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Sermon: The Holy Spirit And Serving

Acts 6:1-15

You are having coffee after the service, and chatting with friends. In the corner of your vision, you notice a church steward approaching you.

“I wonder if you’ve ever considered that vacancy for a Property Steward that’s been in the notice sheet for a few weeks.”

Uh-oh. Now you know why you attracted the interest.

Fortunately, you can play your spiritual ‘Get out of jail free’ card: “I’ll pray about it.”

And the steward walks away, knowing that “I’ll pray about it” is church code for “No”.

Vacancies: finding someone to take on a job is a bane of church life. The constitution says certain vacancies must be filled, or more positively a specific need is identified and we need someone to head up that new initiative. When several people turn down the opportunity, and we finally discover someone who is willing to have their arm twisted, we breathe a sigh of relief. Thus it is that we can sometimes end up with the wrong people doing things they were never suited to in the church.

There’s an urgent need in the early church. In an age devoid of social security, Greek widows are missing out on food distribution, whereas Hebrew widows aren’t. There is no question of ignoring this: caring for the poor is fundamental to the life of the church. This must be done.

But the apostles have too much on their hands. And important as feeding the widows is, you can’t take them away from their primary calling. So the hunt is on for people to do the job.

So far, so similar to us.

But from here on, their story departs from ours. Their approach to finding people to serve is not the campaign of desperation we are used to mounting. Unlike us, they don’t scratch their heads and say, “Who on earth can we approach this time?” Instead, the apostles know the criteria:

Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. (Verse 3)

‘Full of the Spirit and wisdom.’ It’s the first of three statements in this story of Stephen and these early servants, possibly the prototypes of later deacons, that references the Holy Spirit as key to Christian service. This story would tell us one important fact in a number of ways: to take on any form of service for Jesus Christ, from the most spectacular to the most humbling, we need to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

I suppose you think I could stop there? I would be happy if we all caught that message: all Christian service requires the Holy Spirit.

But I need to earn my crust, so I want to explore those three statements in the reading about the Holy Spirit’ association with serving. Each time, the work of the Spirit is associated with another spiritual quality. And it’s no accident, because each time that quality associated with the Spirit is vital for the Christian life in general and for acts of service in particular.

We’ve heard the first on already: ‘full of the Holy Spirit and … wisdom’. Wisdom, according to Isaiah, is a gift of the Spirit. But what is wisdom? Is it intellect? No. Anyone can have the spiritual gift of wisdom, regardless of their academic abilities.

Is it the experience someone accumulates at ‘the university of life’? No, not really. That can be helpful, but it can be no more than folksy and it can just be hokum and old wives’ tales.
The Spirit’s gift of wisdom is different. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf knew what wisdom was. In the third part, The Return of the King, he said:

All you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given to you.

Wisdom, then, is a moral quality. It is not about cleverness. It is not necessarily about experience. It is about knowing the right thing to do, and the right way to use our time and resources.
And that quality will be essential when we take on acts of Christian service. It’s not just the extreme situations. Those of you with memories long enough to recall Michael Buerk’s original report on the Ethiopian famine in 1984, the report that led Bob Geldof to put together Band Aid and Live Aid, may remember it featured a nurse who had to decide which children could receive food and live, and which children would die. How do you make decisions like that?

But in the more mundane, we need the wisdom of the Spirit. We need to know the way to go that is consistent with the way of Christ. We may need to know how to use our limited resources. Where might we focus our energies, time, talents and money? Let there be no mistaking: to serve Jesus Christ, we need to be ‘full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom’.

What does this mean practically? It means soaking even the apparently obvious, routine decisions we make in prayer. A criterion of good discipleship in the Old Testament is whether a person ‘enquired of the Lord’. To be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, we need to seek that wisdom from God. Yes, of course we can use our common sense as we dedicate it to the Lord, but we shall make serious errors if we don’t make a conscious choice to seek the wisdom of the Spirit.

In my home circuit, there was once an occasion where a person turned up a few minutes late to a church business meeting. “Have I missed anything?” he asked quietly, as he slipped in at the back.

“No,” came the reply, “we’re only on the opening devotions.”

That, I suggest to you, was an approach that betrayed a failure to understand the need to seek God’s wisdom through the Holy Spirit. Never let opening devotions or prayer for guidance shrink to a formality.

The second and third comments about the Holy Spirit are linked specifically to Stephen. The second is that he was ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’ (verse 5).

Again, ‘faith’ can be a gift of the Holy Spirit – not simply saving faith in Jesus, but special faith to trust God and see remarkable things happen. I think faith like that was present here, because the outcome of the decision to appoint the seven men as servants of the Greek widows was

So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Verse 7)

Some might think all that is needed for Christian service is just to get on with the required task. There is an element of truth in that, in the sense that sometimes people need to get their hands dirty, rather than wait around for something super-spiritual to happen.

But we should not overlook the Spirit’s gift of faith. What happens when you take amazing risks in Christ’s name by serving people? Quite surprising and astonishing things, actually.

Take the story of one Christian initiative that I came across the other day. In 1999, a young family in Southport turned up at a church, desperate, because they were homeless. The church had spent the previous two years offering shelter to homeless people in their church building. However, they had learned that this was illegal. Two people in the church felt prompted to take a big risk in faith: they ploughed their considerable savings into the task of buying two flats. Three years later, the venture became a not-for-profit limited company. Now, with the help of churches all over the country, some two hundred and forty previously homeless people are being housed. Here is what the pastor who founded the company says:

We have seen some amazing changes in people just because we have been able to give them a key to their own home. Alcoholics are now free from their alcohol addiction; drug addicts are now free from their drug addiction; unemployed young people with life skills problems are now working. Mothers who had been brutally beaten are now housed with their children in secure accommodation; people with mental health problems are housed and cared for. But most wonderful of all is the number of people who have come to Christ, not through our preaching of the Gospel, but by our doing the Gospel.

How wonderful is that? Christians saw a social need. The willingness to take great risks in faith has made an eternal difference to needy people.

Therefore, never see the call to a servant rôle as something mundane. Ask the Holy Spirit for the gift of faith. Is the Spirit of God asking us to imagine a different future in a certain situation? What risks would it take to bring it into being? Is the Holy Spirit daring us into acts of faith as we serve the needy that will bring transformation in the name of Jesus Christ?

The third and final reference doesn’t explicitly talk about the Holy Spirit, but I believe the Spirit is to be understood as necessarily implicit in the words. It’s the description of Stephen that led to opposition and his arrest:

Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people (Verse 8)

‘Full of God’s grace and power.’ I think the word ‘power’ references the Holy Spirit, who would have empowered the ‘great wonders and signs’ Luke speaks about. If so, then here we see the power of the Spirit associated with grace. The Spirit’s work of grace takes Stephen beyond just serving the needy in the Christian community to demonstrating that grace in the wider community.

And furthermore, the Christian who is serving in the power of the Holy Spirit will demonstrate grace and speak grace, because grace is at the heart of God’s kingdom. That is why yesterday the Chertsey churches held what they called the Grace Café at the annual Chertsey Black Cherry Fair. They gave away a thousand drinks, nearly a thousand slices of cake and painted the faces of three hundred children, all free of charge. It’s why next week at the Knaphill Village Show, we as a church will have a free lucky dip on our stall. These are just small parables of the Gospel. One of my previous churches held an annual family fun day on a Saturday each summer. We always insisted it was free. Well-intentioned parents who brought their children along often asked how much it cost or where to leave a donation. We had the pleasure of replying, no, it’s on us, because this is the kind of God we believe in.

But this isn’t simply the sort of public stunt a church can do in the ways I’ve described. The Spirit leads individual Christians into acts of grace as signs of God’s love. It may be that opportunities will come to speak about that love, but the important point is that we allow the Spirit to show us where we might demonstrate grace.

Bill Hybels
recounts one such example in his book ‘The Power of a Whisper’. Bev and her husband owned a property in the United States, which their daughter and her family once rented from them for a holiday. While they were there, some children were throwing mud balls. One smashed the front window. Bev’s daughter discovered the miscreant, and spoke to his mother about replacing the glass. However, she couldn’t afford to pay. She and her husband were both out of work. Bev and her husband paid for the repair.

Several months later, with no word from the young man’s mother, Bev decided to phone her, a couple of days before Thanksgiving, just as she was preparing to do the final grocery shopping for that important American holiday. However, when she got through to the mother, instead of pressurising her for the money she owed, she found herself saying, “I was just heading out to the grocery store. May I bring you a Thanksgiving meal?” Bev then went and purchased double the quantities she had planned to buy, and joyfully delivered a parcel to the unemployed mother.

That’s what grace does. How would it be if this is what Christians were known for, rather than for self-righteous judgmentalism?

Can we see now why serving is not something to do in our own strength, but in the power of the Holy Spirit? We need the Spirit’s gift of wisdom in order to serve well. We need the Spirit’s gift of faith to lead us into extraordinary adventures that will end up bringing more of God’s love to people than would otherwise have happened.

Once again, then, we find ourselves praying: Come, Holy Spirit.

Sabbatical, Day 23: Beginning The Course At Trinity College

I left home after the school run and by limiting my one stop on the 180+ mile trip, I got here at 12:45 pm, fifteen minutes before lunch. And on that subject, the food has certainly improved from my time here. (Pause to affect voice of elderly person:) In my day, we used to say that Trinity was the only place where you poured the meat and sliced the custard. We also lived a diet comprised fifty percent of apples, there being a surfeit of apple trees in the grounds. On the evidence of the shepherd’s pie and cherry cheesecake today, those times are gone.

A first year student called Andy has helped me find my way around, some things not being quite where or how they were back in the eighties – no surprise, of course. Given that I get edgy about getting into a new routine in an unfamiliar place, he has been a blessing. Not only that, his ‘college job’ is IT, and he got me logged onto one of the networks here with the appropriate password. He also showed me where to sit in the lecture room to be near a mains socket for the laptop. At Cliff College two weeks ago, there were extension leads trailing everywhere – a health and safety risk but it meant everybody could plug in. The same isn’t true here.

My room is better than at Cliff, though. Again, it’s a twin room, but it’s more spacious. Not only is there room for two single beds without a crush, there is also a travel cot for a baby and a z-bed.

I’ve also briefly met my old tutor, John Bimson, and we hope to catch up with each other more later in the week. John is a fantastic Old Testament scholar with a wicked sense of humour and a passion for social justice.

As for the course, I’ve had a double lecture this afternoon and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed on a couple of fronts. First of all, the element on ministry and personality type is just barely half the course, spanning Thursday and Friday.

Secondly, today’s material has largely been a baptism of management theory. It was justified on the grounds that all truth is God’s truth, and of course I believe that. However, I think we’ve had one reference in the PowerPoint slides to Scripture, and that was the obligatory Proverbs 29:18, a text surely much misused, and for some reason in this context limited to leaders, not ‘the people’, as the verse says. The lecturers also made clear that there are vast differences between a line management situation and a voluntary organisation. Yet the primary assumptions have been about large churches. Hence the person quoted more than anybody has been Bill Hybels, and I shall be watching to see whether what we are really getting is teaching on how to run a megachurch, something that will not be terribly applicable to many of us.

It isn’t surprising when the main lecturer is a former President of Hasbro’s European Division, and worships at a large church in Surrey. The other guy is part-time on the college staff along with being vicar of what was certainly a big church when I was here in the Eighties. I could be doing the lecturers a disservice, and hopefully tomorrow I’ll have more positive reflections to report.

What Kind Of Leadership, If Any?

So a church member says to me, “The church needs leadership. We’ve had it up to here with namby-pamby enabling.”

And I think, I don’t think he’s saying I’m namby-pamby. But – since I’m going to think a bit about our understanding of ordained ministry and its relationship to missional Christianity and Fresh Expressions during my sabbatical – maybe this helps set some direction as I boil down my reading list.

Wait – because before I can think down any tangents, he dismisses Fresh Expressions. Since none of the examples on the (first) DVD were outright revival and because the Holy Spirit is the same today as in Wesley’s day, it’s a dead end. Fresh Expressions are clearly both namby and pamby. And furthermore, I’m fairly sympathetic to them.

And I make some connections with a brief conversation I had earlier that day with my friend Nigel, whose church has been growing numerically in recent years. We were talking about books on leadership. “Spend two days with Bill Hybels‘ ‘Courageous Leadership‘,” he advises. “You won’t regret it.”

Looking up the book on Amazon (see the link above) leads me to the solitary review of it there. The reviewer quite likes it, but there are a few caveats. One: can it be translated from American to British culture? Two: Hybels, as senior pastor of a megachurch, has the privilege of recruiting staff from a huge pool, within and without the congregation. Three: he quotes a senior churchman who says it’s a management book with a bit of Christianity bolted on. Hold that last thought.

Saturday comes, and my wife Debbie visits the local library, because the previous evening an automated phone message informs her that two books she had reserved were in for her. When she returns, I’m pleased to see that one of them is a book I’d decided to read during the sabbatical, but had saved money by ordering it on her library card. It’s one that is popular in missional and emerging church circles. It’s not a Christian book, but – guess what? – a business book. ‘The Starfish and the Spider‘ by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Subtitle? ‘The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations’. Leaderless. That’s right.

So here’s the contrast, and it’s familiar to many. Megachurches have a business approach to leadership. The senior pastor is the CEO. Emerging and missional churches like to be leaderless and resist the ‘head honcho’ approach.

But … missional Christians are just as much taking their ideas from business books as megachurches.

Both would claim biblical support for their approaches. Megachurches would find some support for a directive approach. Missional churches can find enough evidence for a servant style (if servant leadership isn’t an oxymoron, but that’s a debating point).

Therefore, what makes one choose a particular school of business thought? Is it about theology or culture or both? Is it about what fits Scripture or what fits preconceived ideas – or both? And do we then try to fit this stuff to us, like Cinderella’s ugly sisters trying to wear the glass slipper?

And haven’t we been this way before? Theologians have often overtly adapted a particular philosophical school and done their theology within it. Thomas Aquinas framed his work within Aristotle. Rudolf Bultmann and John Macquarrie saw everything through the lens of existentialism. The difference this time is the unknowing adoption of secular philosophies. Earlier iterations of this debate about leadership led to concepts of clergy professionalisation that have become debatable and divisive.

Maybe missional Christianity needs to keep an eye out for when it is unknowingly adopting cultural preferences.

Meanwhile, the approach to leadership remains unresolved.