Acts 6:1-7; Matthew 5:43-48
Matthew 5:43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your friends, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Acts 6 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. 2 And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven people of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 They had these people stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The Apostles learned early on that this work of helping people follow Jesus is messy! Imagine – and any of you who have been preschool teachers can imagine – imagine having 3,000 preschoolers! Because that is what they had. Newbies. Brand new deciders, trying to walk this new walk, with toddler legs. It is no wonder that the Apostles had their hands full, and people were complaining. Anyone who tries to manage 3,000 preschoolers – even if there are twelve of you – knows she is in trouble! All those 3,000 converts from the day of Pentecost, plus those who were joining them every day, needed the kind of personal training that the Twelve had with Jesus for two or three years, day in and day out. And, any parent knows that even after eighteen years, there is lots of parenting left to do. But this movement was growing much too fast for this luxury. If each Apostle took 12 new followers for a year, well – do the math! It still wouldn’t work!
If this hodge-podge of humans was going to become the kingdom of God in first century Palestine, they were going to have to figure out another way to do it. In organizational theory, we call it “delegate!” But I think Schroeder has a much better, more Jesus-minded word – “co-create!” While we are all toddlers in some things, we are rich with gifts in other areas. And if everyone has a chance to contribute their gifts, who knows what beauty may be created?! It is such a hope-filled concept – to co-create.
Still, it’s messy work! If we imagine that the life of the early church was peaceful, calm and smooth, we haven’t read the Bible very well.
Go back to Jesus. He chose a pretty diverse group of followers. All were outsiders in some way. None appeared to be highly educated. Young and old. Urban and rural. All Jewish, but let that not tempt you to think that they were the same in their worship and practice. Oh no! They have the same Scriptures in common, and the basic traditions. But there were all kinds of differences and rubbing points. Here the people in power tried to rub Jesus into futility – unsuccessfully. Pharisees, Scribes, Saducees, Essenes, Herodians, Priests, Levites, Zealots, to name a few.
The rub in Acts 6 is the deep split between the Helenized and Hebraic Jews. And it is the conflict which has continued to exist in every generation since! What separated the two groups was how much they chose to adapt to current culture.
I learned a long time ago that you could identify the age of Anabaptist Mennonite groups by where they drew the line on being “of the world.” Was it the use of electricity and machinery? Was it buttons rather than hooks? Was it chrome on your car or only black bumpers? How long were the skirts required to be? What color was the head covering? How much beard was required? I could go on. All these arguments were about the same thing that was going on in this early church community. Do we reject modern culture outright because it is worldly? Or do we see the Spirit at work in whatever is happening culturally?
Jewish life in both Judea and the diaspora was influenced by the culture and language of Hellenism, the Greek legacy of Alexander the Great. How much influence was okay? Some adopted most of the Greek practices, by either force or convenience; others remained steadfast to Hebrew language and cultural practices. Thus, the Hellenists and the Judaizers, each trying to change the other, sure they had the whole truth.
Both of these groups were represented among the early converts – naturally. So the complaining, the finger-pointing, the blaming, began. Complaining is nothing new. We are quick to blame others when we think we are not getting our fair share. I can hear the Apostles thinking: What are we supposed to do! We can’t fix everything! Why can’t you people just take care of it yourselves in compassion and humility, the Jesus way?
Unfortunately, compassion and humility don’t come naturally. They are learned skills, spiritual disciplines. Fortunately, the Apostles decided to co-create a new reality for these women and for the health of the community. Instead of grudgingly attending to the complaints, or ignoring their complaints, they listened. They decided to co-create with the Spirit and the community, a whole new way of meeting needs. A compromise was reached, or inspired by the Holy Spirit. Deacons! Seven people known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. These we will set apart to do justice among our community of followers. Since the story moves on, we can assume that the deacons did a decent job of leading with wisdom and love.
How easily we fall into seeing each other as enemy! In fact, whenever something is new, or a little bit scary, or we fall into our scarcity mode, fear drives us into our bunkers to prepare for an attack. It is natural. Don’t let it surprise you. Instead, when you notice the tension of impending conflict, take a deep breath. Breathe in the Spirit.
Is the Spirit still there?
Has God left you?
Could God leave?
Get your bearings.
This holy pause is the critical first step to co-creating.
Then listen to the complaint, the negative comment, and see what there might be in it which is true.
Engage you imagination. If this were true, what difference would it make? Is this possible difference important?
Remember, we have been working through six spiritual practices for living out love. Today, we have the spiritual practice for loving your enemies. What is it? In one word: Yield.
Jesus said it this way: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Yield. Do it early and often, long before you have a war on your hands!
Schroeder says, “Like a bow when it is bent, we generate power when we yield…. I hate it when I don’t get my way…. I want things how I want them and get upset when my wishes are thwarted. When I insist on having my own way, everything becomes a contest of wills: I win if I get what I want, I lose if I don’t. This kind of mental rigidity, however, doesn’t get me very far. I get stuck in recurring patterns of behavior, thinking the same old thoughts and doing the same old things. Inflexibility produces no power. Yet inflexibility is often perceived as strength. We know this is true on a national scale. In politics, “compromise” has become a bad word, and disagreeing factions are digging their heels into the ground. [Schroeder, C. Paul. Practice Makes PURPOSE, p. 163]
Now let’s not start pointing fingers again. We do this as much in our personal and work lives as politicians do it in their politics. We are more interested in converting a colleague to our idea than crafting a compromise. And slowly we begin to see that colleague as enemy.
But change your thinking a bit, and the enemy disappears, because your enemy is not really your enemy, but a co-creator of a new reality, when we apply this spiritual practice of love.
Two skills are required of all parties in the compromise. First, we all need to have courage to receive help gracefully. The truth is, we all need help sometimes. That is why there are so many of us humans – because we need each other in order to be whole, no matter how much we may try to act as if it isn’t true.
The other skill required of all parties is the mirror image of the first: offer help respectfully. Close your eyes and imagine a young mother sitting on the curb with her screaming hungry child. See the scene in your imagination. Since you are in the giving seat, first, imagine what it would look like to offer help respectfully…. What do you do? Say?… Then, if you did that reasonably well, imagine what it would look like for the young mother to receive help gracefully…. What happens between you? Okay, you can open your eyes.
I gave you the easy one first. I have another one for you, and it may be harder. We church people are used to being the helpers. Now it is time to reverse roles. Imagine you are in the grocery store line. The checker has scanned your purchases. And when you swipe your card, it says insufficient funds. You try another card with no success. And you know there is no cash in your wallet. You have no means to pay for what is in front of you. The checker begins to get impatient. You are flustered. The person behind you steps up to the card reader and swipes her card for your groceries. Can you let yourself receive help gracefully? Pause and imagine what that feels like. Then look back at your benefactor. She says, my gift to you. Pay it forward. What does giving help respectfully look like, feel like?
We have adopted the phrase, “a bridge-building community” as part of our identity. Part of what that means is that no longer are outsiders seen as enemy, or those to be changed into our way of thinking. Building bridges means that we agree to cross back and forth, to give and receive, to interact with each other in respectful ways. Both community and church receiving help gracefully. Both community and church offering help respectfully. Neither is constantly trying to change the other, but with our different gifts, we co-create a new reality.
It is time to take on this sixth spiritual practice of love. It is time to look at our neighbors and see co-creators! It is time to look at the immigrants among us and see co-creators! It is time to look at the people of other faiths and see co-creators!
Yes, we all have different stories. We always will have different stories and beliefs, just as the early Jesus followers did. And all of us will have some things right and some things wrong, as they did. That is just the way it is when humans try to define God. It can’t be done perfectly by any one person or group! But just imagine what we can learn about God and the creation in which we live, if we listen to each other’s stories and find the truth in them! We will continue to disagree about some things. No problem. In fact, that is part of the healthy tension that will give power to our co-creating. Our differences will point out our weaknesses and in the end, give us strength as we pool our resources. Our cooperation and respect will give us love. And there is no force in the world greater than love!
There is probably no more timely spiritual practice than this one. Jesus said, love your enemy. Schroeder gives us a way to put in practice: yield to your enemy. Be bridge-builders. Meet in the middle, each giving your best, to co-create a new world. Remember that is what we were made for – to fill the earth with life, and steward it so that all things may flourish.
Just like the first Jesus followers, we co-create a new reality. Come Holy Spirit!