I have a vocabulary word for you: liminality. Have you heard of that word? The dictionary defines Liminality as “a state of transition between one stage and the next, especially between major stages in one’s life or during a rite of passage.” It is a threshold.
Sound familiar? In the last week or two, do any of you feel like that? I do. In the last week, I think I have received at least 50 emails from different organizations telling me about how they are responding to the coronavirus. I have received multiple similar emails and podcasts from Christian ministries with ideas about how churches and pastors should respond to the virus and the shutdowns and quarantines.
We’re not only facing the virus, we’re also facing the response to the virus. It can feel overwhelming. We’re not where we once were, and we’re not where we’re going to be. The world is changing, suddenly, rapidly, and we are in the middle of it. We don’t know how this is all going to turn out. That’s a threshold moment. That’s liminality.
And that is exactly where the early church was at in Acts chapter 6.
For the last month or so, we’ve been studying Acts, trying to learn how the early church lived out their faith in the world, so that we can learn to better live out our faith in our world. How do we live out faith in Jesus during the coronavirus? I believe what we’re about to read in Acts can really help us. So please open your Bibles to Acts 6, verse 8.
Before we start looking at the events recorded starting in Acts 6:8, I want us to remember the liminal moment that the early church is experiencing. By Acts 6:8, the church is probably no more than 2-3 years old. We don’t know for sure. They started out as 120 followers of Jesus, staying in the city of Jerusalem, and now have grown to thousands of people. Acts 4:4 tells us that just the number of men was 5,000. How many more women and children were there? Not to mention the increase in the church that happened between Acts 4:4 and Acts 6:8. The church was multiplying. But things were not all perfect and happy. Thus far in our study, we have seen numerous crises in the church, internally and externally. Twice actually: once in chapter 4 and once in chapter 5, leaders of the church were thrown in prison, severely accused by the ruling elites, and even harshly beaten. We need to remember this larger context. Though they church was growing, many people in power were strongly opposed to the church, threatening to destroy it. The church knew this. I’m talking about those thousands of people who were part of the church. They knew that the religious leaders were watching them. They knew the Roman leaders had killed Jesus at the drop of a hat, and they could easily purge the church as well. This was their liminal moment. They didn’t know how it would turn out.
While the church was practicing amazing love and generosity to one another, and while the Spirit of God was at work in miraculously ways, and while the church was growing, like the walls of the city of Jerusalem around them there was a very ominous threat that was a part of their everyday existence. The religious leaders had multiple times commanded the apostles to stop preaching Jesus, and multiple times the apostles had disobeyed, and multiple times the apostles had been jailed. The people knew this, and they felt the weight of a very present danger around them. How will they respond to their liminal moment?
In the remainder of chapter 6, through all of chapter 7, we learn about an awful incident that happened to one man in the early church, Stephen, whose story actually begins in chapter 6 verses 1-7. There we learn about one of the three crises in the church that we discussed previously. To review, read Acts chapter 6, verses 1-7.
What the author, Luke, is describing is a social action ministry of food distribution to vulnerable people in the church, widows. This flows from the account of the church’s great love for one another that we’ve seen multiple times already, first in chapter 2 verses 42-47, then again in chapter 4, verses 32-37. This crisis was that the one group of widows was getting preferential treatment, and one group of widows was being overlooked.
These were all Jews who believed in Jesus, but they didn’t speak the same language.
The early church was comprised of Jews from many different countries who spoke different languages. Some were not from Jerusalem or Israel, and thus their first language was likely the language of their home country, and the primary world language of the day, Greek. Many other Jewish Christians in the early church were from Jerusalem or Israel and thus their first language was Aramaic, and maybe Hebrew, but to a much lesser extent Greek. So you have two distinct groups of the people in the early church, separated by a language and cultural barrier. As the church creates this social support program out of love for widows, you can imagine how this unfolds.
Think about how difficult it can be to communicate with a call center in another country. They are speaking English, but their accent is not American, and it can be hard to understand. Faith Church going to be renting a couple rooms of our building to a Burmese Christian church, and it is hard to communicate with them. In fact, when we showed them the space, they called up a translator on the phone, and we communicated via speaker phone using the translator. When I need to contact a company that uses a call center, and now when I communicate with the Burmese pastor, I have found that what facilitates communication is texting. Texting removes the accent, and can be translated easily online. Well the early church didn’t have the benefit of texting or Google Translate. You can imagine how frustrated they might have been, and the result was that the Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked.
What did the apostles do? They told the church to select godly leaders to resolve this. The church selected seven men, and the apostles commissioned them. I want you to notice something in chapter 6 verse 5. The men all have Greek names. That means that the people and the apostles wanted to reach the Greek-speaking people in their church. I love that heart. They knew Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked, so they selected Greek-speaking leaders to make sure there would be equity.
One of those Greek-speaking leaders was Stephen. Stephen, and Philip who we’ll meet next week, were not just chosen because they were good at food distribution. They were chosen because they were godly leaders, and while they were tasked to solve the food distribution problem, they also did much other ministry. That is what the story of chapters 6 and 7 are about, Stephen’s ministry and the horrible way it turned out. In the next post we’ll begin to learn about it.