Meaningful Ministry

Luke 8:1-3; Acts 6:1-6
Gurukul Lutheran Theological College, Worship, Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India, July 26, 1998
Mennonite Brethren Bible College, Chapel, Shamshabad, Hyderabad, India, February 2012

Our title applies to each of us. Not a role limited to a few in robes, all Christian believers are ministers, I believe. We have the task of sharing God’s Good News of inclusion. Not limited to seminary graduates either, each person in a pew—or those here seated on the floor—has received the sacred duty to live out, explain, and listen to other’s insight into God’s truth. In those roles, we minister.

To plan segments for gathered worship reflects sacred ministry. I have found that the content assigned for this evening is prophetic about ministry. I value preaching that results from disciplined study of texts. And I expect you to be disciplined hearers also. My accent will sound odd to most of you; yours often does for me.

The task of interpreting scripture is sacred. We do it all the time in the way we live. We all bring bias or vested interest to our study of texts too. You will note details of an account, due to your combined experience, which may bypass my notice. Since learning about texts is best done in community, I invite you to think of features of two texts from writer Luke’s chapter 8 and Acts 6. Read texts.

Often, how men have interpreted texts is not adequate for me. I a woman, a trained teacher, an author, a US citizen, a wife and parent, an advocate for justice, a Mennonite who values informal worship, a Christian who values people of other living faiths, a person with experience in leading, and one who chooses with care whom to follow. All of those features shape my concept of ministry. They all enter into my process of reading scripture. They all encounter God’s Spirit—also called Wisdom or Sophia.

So, we turn to biblical examples of ministry. We begin with Luke’s brief insertion into his gospel’s section of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Luke 8:1-3 follows the incident where a woman shows her deep love to Jesus by anointing his feet and drying his feet with her hair.

Beginning with chapter eight, the character of Jesus’ ministry changes. Away from a more settled synagogue, he faces increased hatred. At the same time, his motley band of followers becomes more convinced. Ever on the move—focused, yet wandering—Jesus tours from town to village through and around Galilee. A wonderful black and white film produced by an Italian, titled “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” depicts that region so well. Sent by God—or God’s agent to proclaim God’s present yet future Way—Jesus talks. He tells about things past, about deliverance to come. Reluctant to use the word gospel (evangelion), Luke instead stresses the “kingdom of God.” He refers to it thirty-eight times, once in this section. Jesus the herald preaches; in that, he fulfills Isaiah’s words. He anticipates wholeness or salvation, when people will no longer be subject to evil and sin.

Our short text might be seen as preparation for sending out the Twelve, which begins with the next chapter. Two groups of followers are mentioned here: The Twelve and some women. Judaism of Jesus’ day was not prepared for the way Jesus cured, associated with, and included women among his apostles. Some Christians still resist the leadership of women. Having been healed, women like Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna not only followed him; they provided money for Jesus and the Twelve. Through such income, they thanked Jesus for his friendship. They ministered in deep ways. Their service was not limited to hosting meals, even as the disciple group became too large to be hosted in homes.

These women had known Jesus’ ministry. As well-to-do women served Jesus, he accepted their kindness for his healing gift. Be aware that demon possession and sinfulness are not the same. Mary here is not the sinful woman of the prior chapter. But writers struggle to explain Mary of Magdala’s “seven demons.” Some try hard to portray her as evil. Some debate whether she had a “stubborn form of mental illness,” or whether the number seven referred to recurrence or severity of being possessed. Few have the wisdom to admit that whatever “possessed” her could well have resulted from how she had been socialized. The demon of patriarchy—of male control and female submission—had likely deprived and diminished her. But Jesus credits her worth. In a radical way, he denounces how society harmed women. His ministry of acceptance healed them. And he refused to minister only to men. He expected women to minister to and with him. To accept them as whole people led to their wholeness.

Since coming to Chennai, I attended a conference about Indian women and mental illness. Gurukul people should all see a documentary, prepared by the National Commission on Women, Delhi, which depicts how mentally troubled women are tormented. How some agency workers restore self-worth in women earlier deprived of it is remarkable. The repeated comments about male violence toward many women, or the dreadful burden that some daughters carry when driven to marry, were equally revealing. I cannot help but connect such experience with the so-called “demons” that Mary Magdalene had known. Why might I interpret this scripture in this way? Is that just my bias? Do men reflect their bias when they fail to see how society might have driven Mary to despair? All people who minister must see the link between lack of self-worth and emotional stress, I believe.

We should also notice this text’s mention of Joanna and Mary of Magdala, a fishing village. The reference here foreshadows their role at the cross and tomb. Luke reports from resurrection morning: (24:10-11) “And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But their words seemed to [the eleven] an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” Some Christians still refuse to believe women’s firm witness, the fact that they are apostles. We know nothing further about Susanna. The text notes that Joanna was the wife of Chuza, who was the steward or estate manager of Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee.

Our second text is from the first six verses of Acts 6. It reflects more about the history of early Christian ministry. Whereas the first five chapters of Acts report on early church activity in Jerusalem, from chapter six-on, accounts come from more scattered places. Ties to Jewish traditions decrease. Verse 1 states: “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution.”

Conflict erupted. As any group gets larger, the tendency to spawn difference of views grows too. People’s ideas about God or how to live together differ and change. Two groups meet. Hellenists were Jews who spoke Greek while Hebrews were Jews who spoke the common Aramaic. With the varied languages spoken by people here at Gurukul, you can understand how issues of language might disrupt the early church. Most Hellenists had lived outside of Palestine. As they moved into Jerusalem from more scattered places, they experienced the local Hebrews as more resistant to adopt new ideas. At the same time, the Hebrews thought the Hellenists were too influenced by Greek ways. Can’t you just feel the tension? Judgments often affect relationships.

If you were to state the main problem named here, from teachers you have heard on the text, might most of you say that poor, Hellenist widows were not receiving the charity due to them? That view appeared among most writers whom I studied. Widows have rarely been treated justly. Without legal protection, others take disadvantage of them. In societies where a woman’s identity depends on her ties to a husband, a widow loses a sense of who she herself is. Diminished, she knows further injustice. You may recall the history of the rite of sati here in India. Perhaps at more risk, because they were newcomers into Jerusalem, the Hellenist widows lacked their support system. Even so, the Hebrews might have reminded themselves that “to do justice to widows reflect[s] loyalty to the covenant.” But that thought could be as tough to recall as Jeremiah’s stark comment, “To know God is to do justice.”

I wish to note another view of the first verse of Acts 6. Try to set aside the interpretation that the widows were poor, that they were not receiving due charity. Some writers believe that a more faithful reading of the Greek text hears the comment to say that the Hellenist widows were “neglected in the daily distribution.” Clearly, they were being bypassed from serving the Lord’s Supper. The daily distribution likely refers to “the table,” the Lord’s Table or Holy Communion. Whenever believers gathered, they ate a light meal with bread and wine. Having come from more Greek regions, where women were known as hosts and leaders, those Hellenist widows, on entering more conservative, Jewish, Jerusalem where women were excluded from priestly office, were not allowed to serve the eucharist.

If Gurukul patterns were to restrict me from serving communion, whereas I have done so at home, I could feel “neglected in the distribution.” I could experience the Indian church as less willing to adopt Christian interpretations. I could address the injustice of extending less value to me because I am a woman, whereas I firmly believe that Jesus radically confronted that system of patriarchy. Conflict could follow, especially if other prejudice also exists or if an entire group of people feels neglected.

My intent is not to insist that you, from here on, interpret this verse to mean that the Hellenist widows were not allowed to serve communion. I value that option. It makes sense of the conflict. But each of us must decide why we interpret it the way we do. Each needs to be honest about our bias and then live out our convictions about including women in all forms of sacred ministry.

Another serious ministry question appears in Acts 6, following verse 1, about widows. Verses 2-6 review the appointment of seven “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” The Twelve summoned the community of disciples. This is the only place in Acts where apostles are called the Twelve; otherwise, apostle refers more broadly to “sent ones.” Note that the whole body of disciples is consulted. Verse 3 asks the “brethren” to pick the candidates. The word “brethren,” when used in the New Testament, refers to all the believers present. But some men who translate the Greek word into English, may use a term that refers only to men. In that, biased translators limit who English readers will expect to find involved. However, the early church was more inclusive; they meant the believers. Verse 5 states that the whole multitude was pleased with the decision to appoint more ministers; it then lists those whom they chose.

I hope that you notice the breadth of involvement here. The decision about whom to appoint to ministry was not left to a few people. The entire group was valued similarly; all were credited with inner authority. Contrary to patterns that developed through church history, the early church knew, likely from Jesus’ radical way of valuing each person, that all members should select leadership, for it to be healthy.

Twice when I was a teenager, my Mennonite congregation needed to make decisions about the team of ministers for our group of 350 members. In both instances, every member of the church named the person from within the membership that she or he thought was most qualified to carry out the tasks. Each of us, in a spirit of prayer, chose who we felt would be an effective minister. Each of us felt ownership in the process, as well as dependent on God. In both instances, names of two or three people occurred more often than other names. When the congregation next gathered for worship, each candidate selected a Bible from a table at the front of the church. There was one more Bible than the number of candidates, in case God’s plan differed from ours. A slip of appointment appeared inside one Bible, called the “lot”. The candidate who found a slip was ordained. We expected that person to be as accountable to us as we were to our new minister.

The process in Acts 6 and in my church stress the fact that each believer in God has authority. God has so invested each of us, not only a few leaders. To deprive anyone of her or his rightful authority or power is unjust; it is sinful I believe. As each believer claims personal authority, each then chooses with whom to extend a measure of that authority, for a period of time. To be responsible for the authority that another chooses to extend to me means that I in turn re-invest authority in those who trust me. I am not faithful if I retain that power primarily for myself. If I fail to re-invest or enable others themselves to be qualified leaders and ministers, I have not been accountable for the authority shared with me.

Each believer, endowed by God, needs to be selective and purposeful in sharing personal power. Leaders who claim our power for themselves, or who manipulate us, do not deserve our power. We are faithful with the power God has given us only if we refuse to further invest it in those who do not deserve our trust. To be worthy ministers, I also believe that we exchange our roles. Effective leaders or ministers exchange their positions. They become followers while those re-invested with power become the new leaders. And so, the pattern recurs.

God knew about power; in wisdom God continues to invest each believer with gifts to share with the community. But power, if it stays locked or possessed by only a few, corrupts. Jesus himself ministered for three years. Stephen, one of those appointed in Act 6, ministered for an even shorter period of time. Full of wisdom and willing to take risks of speaking what the Spirit inspired, Stephen was stoned—the first Christian martyr. And Saul, who later became missioner Paul, stood there consenting to Stephen’s death, we’re told.

Moving from Luke’s how for selecting leaders—for all believers to exercise and protect their power—let’s turn to other details from the text. Verse 2 states that the Twelve said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” What will we do with the division of labor proposed here—preaching God’s word and serving tables? Serving tables is portrayed as something lesser, it seems. At least, if apostles who preach and pray should not give up those roles in order to do charity (or serve communion), that implies that proclaiming the word has more merit. Such a value judgment troubles me.

Does this text reflect an unhealthy, Early Church plunge into caste divisions? And, if so, dare we promote such divisions within ministry today? Will we excuse ourselves when we esteem some members more than others? When we pray for some more than others? Or, will we take the risk to confront such sanction of class distinction that creates deep wounds of injustice? I refuse to bless caste for ministers of the church that follows Jesus—the Jesus who radically judged groups of religious leaders who thought they were more righteous.

We look yet at qualities of ministers that matter. “Seven men.” Hmm. Only men to assist the widows who are all women? That type of sexual division for leadership has caused pain for centuries. It denies Jesus’ pattern of expecting women to lead. It denies the many women who Paul credits as his co-workers. One writer could only commend the women in Acts 6 for “starting Stephen on his mission.” The seven men all have Greek names; that may mean that they empathized with Hellenist concerns. However, they might have had Hebrew names also. Few commentaries that I examined discuss other than Stephen and Philip. However, I learned that Proch’oros was the man to whom John dictated his gospel. And Nicola’us later became the founder of a heretical sect.

“Being of good repute and full of the Spirit,” remain as good qualities to seek when choosing ministers. Verse 3 refers to Sophia, one of four times that She is mentioned in the book of Acts. (6:3, 10, 7:10, 22) Here, Stephen is described as “a man full of faith and of Sophia.” We often think of him as a prophet. Already Spirit-led, the group was appointed. While Philip was presumed appointed to do charity or administrative tasks—perhaps to manage funds or property—we are told more of his ministry as a missionary, before that title was used by the early church. So, why imply that Acts 6 blesses caste divisions for ministry, I repeat? We know that Philip shared the gospel in a city of Samaria (8:5). He met, explained scriptures for, and baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (8:29). He “preached to all the towns till he came to Caesarea (8:40). We need also to recall that he had four daughters who preached and prophesied. (21:9)

Some interpreters identify the seven appointed in Acts 6 as deacons. Church groups that use titles and positions to extend different values to certain roles likely stress the deacon role here. But, if we are free to think of the Hellenist widows as deprived of hosting the communion table, we might also admit that no other reference appears here to what later became known as deacon work—assisting the poor, or social work. Further, in light of what we know of Stephen’s power to do “great wonders and signs,” his ministry is not typically diaconal.

How interpreters explain the word deacon reminds me of Phoebe’s story. Paul identifies Phoebe in Romans 16 as sister, minister, and leading officer. He uses the term diakonon, a term that occurs twenty-one times in the epistles. The Authorized Version of the Bible translates seventeen of those with the word minister, three with deacon, and one—the one reference to Phoebe in Romans 16—as servant. Why, other than because of prejudice against women as ministers, would that happen? Further, the term deacon of the second-century church—when categories or strata or caste for leadership were being instituted—does not duly translate the word diakonon of the first century. The sacred task of interpreting biblical accounts is often distorted through the bias of those who do it. I hope that seminary students perceive the problem.

Let’s examine a final point from verse 6: “These (seven) they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.” In the First Testament, to “lay hands” on a person symbolized to transfer some power, to assume a task, or to establish a vital link between two people, as when Moses bestowed some of his honor onto Joshua. In other texts, the rite mediates the Holy Spirit; it heals or it blesses. Our Acts 6 text likely refers to assuming such a task.

New situations always call for new forms of ministry. Leaders of Acts 6 willingly shared important tasks. Not overlooking disciples who also had gifts of ministry, leaders dispersed their power. They enabled what was inherent in others. Not intent to stockpile power, they honored the authority of ordinary folk. Not dependent that others defer to them, they transferred and valued, rather than being threatened by, the strengths of others. In those expressions we find healthy leadership. May all students of scripture, all faculty and students, claim new vision for ministry. May we learn from Susanna, and Mary Magdalene; from worthy widows, women who deserve to serve the Lord’s table; from Stephen and Philip.

AMEN/So be it.