Sunday, 14 July 2013

Acts 6 - Multi-culturalism? Feared or favoured? A look at the infant church in Acts 6

I’ve always focused in Acts 6:1-7 on the fundamental importance of meeting the needs of the poorest.  That’s why that reading was linked with Deuteronomy 15:7-11 which speaks of the need to give to the neediest with an open hand and generous heart and Psalm 46 which speaks of the need to care for the neediest.

But as I turned to this chapter this week my eye fell on the opening verse and I found myself reflecting on big issues around us in the world today.

How do we cope with living in a world with a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of ethnicities, a multiplicity of cultures?  Do we hanker after some supposedly long lost time when there was a single culture.  In these islands, speaking as someone who speaks Welsh, we would be hard pressed to find such a time.  Speaking as someone whose elder son is a Yorkshireman even within England there have always been different forms of English.  Indeed the oldest, often shortest, most authentically English words are Angl-Saxon, but come to think of it that language emananates from central Europe.  And then there are so many words brought in from Latin and the Romans and from  French and the Normans.

Maybe, there never has been such a time.

Maybe, we should actually recognise that in every generation there is a multiplicity of peoples, languages and cultures in any land.

 How do we cope with such a multiplicity?

Fear it?  Or grasp it?

It is very easy to read the Gospels and the New Testament in a ‘black and white way’, the way I read them in Sunday School long ago, thinking the Jewish people were the Jews.  Jesus introduced something different and his followers were ‘Christians’, as if there was a single way of being Jewish at the time of Jesus and a single way of being ‘Christian’ at the time of the infant church.

It was a small step to thinking that the Jewish way was based on Law and the followers of Jesus discovered ‘grace’ as if there was no grace in the Old Testament.   I have a feeling those who follow such a path need to look again at the text of the Old Testament!

What’s fascinating is that at the time of Jesus there were many different ways of being Jewish.  Indeed the Jewish world was touched by the different cultures of that time.

The inscription on the cross was in Latin, Greek and Hebrew – maybe Jesus would have understood Latin, spoken Greek, read Hebrew and been very much at home in Aramaic.  Why do we assume he was a mono-linguist, those of us brought up in England?

The different cultures around gave rise to very real tensions.

Those tensions were very much to the fore in the Jewish world in the time leading up to the time of Jesus.  At times the tensions were greater.  At times they were less.

It was about 170 years before the time of Christ that things came to a head.  It was with the spread of Greek thinking and Greek culture that the faith of the Jewish people was put under pressure.

The Seleucid empire centred on Syria was putting pressure on Judea and the Jewish people – so much so that with the accession of Aniochus IV, Epiphanes, someone called Jason became High Priest thanks to his willingness to engage in all sorts of bribery and corruption.

Interviewed by the King he offered 360 talents of silver – a massive sum of money.  And got the job.

What 2 Maccabees tells us gives a glimpse of the way the Jewish people felt threatened by the adoption of too much of the Greek way of life.

2 Maccabees 4:11-17  He set aside the existing royal concessions to the Jews, secured through John the father of Eupolemus, who went on the mission to establish friendship and alliance with the Romans; and he destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law.  12 He took delight in establishing a gymnasium right under the citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat.  13 There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no true high priest,  14 that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hurried to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the signal for the discus-throwing,  15 disdaining the honors prized by their ancestors and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige.  16 For this reason heavy disaster overtook them, and those whose ways of living they admired and wished to imitate completely became their enemies and punished them.  17 It is no light thing to show irreverence to the divine laws-- a fact that later events will make clear.

The Maccabean revolt sought to redress the balance.  It did for a while.  But then the Romans came to power.  And the pressures were on once again.

One good barometer was sport.  How sport came to rule the roost.  Ambivalence.  Andy Murray last week, a thrilling finish to the Test this week.  Junior Rugby on a Sunday morning.  Junior Cricket on a  Sunday.  Big pressures.

Let’s bring Christian values into sport – we’ll do things on a different day.  But the Christian values are squeezed out.  Is this right?  Big pressures.

It’s not long once the Romans really come to power that Herod comes to power and the Herodian dynasty is established.  The High Priests are appointed by first Herod the Great, then his son Archelaus has the responsibility before it is then put into the hands of the Roman procurator.

This is a real hellenizing tendency.

Herod has no qualms – a contemporary Jewish historian describes his remarkable building works …

Herod the Great extended his generosity to many cities outside his boundaries.  F or Tripoli, Damascus and Ptolemais he provided gymnasia, for Byublus a wall, for Berytus and Tyre hhalls, colonnades, temples and market-places, for Sidon and Damascus theatres, for the coastal Laodicea an aqueduct and for Ascaoln baths, magnificent fountains, and cloistered quadrangles remarkable for both scale and craftsmanship.

Even Athens and Sparta, Nicopolis and Mysian |Pergamum are full of Herod’s offerings!

But his endowment of Elis was a gift not only to Greece in general but to every corner of the civilised world reached by the fame of the Olympic Games.  Seeing that the games were declining for lack of funds and that the sole relic of ancient Greece was slipping away, he not  only acted as president of the four-yearly meeting held when he happened to be on his way to Rome, but endowed them for all time with an income big enough to ensure that his presidency should never be forgotten.”   (Jewish War: I:422 translated by G.A.Williamson (Penguin Classics)

This all gave rise to big tensions.

We know from earlier on in Acts and for that matter in Luke that Jesus drew followers from all parts of the Jewish world and from beyond as well.  In Jerusalem those who were all in favour of this kind of Hellenisation and thought that these different cultures could be harnessed together who followed Jesus.  They were at home in Greek, satisfied with the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures we know as the Septuagint and they were content.

There were also people who followed Jesus who had no time for this kind of compromise across cultures – their understanding of Jewishness was very much more clear.  No, we must stand out from the world and its culture and not go along with it.

There is a tension between the two groups of people that is keenly felt.  And that tension spills over into the church.

It is very easy to look back at the past through rose tinted spectacles and imagine that the past was a time with few problems, no problems.    But from the word go the church had differences.

Maybe that should come as no surprise.  For Jesus spoke into different cultures.  What he had to offer was for everyone.  He drew Galileans, zealots, Pharisees, experts in the law, Samaritans, Centurions – a whole range of people to follow him.

By the time we reach Acts 6:1 it is highly significant that in the infant church there are Helenists and there are Hebrews.

What is interesting here is how the church community, the followers of Jesus that church in Jerusaelm dealt with the divisions that reared their ugly head.

People from both those tendencies were drawn to Christ.

And they brought into the church the tensions that were around in the Jewish world.

The first of those fracture points comes in the tension between the Hellenists and the Hebrews – those content to be Jewish through the medium of the Greek language and harness the Greek culture, and those who wanted their Jewish to stand out and be different.

Acts 6:1  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.

Clearly there was a falling out.

He Hellenists are convinced the Hebrews are neglecting their widows.

Fascinating glimpse of the way the church worked in that society – a daily distribution of food.  And within that those ancient laws taken seriously that the needs of the most neediest should be uppermost.

What happens is fascinating.

There is quite a specific problem.

Acts 6:2  And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples

This is one of the those moments when we in our Congregational Way of Being the church find our roots in the New Testament.  The apostles call the whole church together.  This is something that needs to be resolved by everyone together.

They share the problem and then suggest a way for the whole church to address the problem …

Acts 6:2-5   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,

So there are to be seven people who will serve as deacons – the apostles will devote themselves to prayer and serving the word while the deacons will serve the needs of the community and the most poor.

This is put to the church … and notice that there is a sense in which the whole church come to a mind … the process we seek to follow through in our Church meeting.

5 What they said pleased the whole community,

The whole community choose …

Acts 6:5   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.

Do you notice something?

They all have Greek names!

So the whole community decide that to meet the needs of the widows of Hellenists they will choose people best placed to serve those needs with the same language, the same kind of cultural background from the Hellenists’ community.

At this point there is not the attempt to get everyone into the same way of thinking – to say the Hellenists must all become Hebrews or vice versa, but in the church even at this point there is a willingness to affirm the different communities within the one community of the disciples of Christ.

There is a wonderful conclusion.

Acts 6:6-7  6 They had these men 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.

Even the final comment.  The priests.  Were they more of the Hebrews, or were they comfortable to work within the Herodian temple?  Interesting thought.

Isn’t it wonderful that the picture of the early church is actually a picture of a church with a multiplicity of languages, a multiplicity of ethnicities, a multiplicity of approaches to culture and they affirm those differences while harnessing everyone to work together in  Christ.

Maybe this is the key for us today.  To affirm the multiplicity, delight in it and seek to follow Christ in such a way as to enable those differences to live side by side, yet find a oneness in Christ.

It was Jonathan Rowe at our weekend away who drew our attention to the nature of Heavenly glory when it is people from all tribes and peoples and languages who stand before the lamb singing.   It is the essence of God’s glory that the multiplicity of languages is heard.

If you want a foretaste of heaven on earth don’t look for a place with a single culture, a single language, look instead to a High Street where every language under heaven can be heard … for that will be a foretaste of that rich multiplicity there is in heaven!

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might

be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’ 

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