At Valley Worship this morning, James Wright led the service, Sonia Cragg was interviewed for Every Day Lives, Tania Haskell read the lesson and Revd Alex Pease preached and James Greig led us in prayer.
Here is the audio recording of the talk. Unfortunately I started recording at the fourth paragraph!
Acts 6-8 St Stephen and Leadership
‘’So the Twelve gathered 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 [we] will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’…so they chose Stephen….” Verses 2-4
We are in the sixth chapter of St Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles. We have seen how Jesus, after his resurrection, has been taken into heaven. The disciples have felt alone and bereft, but, wonderfully, as Tim Clapp explained in the January Valley Worship, the Holy Spirit has come on the disciples at Pentecost; Peter and the apostles have found a new boldness (as I said in the February Valley Worship), a new boldness to speak the gospel to the crowd and before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council. Peter has healed a lame beggar and now the other apostles have been performing signs and wonders and have been teaching in the temple…
This leads to their arrest and, regardless of all danger, the apostles give a spirited explanation of the gospel, speaking of Jesus’ resurrection to the very people who arranged for Christ to be crucified.
We are at a key moment in the history of the church. The Sandhedrin are furious and want to kill the apostles, but Rabbi Gamaliel counsels them (Chapter 5:38) “Leave these men alone, let them go! For if their purpose is of human origin, it will fail, but if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men. You will only find yourself fighting against God’.
I believe this is actually the last opportunity that the Sanhedrin have to quash Christianity in its infancy, before it grew exponentially. The last chance….because of what happens next….
Like many key moments in history, it all starts with something which seems quite trivial…
Within the church the Hellenistic (or gentile) widows are losing out to the Jewish widows in the distribution of food. So the apostles get together to decide what to do….
I will read the passage again:
‘’So the Twelve gathered 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 we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’….So they chose Stephen….”
As you know, we are looking at the Acts of the Apostles. We are going back to the roots of the church, this year in Valley Worship to discern, after the devastation of the pandemic, what our church should look like; to find out what the characteristics are of a church which started from 12 disciples and now fills the entire world!
We have spoken about the Holy Spirit and boldness. This month I am speaking about leadership. And using the very specific example of St Stephen
Don’t you think its odd that St Luke records the apostles as saying, ’It would not be right for us to wait on tables’. They are essentially saying ‘so let’s find some people who will wait on tables.
And then we will concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word’. Why could that possibly be of interest to St Luke’s readers? Remember that Acts was painstakingly written out on scrolls and copied again and again by hand, a paragraph had to be really important to be included….Not like today when we are swamped with copy…
Why could it possibly be of importance for us to know about the apostles arrangements for feeding widows? Why not just dive into the story about Stephen at Chapter 6 verse 8, speaking about Stephen as a man full of God’s grace and power who performed great wonders and signs among the people and who was thrown in gaol and then stood up to the Sanhedrin. Why all this waiting at tables business?
When I was at theological college,some of the ordinands used to say that they were looking forward, when they were appointed as vicars, to preaching, but some weren’t so keen on the whole idea of pastoral care….the looking after the physical and emotional needs of people. And I know some very able world class preachers who say ‘pastoral care is not my ‘gifting…’
In doing so, perhaps they are being a bit like the apostles here….‘Its not our gifting to wait at tables’. ’Or we are too busy’. ‘We will concentrate on prayer and the ministry of the word’!
In other words we will do the really important stuff of ‘prayer and preaching’ and leave what they thought was the less exciting business of looking after people to others…..
Perhaps they still had the Jewish mindset of a rabbi and disciples in their minds: The disciples do the work and the rabbi speaks…
But quite apart from the fact that you cannot possibly do the preaching unless you do the pastoral care: they are in fact two sides of the same coin, …the way of Christianity, the way of Jesus, is so different from that mindset…We Christians are, after all, following a man whom Paul describes in Philippians 2:6, like this: ‘[Jesus] being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used for his advantage. Rather he made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness and being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross’
Its all upside down with Jesus: Jesus has already voluntarily put down equality with God, the creator of the universe, to become a man, who then allows himself to be crucified like a slave…..Why then would Jesus expect the apostles to concentrate on prayer and preaching, to the exclusion of working at tables?
I have sometimes said to you before, that I learned more about leadership in my nine months in the regular army than at any stage in the 25 years at my law firm, or since then, in the church.
One of the great characteristics of good army officers is what is called ‘Servant leadership’. And this is epitomised every Christmas when all the other ranks in a regiment have a great Christmas lunch in their canteen and the commissioned officers wait at the tables…..A great military principle, which always used to be taught when feeding troops, was: ‘Horses first men second, officers last’. And of course the motto of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst is ‘Serve to lead’.
So what happens when the apostles select Stephen and the others ‘to wait on tables’? The Holy Spirit demonstrates something to the apostles, showing himself to be sent by Jesus and the Father and to be in their character. The Holy Spirit shows in Stephen leadership which is every bit the equal of the apostles…We discover, in verse 8, ‘Stephen….performed great wonders and signs among the people’. Stephen provokes opposition but his opponents cannot stand up ‘against the wisdom that the Spirit gave him’. He is arrested brought before the Sanhedrin and gives a long speech to them, a brilliant exposition of the whole of the story of Israel in the Jewish Bible. He then brings this exposition to its passionate conclusion, by the end of Chapter 7:
‘You stiff necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors – You always resist the Holy Spirit…You have now betrayed and murdered [The Righteous One]’.
The Jewish council are furious and he is dragged out and stoned to death…..He dies seeing Christ on his throne and, like Jesus, calls on Father God to forgive them’
What a surprising outcome! Selected to wait at tables, Stephen becomes known for ever as the first Christian martyr; the first of the leaders of the church to break out from the 12 apostles….and as the church is scattered by persecution – Chapter 8, taking with them, presumably, many other disciples who, following Stephen’s lead, and having the anointing of the apostles, have become leaders themselves….and the great explosion of the church across the world begins…..
The Holy Spirit, in His wisdom, has not limited Stephen to waiting at tables, has not limited the preaching and teaching of the Word of God to the apostles.
Firstly, The church has to learn the lesson of Stephen in every generation.
There is a great danger for churches of stagnation by the dead hand of clericalism. Of the danger of everything which is exciting in the church being done by the clergy, and the day to day hard slog of looking after people being done by everyone else. Like the apostles, clergy can find themselves holding onto responsibility for prayer and preaching, keeping the joy of teaching the truth to themselves, keeping it separate from the the followers, who listen and learn and do the boring bits like waiting on tables….
But a church which limits itself, (leaving the important tasks of prayer and preaching to the professionals, to the appointed leaders) also fails to allow the Holy Spirit to work in the disciples, to work in the followers in a way which leads to the exponential growth which theologians call revival.
Secondly, what makes a good leader in the church, the key criteria is being full of the Holy Spirit, enabling you to have wisdom and to do things which are way beyond your innate capability to do by yourself..This is potentially something which we can all do because it depends on him not us, if we open ourselves to the gentle prompting of the Holy Spirit, and follow his lead and don’t vex or grieve him.
It has been so important for us in Itchen Valley to build up a Parish Ministry Team of leaders, pray-ers and preachers which makes this parish stand out from so many other parishes in Winchester Diocese, particularly in rural areas. There is no doubt, in my view, that this will lead others to want to join our church and the growth will be dynamic and exciting for all of us.
But how do we decide who to invite to be our leaders, pray-ers and preachers?
Some have said, and many more may have thought ‘Why has Alex chosen him or her….And not me?’
In the selection of people for the BCM (Bishops Commission for Mission) training and for the Ministry Team, it has been for me to discern, and I have asked people not to ask to be selected, that I will invite…But how do I decide?
Well in the way that the apostles did in Chapter 6 of Acts. I have chosen people who I discern to be full of the Spirit and wisdom, but who are also people who are willing to wait at tables, to do some of the tiresome church jobs that need to be done; People who I perceive to have humility, who are teachable, because humility, a willingness to learn, is not only the basic qualification for leadership (‘Serve to lead’ could easily be a motto for the church, as much as it is the motto for Sandhurst) but is also the basic threshold for the Holy Spirit to be able to do his work in each of us. And it is only when that humility can be seen in us that the Holy Spirit will give us more and more responsibility in the Kingdom of God
So I urge all of you, aspire to be a leader in the church, but do so by developing your relationship with the Holy Spirit, through humility, through waiting at tables and doing the other boring jobs which need to be done in a church community, through studying God’s word, the Bible, through turning to allow yourself to be formed into Jesus’s image, so that you become known and are seen to be full of the Spirit and of wisdom.
As you do so, the momentum will continue to build in this Parish, even as the current rector steps down from leading the church, because it is a momentum which is fired by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who gives us the wisdom to speak truth into the hearts of men and women
As the momentum builds, more and more of us will be able to lead and the world around us will be transformed
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 men 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 men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Ac 6:1–9). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.