we miss the fact that there are other people that should be included in our circles of concern.
The early church was distributing food to the elderly widows among their number, but this was being carried out by longtime residents of Jerusalem who knew the other longtime residents. There was, however, a large number of Jews from the Greek-speaking world beyond Jerusalem who were believers and living in the area. Among them, there was a number of widows in need who were being overlooked.
Women generally live longer than men. Many Jews living abroad attempted to return at least once in their lifetimes to see Jerusalem and the Temple. If possible, they planned to spend their final days in Jerusalem hoping to be present for the arrival of Messiah. Often as not, these men passed away and left their widows without sufficient economic support to care for their own last days. They did not have insurance plans or annuities designed to care for them. Their children were often living far away, and while a widow would often move in with a son, that was difficult at best when it would require travel to a distant land.
With all this, the Palestinian born believers who were the majority of the Jerusalem church simply did not know the Greek-speaking community and the widows who were part of it. When these immigrants to Palestine noticed that the widows among them were being overlooked in the distribution of food, they complained to the apostles. They were not trying to blame anyone. They simply wanted to resolve the situation that had resulted in injustice toward a group of people in need.
The apostles determined a few things. There was indeed a problem in overlooking the immigrant widows among the believing community. The apostles did not need to be the ones making sure that no one was being overlooked. Then they determined that the group raising the concern were both the most knowledgeable and invested in resolving the injustice. They determined to delegate this responsibility of oversight to those who were already invested in the issue. They asked these immigrant believers to chose seven from among themselves to assume responsibility for resolving the issue.
Our English translations are not always clear on this point, but the apostles directed their words to the immigrant community raising the issue of injustice. They did not call the entire body of believers together to vote on the matter. They asked those invested to choose among themselves seven they were sure would be able and willing to resolve the issue at hand with justice for all concerned.
Every one of the names recorded here for these deacons or servants of the church is Greek. One of them is specifically tied to the city of Antioch in the list of names. These were men who the community sensing injustice could rely on to care for their needs appropriately. Then they were tasked to oversee the entire program for food distribution. They were not charged only with feeding the immigrant widows, but with overseeing the entire distribution of food.
This is not the way we tend to operate. It is not the pattern we have seen in the church over the centuries of its existence, much less in the political arenas around us. The principles behind this decision of the apostles are simple ones. They just require the use of certain values we find difficult to accept and promote. Instead of protecting systems, they chose to protect people.
Electing these immigrants to positions of responsibility recognized their concerns as valid. It made a statement that they belonged to the community of believers just as much as anyone else. It gave them a position of empowerment to do something about the injustice they perceived better than those who were actively distributing the food. It included them as full participants in the gospel and granted them the responsibility to see that their own actions did not result in further injustices.
This was a risky proposition. It meant opening up the church to the possibility that the widows from among the Palestinian believers might be overlooked. It meant handing control over an important aspect of the church's decisions and administration to a minority group. It meant that those who were already uncomfortable with Greek-speaking believers in their midst might revolt. It meant that Palestinian, or Aramaic-speaking, believers would be surrendering a degree of control and power to others who were not quite like them.
The apostles' decision did not follow our concepts of affirmative action. They did not take a census of Palestinian and Hellenistic believers to determine how many of each group to place on the board. The apostles went much further than that. They handed the issue over wholesale to the immigrant community:
You understand the problem. You know what it feels like to suffer this injustice. You know the widows who have been overlooked. We task you to resolve the issue and ensure a just distribution that will meet the needs of the entire community of believers.”
The apostles were not bothered with losing face, power, status, or control. They understood that there were much more important issues in the gospel than questing after or maintaining power and control. They understood that just as they needed to focus on teaching God's message and extending what Jesus had taught them, so the focus of the church as a whole needed to be on that same gospel message.
Rather than grabbing at power or worrying about losing some portion of control, they delegated the issue at hand along with the necessary responsibility and authority to resolve the problems. They heard the complaints brought to them. They valued those bringing their concerns. They responded by making sure that injustice was resolved by appointing those most connected to it to oversee the response.
They did not let concerns of power get in the way to resolving injustice. They listened, and they empowered others to devise a better way forward. Is that so hard?

©Copyright 2017, Christopher B. Harbin  http://www.sermonsearch.com/contributors/104427/ 


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