(There is some news about the book just below this post.)
About 30 years or so ago a man named Charles E. Hummel wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of the Urgent. It talked about learning to discern between important matters and the urgent thing that blindside us and distract us from what we really should be doing. It was a helpful little booklet.
Another way of saying the same thing is: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” No one knows who really said that. My pastor used it in sermons years ago. Stephen Covey has it posted on his website. But that’s not the main thing…
1In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2So the Twelve gathered all 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. 3Brothers, 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 4and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
5This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7So the word of God spread.
What’s going on here?
First, our story begins in the middle of a typically stupid church fight. One group of church members was feeling slighted by the treatment of another, and started complaining about it. The church at that point existed by sharing what they had in common, and distributing it according to need, and the complaint actually shows us what an amazing community the early church had turned out to be:
They weren’t just doing spiritual things.
They weren’t just gathering once a week to see each other.
Church life wasn’t an interruption or distraction from what they were really doing with their lives.
The community of faith in these early days was exactly that: a community where people worked, worshipped, served, prayed and shared meals. The fact that a problem over distribution of those meals shows up as a complaint is evidence of how much must have been going right in those early days.
Second, the problem was that the leading disciples were caught in-between managing a minor conflict and doing their job of preaching and teaching the gospel. In those early days the message of Jesus was in the process of being shaped from first-hand accounts to the stories and documents and instruction we have today in the form of the New Testament. Communicating that message to people who were not first-hand witnesses was the first order of business for the apostles of the early church.
Notice that their response to the needs around them wasn’t to say: ‘Go be quiet and fix this yourselves.’ No, they acted decisively and chose seven of the best and brightest among them to oversee that part of the ministry. This is the birth of the deacon function in church life, by the way. In a lot of churches this separation of labor still exists: elders gather for prayer and business and the organizational leadership of the church, and deacons make sure that the resources of the church are used to meet the needs of the people both in and out of the church.
Third, in verse 5 we see one of the most shocking statements in the entire New Testament, if not all of church history. This one really shook the walls then, and we can only hope to come close to being able to say it here or in any contemporary church. What was this shocking statement?
‘The proposal pleased the whole church.’
Think about that for a moment. A conflict springs up about the ministry of the church, and the leadership decides on a course of action that the whole church agrees with and supports.
Finally, after they prayed for these leaders and commissioned them to do their ministry, what happened? The Scriptures tell us that ‘The word of God spread.’
Before the modern Civil Service system was established in the US, people who wanted government jobs lined up to ask the president directly. The line could run around the president’s residence and down the street. Isn’t that hard to imagine? One applicant in the early 1880s was so angered that he didn’t get the job he wanted that he later shot the president, James Garfield.
Chester Arthur, who took over after Garfield died, immediately signed the Pendleton Act into law, not least because he didn’t want to run the risk of being assassinated himself. That law established the modern Civil Service system in the US, which created a fair process for hiring people who worked with the public on behalf of the government.
The Pendleton Act allowed the government to meet all of its responsibilities. The president and the rest of the executive branch of government could do the job they were elected to do, and the Civil Service office could give out public jobs in a way that was fair and impartial and not connected to political favoritism. Both of those are important parts of the function of government.
It’s important to notice in our passage this morning what the disciples did not decide to do. They didn’t say that since their work was more important to the life of the church, that the other activities should be cut. They didn’t say that if food distribution was getting in the way of the worship life of the church, that they should stop doing it. They figured out a way to do both things well. And the Scriptures tell us that ‘the word of God spread.’
In the real world churches have to do the same thing. We balance the needs of managing the organizational, social, business and financial needs of the church with its spiritual, communal and even our theological function—teaching people about God. There’s a lot of business to do here at this church—maybe more than in some other churches—but the focus should always be on the main thing: To provide Christian community for everyone who comes through the door. To provide a place of fellowship and worship, Christian discipleship and opportunities to serve in the mission of Christ’s Kingdom.
In other words we focus on providing a place where the whole range of church life can grow and thrive: close relationships built on Jesus Christ; faithful, passionate worship; study of the Scriptures; and sharing the gospel with the world around us. That task can be daunting sometimes, but I don’t have any doubts that we are able to accomplish it together.
This year we celebrate the 60th anniversary of another daunting task: the Berlin Airlift. The war in Europe had been over for just a few years, and the Cold War was just getting off the ground. In an attempt to get sole control of the city of Berlin, the Soviet Union closed the railways, the Autobahn and other ways leading into the city. There was no treaty that secured the rights to enter the city for the other Allies, and so Berlin was cutoff from the rest of the world. At the time Berlin had about 35 days worth of food in reserve, and a month and half’s worth of fuel.
The British and American Air Forces joined together and after a slow start, by the second week they were delivering 1000 tons of food and fuel into Berlin every day. By the end of the airlift, when the Soviet Union finally reopened the roads and rails, the airlift was averaging almost 8000 tons of goods per day—more than the city had been receiving on the ground before the blockade.
It’s important for healthy churches to be responsive like that. To take on responsibility for meeting needs and overcoming petty squabbles and obstacles. None of those armies or governments or nations collapsed by taking part in the Berlin airlift. There was still a general election in the States in 1948. American baseball was still racially integrated—and so was the US military. The Marshall Plan didn’t grind to a halt just because the airlift took some of the resources. The need to serve Berlin didn’t mean that everything else fell apart.
What we learn from the early church in our passage today is that churches in the real world figure out how to meet needs, to serve people, to be the hands of Jesus in the world without losing their identity as the voice of Jesus Christ. Sharing the gospel and meeting the needs of people are the two undiluted, inseparable pieces of the Main Thing.
And if the main thing is the main thing, then everything else is, well, secondary.
We live out our calling to be the church of Jesus Christ when we remember what that true calling is: being the hands and voice of Christ himself in the world. We do that by remembering that a true church—one that provides fellowship, worship, Christian nurture and service—that a true church is engaged in the culture, grounded in the words of Scripture, and alive to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
If you’ve come today with needs, with things you want to talk about or share. If you’ve come feeling lonely or if you’ve come wanting share the abundance you feel in your own life. We will never say to you: ‘Go away, be quiet and fix this yourselves.’ This place can take it. As a community of faith this church wants to be a refuge and a place of comfort, as well as a place of service and celebration.
God acted decisively in Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and he calls us to act decisively in meeting the needs of the world around us.
At this church we seek to focus on the main thing, so the word of God can spread and take root and come alive.
As we come to the Table this morning we are reminded of the one who calls us to this new life. Let’s stand and prepare for Communion today by singing together: Fairest Lord Jesus, #227 in the Pilgrim Hymnal.