6 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews[a] among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So 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. 3 Brothers and sisters, 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 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”5 This 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.6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.7 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.8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
One of the interesting things about the Bible is it doesn’t pretend that Christian people always have good attitudes. In this case even when the Holy Spirit is moving powerfully and visibly over the lives of the church, there arose, at the very least, a negligent mind-set and possibly attitudes of racism and prejudice. Greek Jews were treated as second class by Hebraic Jews. Notice in verse 2 all the disciples gathered to discuss this, perhaps as they knew it could quickly turn into a lot of trouble.
When God meets us powerfully, we still must be humble about our flawed state as individuals and as a church community. Sometimes people can be filled with the Holy Spirit and still have very flawed attitudes. When the blessings of grace are poured into our lives, we should not assume it is because we deserve these! We need to check our hearts. The disciples made a wise decision. On the one hand there was a serious issue of making sure poor widows in need were helped by the church, and on the other the disciples did not stop what Luke in verse 4 describes as the church’s “praying and ministering of the word”.
In choosing these seven men full of the Spirit and wisdom, they chose those who with sensitivity and spiritual discernment could bridge the two groups and ensure the church competently, without prejudice could minister to the needs of all the widows, regardless of race or nationality.
Why did Luke include this incident? Perhaps to highlight a near miss, where the work of the Holy Spirit could have been quenched by the sins of racism or at least significant negligence. Thanks to the wisdom and leadership shown in the anointing of the Holy Spirit, they managed to redeem the situation. We therefore, should take note, as a lesson to teach us to avoid the same mistake.
There are other examples of racism in the Bible. A not exhaustive list would surely include Jesus himself as described in Matthew 27:27-31. He experienced very severe racism from the Roman guards under Pontius Pilate. He was mocked, spat on, verbally insulted, had his beard pulled out, tortured with the crown of thorns and whippings. Racism played a large role in how Jesus was treated by the Roman guards. He was considered from an inferior people of no status and therefore, it did not matter how he was treated by the “superior” Romans. Paul and Silas were whipped and imprisoned in Philippi as their assailants assumed they were somehow also from an inferior background and failed to realise they were full Roman citizens who were entitled to more rights and a better judicial process. (See Acts 16 from verse 20 onwards). In a case from the Old Testament, Moses’s sister Miriam starts to speak in a racist manner about Moses’s wife. God immediately brings discipline against her, afflicting her with sudden-onset leprosy. (See Numbers 12:1-13).
Why is this important? Because we are called to love God and others. Racism is an attitude not borne of love, but arrogance, a pseudo superiority, a prejudice, a jaundiced bitter view and an irrational hatred. It is also deceitful, lying about the faults of a whole people group in a lazy and ignorant fashion.
Jesus says in Matthew 25:40
“Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me”
Jesus makes clear, when we despise people, we despise Jesus. We need to watch our attitudes to others and ask for God’s help to love others as He commands us to.
The Christian church is the most diverse organisation on the planet. We are in every country, and in nearly every people group. The church contains a huge range of languages, cultures, and identities. We are all one in Christ. We need to love and respect each other and value others as Jesus commands.
The good news in today’s reading is the church overcame these issues and the ministry of the Holy Spirit continued powerfully.
Suggested prayer: We pray Lord for your wisdom and love to fill our soul and spirit. We pray for unity in the Body of Christ as we seek to reach the lost for Jesus. We pray for continuing wisdom for our leaders to guide the church away from the traps of racism and prejudice. May we value each other regardless of nationality, ethnicity, economic status or any other worldly attitude. May we hunger for fellowship with the Body of Christ and with Christ our Head. In Jesus Name. Amen.