Text: Acts 6:1-7:60
listen to the sermon audio.
I want to take a quick poll. How many of you were raised Lutheran?
It’s OK if you weren’t. I wasn’t.
Of those who were raised Lutheran, I’m curious to know how many of you thought of yourself as either Swedish Lutheran, Norwegian Lutheran, or German Lutheran? Let’s see how many Swedes. How many Norwegians? How many Germans?
Isn’t that interesting. That fact that you are sitting here today, in the same congregation is evidence of the Gospel at work. One hundred years ago, if you were to walk into the average Minnesota town, you would find a Swedish Lutheran Church, a Norwegian Lutheran church, and a German Lutheran church. And those congregations did not interact with each other.
We laugh at those things now. Occasionally I’ll still hear one of our Norwegian people make a funny jab at one of the Swedes. Back then, though, it wasn’t really a laughing matter. The ethnic identity was strong, and it divided people.
Today, the ELCA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is an attempt to bring all those churches together to figure out how to work in harmony with each other. It is far from perfect, and we still have lots of conflict, but, when you look back and see how far we have come, it is evidence that the Gospel is at work.
This kind of ethnic and cultural division is still alive and well today.
Just ask any of our middle school and high school students.
Do you know what is one of the most stressful and culturally divisive environments in our region right now? The school cafeteria. It’s a microcosm of the world. It’s a large open space and the one time during the course of a student’s day when she gets to choose where she sits and with whom she interacts.
Where do you think they sit?
There’s an old expression. Birds of a feather…what? Flock together.
Absolutely. The school cafeteria is where you will see the cultures of the school bind together. You’ll see who is in certain groups and who is out of certain groups. Some groups identify as being in, others identify, as a group, as being out. And the social pecking order, and the lines of battle are formed.
What’s interesting to me about this is that it takes place in the cafeteria. It’s all about who eats with whom.
Think about that in your own life.
Think about who you typically eat with.
You generally eat with your family. When you get a choice to eat, who do you usually invite? I would imagine you either invite a friend, or you invite someone with whom you would like to associate, either socially or in business.
Do you ever go up to a stranger and say, Hey, would you like to sit down and have a meal?
Would you ever go up to a homeless person and say, “hey why don’t you join us at the Old Country Buffet?” No. You might give them food and move on, but we typically wouldn’t sit down at the meal and have a conversation.
Why? because meals are intimate. The table is a symbol of community and fellowship. Who sits at our table indicates who is “in” and who is “out” of our circles.
This theme of tables keeps coming up in our journey through the Bible.
That’s because it is actually a central theme of the story of God’s Redemptive Plan. All year we’ve been asking, “How do we fit?” One way you could ask that question is, “How do we fit at God’s table?”
Last week Pastor Mark talked about a table.
As the couple on the road to Emmaus sat down at the table with Jesus, they recognized him and got Holy heartburn. That table healed the broken meal of Adam and Eve.
This week we find ourselves at another table.
We find ourselves in Acts chapter 6 today.
It is the second week in Easter and we’re looking at how the Gospel is calling us to move beyond the empty tomb. We’ve left the Gospel of Luke and now we are in the book of Acts.
This book records the events of the first generation of people who tried to make sense out of Jesus in the real world without his physical presence. They had been given the Holy Spirit and now they’re trying to figure out what it all means.
The narrative lectionary assigned us two chapters.
That’s a big chunk to chew on.
There are three sections to it. I want to start in the middle, then go to the last part, and end at the beginning. Confusing enough?
In these three sections we’re going to see that conflict between cultures comes with the territory. And we might get some clues about how to deal with conflict.
In order to understand these three sections we need to understand the basic setting.
You can see in the first verses that we have two kinds of people. Both groups are Jewish, but they are of two varieties.
On the one hand you have the Hebrew Jews.
I like to think of this group like your traditional crowd. They like organ music and hymns. And if you really pressed them, they sometimes miss the service spoken in Swedish. Right?
On the other side, you have the Hellenists.
They are Jewish people, but they have adopted some of the cultural ways of the Greeks. I like to think of these as the more contemporary crowd. You know, they like drums and electric guitars. Occasionally, some of them might even clap their hands. They wear blue jeans to church. You know the type.
These Jews, the Hebrews and the Hellenists, typically did not like each other, but they had one thing in common.
They followed Jesus as the Messiah. Now they found themselves as brothers and sisters and they really didn’t know how to get along.
So, what happens? They fight, of course, just like all good churches do.
The three sections of this text are going to show us three important lessons on how to deal with the cultural conflict that inevitably happens in churches.
Let’s look at the center section.
Here we meet a guy named Stephen.
He was a talented young man who was passionate about Jesus. He is a hellenist, and the other Hellenist Jews are very angry at him for fraternizing with the Hebrew Jews and for following Jesus.
They falsely accuse him and, in his own defense, Stephen gives a brilliant speech.
In this speech he pretty much sums up everything we’ve been studying since September. He walks through Israel’s history. Look at this list.
He starts with Abraham. Abraham was sent on a Journey.
Isaac was almost sacrificed.
Jacob wrestled with God.
Joseph was sold into slavery to Egypt.
Moses led the slaves to freedom and wandered in the wilderness.
Joshua led the people into battle.
David battled enemies and wanted to settle down.
Solomon finally settled down and built a house for God.
Through all of this, God was leading the people on a journey that was never the same. Look what God said when Solomon tried to build him a house.
“The Lord does not live in houses built by man.”
Here’s our first lesson. A Journey always Brings Change.
Being a follower of Jesus is not about establishing a routine and following a ritual. It is about being open to the Holy Spirit and willing to follow God into new and often frightening places. That has always been the case and it is the case today as the Gospel leads us beyond the empty tomb.
Stephen ends his speech like this.
You stiff-necked people, you resist the Holy Spirit, just like your forefathers did who killed the prophets.
Not really the best way to end a sermon. I’m thinking the people didn’t leave the service saying, “nice message Pastor.”
No they didn’t. That leads us to the second section, which is actually the last section.
The Hellenists did not like what Stephen said, so they killed him.
Here we see one possible way to deal with cultural differences and the conflict that comes with inevitable changed.
Get stiff-necked and eliminate the threat.
This is conflict that leads to death.
I can’t tell you how many churches today actually choose this option. They might not physically stone someone, but they will eliminate the person who is threatening to upset the apple cart.
Let’s go back to the beginning and end with a positive example.
The story begins with a culture clash around a table.
The Hellenists complained against the Hebrews about the distribution of food to the widows. The leaders of the church were accused of showing favoritism to their own kind.
How did they handle it? Did they have conflict? You bet they did. Did they ignore the conflict? No. Did they split the church? No.
They provided for us a good model of how to handle conflict. They openly discussed it. They prayed about it. And then out of the conflict a new way of being the church was born that allowed them to retain their identity, and live together.
Here’s our lesson.
Change is going to happen, because a journey always brings change. Living beyond the empty tomb is about constantly adapting to conflict that comes with change. There are two ways to deal with this conflict. There is stiff-necked resistance that leads to death, and there is constructive communication that leads to new ways of life.
The Gospel is continually stretching us. Look at us. Swedes, Norwegians, and Germans have figured out how to worship together. We’ve figured out how to have traditional and contemporary styles in the same church. God will continually present opportunities for us to move beyond the Empty tomb.
There is a part for everyone at God’s table. We, as a community, will never stop being confronted with new opporunities to change. My prayer for us is that we will continually grow in our ability to listen to the Holy Spirit and hash out our conflicts in constructive and life-giving ways.