Chosen To Serve – 10.17.2021
Back in the days of pioneers and settlers, America was a very different landscape – and the Methodist movement was no different. People were moving, expanding westward to places where there were no churches. It wasn’t like Europe where you’ve got a cathedral on every corner. And in the early days there weren’t enough Pastors out there. You probably have heard of this, but basically what would happen was Pastors would hop on a horse and ride a circuit from town to town. They’d come in, do services – perform baptisms, communion, funerals, all that Pastor stuff, then they’d hop back on the horse and head out to the next town. They were called Circuit Riders, and they operated for over a hundred years. In fact, over in Africa there are still some preachers in rural Africa who make a circuit on a bike. But in pioneer America, each circuit might take about a month to complete. So the Pastor was only in town once a month. Actually, that’s why we have communion only once a month in the Methodist Church. Sometimes I get questions – how come the Catholics or the Lutherans do it every week? Why do we only do it once a month? And the answer is, because back in the day – that’s all we COULD do. And if the Pastor is only in town a couple days a month, how does the rest of the church work get done? Food programs, Sunday School, caring for the church building, looking after the finances, visiting the sick, even preaching? How did that stuff get done back in the day – while the preachers are off playing cowboy? The answer is in the mirror. The church of the pioneer days was a lay people church. Communities had to do these things themselves. They didn’t have a professional to do them for them. Every person had to step up to the calling of Christ to serve. Only by working together could they survive. But here’s the crazy part. During the era of the circuit riders, Methodism was the fastest growing religious group in the country. But as time went on, and America developed as a nation – cities sprang up, horse trails became roads, education increased – and we shifted. We started having Pastors stay in one place. On the one hand, it was wonderful – Pastor’s could know their people better, and our study of scripture was deeper and Pastors were seminary trained. But the church’s shifted too. They shifted from being a church run by the lay people, to being audience members watching a performance. And here’s my big question that comes out of this little history lesson – would you like to know when the Methodist Church in America stopped growing and started declining? I think I may have floated this theory before but the overlap between church decline and seeing “church stuff” as just the Pastor’s job – it’s too much to call coincidence.
Today we are continuing our study of the book of Acts. We’re reading a chapter a week, and we’re up to chapter 6. The disciples – Peter and his buddies – now they’re calling themselves the Apostles, probably because they wanted to get their varsity jackets. The apostles, with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have created this movement in Jerusalem, a movement of people coming to know Jesus. People who realize Jesus is the son of God who sets us free from our sins, and that we should revolutionize our lives to live after his example. This is the early church. Let’s dive in.
[read v.1]. So there’s kind of a lot of information right off the bat. The group of believers is growing every single day, more and more people are coming to Jesus. We knew that they were sharing supplies – in the past couple chapters it talks about people who sell their land and then give the proceeds to the poor. As a church, they’re working together to take care of one another – which is really amazing. So they have some kind of a food distribution going on. And then they mention widows. Now you have to remember the context – in this society women had no rights. If they lost their father or their husband, they had basically nothing. They couldn’t work, in a lot of places they couldn’t own land, really couldn’t do anything. And so widows, and in the same way orphans, they were the people who struggled the most. There was no government program to help, there was no social safety net or whatever – no checks coming in the mail. And so as Christians, the early church KNEW they must take care of these people. But apparently there was some drama going on between the Greek-speaking folks and the Hebrew speaking folks. They’re getting more food than me – no fair!
I’ll be honest, I have this bittersweet relationship with this story. You see, so far in the story – the growth in the early church is almost like a legend. Everything is going so well! Even when they get thrown in prison, Angels show up to help them out. It’s like a Disney movie – everything is just so perfect. And in the modern world, the church can be such a mess – we love looking back to Acts and saying, “oh man, they totally had it all figured out back then.” If we could just do church like the Jerusalem believers in the book of Acts, we would never have any drama. But then we get to chapter six, and we find DRAMA! Oh no! This is garbage, this sounds just like the drama I found in MY church. I was talking to a friend a couple years ago and he said, “I just want to find a church that’s not fighting about stuff” and I felt a little bad, but I laughed right in his face, [laugh] “Dude, that’s not a real thing. If it’s a real church, made with real people, even back with the disciples running the show – there’s always going to be drama.”
And this is the other piece of it, right from the beginning of this chapter we have this realization that following Jesus REQUIRES us to love and take care of the poorest in society. There’s this understanding that the gospel transforms our hearts and outreach is the inevitable result. This is something we talk about in the church all the time. We start with worship, where we know Christ. Then we move into following Christ (like with Life Groups and Sunday School), and then, if we hang out with Jesus long enough, it will push us to the final step, which is to share Christ with the world – talking about missions and outreach into our community. On twitter I’m a part of this nerdy church leaders group, and a friend of mine is launching a blog website next month – and in this group I’m the token Wesleyan. I’m one of the only Methodist in the room. But he asked if I would write an article for the blog, and he said, can you write, “Why do you love being a Methodist?” And so I’ve been thinking about that recently. Why do I like being a Methodist? And sometimes there’s so much drama and fighting and whatnot – I get all grumpy and I think, “I don’t like being a Methodist. I wish I was something else.” But then I think about John Wesley – the guy who’s love of Jesus had him standing on the docks in Bristol during the slave trade, preaching boldly to the slave traders, trying to change their hearts. And I think about how the gospel is our foundation – but in our tradition, it pushes us out into the world to transform and change people’s lives. Even in small ways – the blend of gospel and outreach, the blend of loving people with our hearts and our actions at the same time – I DO love being a Methodist.
So the church in Acts has got some drama to work through, and then [read v.2-4]. Now, the way I read this is going to tell you a little bit about me. Because I’m one of those neurotic, do-everything-myself people. I struggle to ask for help, I’m not really sure what that is – that urge, like, “oh no, I don’t want to inconvenience you – so I’ll just do everything myself.” I think, maybe some of you are like this as well. And so I read this, where the apostles look at the drama and they say, “No, we’re not going to do this” and my gut reaction was, “those insensitive jerks, what they think they’re better than everyone else? That’s ridiculous – they should just get in there and help.” But as I read the rest of the story – I realize this is an incredibly healthy thing to do. You see, the apostles are actual eye-witnesses to Jesus. They literally KNEW Jesus, and Jesus specifically gave them the gift of understanding so that they could teach the scriptures. That’s their area – that is where they will be the most useful. Because Jesus went back to heaven – so we’re in short supply of eye-witnesses. So what I saw as lazy, elitist, delegating is actually an invitation to work together as the church. As the active, coordinated, body of Christ – Jesus’ hands and feet.
[read v.5-7]. This is the creation of the very first ministry team. This is the creation of the very first church committee. They select these men, lay hands on them, pray over them. And then put them to work. And there’s two things I want you to realize coming out of this. First, it was not their abilities that mattered. It was their character. Back in verse 3, it says they selected people who were well respected, and full of the Holy Spirit. It does not say – we picked the people with the most soup kitchen management experience. It does not say – we picked the people with the most impressive resume, who would get us the results that we wanted. The ultimate qualification was that they were well respected, and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. This is an important thing that I think is slipping away from us in the modern church. The biblical example set in front of us for leadership is character OVER qualifications. Because of the decline we see around us, we’ve become obsessed with results. I don’t care if the politician is a bad guy or whatever, as long as he votes the way I want. I don’t care if leader of that major non-profit steals a little money or has an affair – look how big his ministry is! We look at results instead of character, and that’s a broken way to go forward. It’s not their abilities that matter, it’s their character.
The last thing I want to pull from the text is the realization that this text is the beginning of the modern form of Church. We still do leadership using this method. Every committee in this church has between five and nine leaders on the team. That sounds a lot like 7. We have a team in this church called the Committee on Lay Leadership, or just Nominations – and every year we lift up new leaders, recruit people to join the teams we need to keep this church running. And I’m not sure I say this enough – this church would crumble without those people. I am so incredibly grateful for the ministry and volunteer hours put in by our amazing leadership. I think if you add them all up, there’s something like 45 people in this church in leadership. The finance team who oversees the money, the trustees who watch over our building, the missions who help us reach out in service, the SPRC who supports staff and volunteers, endowment, gifts and memorials, outreach team, and beyond that we’ve got Sunday school volunteers, youth group chaperones, Life Group leaders, UMW, The Forge, soup kitchen crew, the office volunteers and I know I’m forgetting a bunch more – but let me just say from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for your ministry. I get all uncomfortable and awkward, because I’m the pastor – and sometimes people give the Pastor credit for any growth the church or decline of a church. And I play my part – but the biblical example, and the reality of our church – is that it takes everyone, working together, to grow a church. Your ministry is an essential part of what we are doing together in this place – and I’m really glad you are on the team.
Now, the rest of the chapter is basically an introduction to next week. One of the guys who was helping with the food distribution ministry, Stephen, has a bit of a run in with one of the other religious groups. A group called the “synagogue of freed slaves” – and they kept trying to set up debates with Stephen – but he was too clever for them. And so then, [read v.11-12]. You know that old phrase, “if you can’t beat ‘em, pay off some false witnesses to make up lies about ‘em.” You know, that old nugget. So Stephen gets arrested, and I’m going to give you a heads up – Stephen is actually very famous to Christians. Does anybody know what he’s known for? (Anybody read ahead yet?) Stephen is most famous for being the first Christian to die for his faith. Lots of Christians over the years have died, but Stephen is the very first man who was killed for his faith – and we’ll get to that next week. But they introduce him here, [read v.13-15]. Everybody stops talking, because his face has gone all radioactive, and we will pick up THAT story next week.
The good news this week that the bible has for us is that God has chosen you to serve. Last week during the stewardship moment, I told a story about a friend of mine who did not believe in herself. I had asked her to step into leadership, and she said, “I don’t know if I believe in myself” and I responded, “that’s okay, I believe in you – you can borrow my belief.” You trust me, you know I’m not an idiot, I’m good at my job – and if I believe in you, it must be true. When you can’t trust your own belief, trust mine. Because I believe in you. And she went on to do great things in leadership of that church. It’s one of my favorite stories of empowerment from my ministry, and she reached out and reminded me of that a couple months ago – it meant a lot to me. But today I want to push it farther. I want you to realize that God believes in you, even if you don’t believe in yourself. You see, I say that I believe in you – but I’m just some goofy pastor – what do I know? You might say, well – Pastor JJ believes in me, but Pastor JJ’s kind of an idiot, so that doesn’t really say much. But if I say GOD believes in you? We gonna call him a liar? We gonna call him an idiot? God has chosen you to serve. If you believe in Jesus, if you have given your life to him and will follow him – then God believes in you. He has chosen to work through you. He has great things he wants to do in and through your life. Look at it this way – if God wanted, he could just come out of the clouds and do all this stuff himself. And he would know exactly what to say and he would do it all perfectly. But that’s not how God works in the world. God, in his perfect wisdom, has chosen to use YOU, an imperfect vessel. Acts six shows us that God works through his church, and that means you. God delights in working through your broken, humble efforts.
As a Pastor, people are always asking us, “what’s your call story?” How did you KNOW that God was calling you to do his work in the world? And honestly, I used to really struggle with it – because the call is not just for Pastors. Every single person in this room has a call story. As a Christian, you are called by Jesus to be the presence of God, to do the work of God in our community. God has chosen you to serve, even if you don’t believe in yourself. Trust Him – he knows what he’s doing.
I have one challenge with two parts as we close out today. The challenge is that Your ministry begins with you, so begin your ministry. First – your ministry begins with you. Your life as a Christian, as an active agent working to transform the world for the Kingdom of God – starts right here (point at chest). If you want God to use you for his work in this world – connect with Jesus. Pray, read your bible, develop a love for your Lord and savior. Invite the Holy Spirit to transform your life. Get to know Jesus – it will literally change your life. A lot of people do the church thing without ever doing the Jesus thing. People come to service, they volunteer and help out with all the stuff around here – but what I hope you’re picking up as we look at the early church is that the institution is nothing. All this extra stuff is nice, but it’s nothing without Jesus. The starting point has to be Jesus. Get to know the one who loved you so much that he gave up his life for you. He died to free you from sin – and so building that connection is the first step to truly serving God. A lot of kids grow up in the church, and then they hit college or they graduate college and they sort of disappear from the church. And there are so many studies and theories about why do the kids leave the church, and why do some of them stay? And there’s been a couple of recent studies that show one of the most powerful indicators of whether a kid stays connected to the church – is whether a child has witnessed authentic examples of the faith. It’s not fancy programs or amazing technology. It’s looking at the people in the church, who do what they do because they love Jesus. Your ministry starts with you.
The second part of the challenge is begin your ministry! Once we have that connection to Jesus. Once the love of God becomes our motivation, we are ready to live our life for God. Every single Christian has a ministry. Now, I know that a lot of people think about ministry as like, “do I have to go out and preach, or lead a bible study or what?” But that’s not it! That might be what ministry is in MY life, and the disciples lives, but your ministry is unique. God is not calling everyone to preach – he’s calling some of us to preach, and some of us to run the food distribution program and some of us to pour coffee and some of us to hold babies in the nursery, and some of us to play instruments, and some of us make meals for soup kitchens or funeral dinners, and some of us to talk to our neighbor who just lost their job, and some of us to witness and tell strangers about Jesus, and some of us to invite our friend who just went through a divorce to church, and some of us to pray, and some of us to do visits and some of us to do phone calls. Ministry is anything you do in your life, with the love of God as your motivation. Martin Luther once said, “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” Your life’s work can be God’s work. Your ministry starts with you, so begin your ministry!
A hundred and fifty years ago, we started shifting away from the circuit rider pastors. We started having professional pastors, and church members became audience members – and in that moment the church started to die. And I hope you understand – I love my job, I enjoy every part of my ministry. I’m not complaining about how we do church. But I look at the story of this church in Acts, and I realize that ministry is for everyone. God has chosen all of us to serve together. Your ministry begins with you, and it is time to begin your ministry. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that God believes in you – even in those moments when you don’t believe in yourself. May you connect with Jesus and grow in your love of our lord and savior. And May you let that connection to live our your ministry for the rest of the world. Amen.