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The Power of Community

The Power of Community

Written by : Debbie Perry

 

Several years ago, I wrote a blog about the power of surrender I was experiencing through a recent journey with leukemia, followed by our shared experience of quarantine due to the pandemic. As I look back on that time, I remember praying that if the words of my heart could be an encouragement to even one person, then all that I had been through would not be wasted. I believed God intended to make something beautiful from the ashes of my painful journey then, and I believe it still. So at the urging of the Holy Spirit and the encouragement of a close friend, I am again sharing how God is still writing my story in new and unexpected ways. 

I was recently reminded of the importance of community in my life. And more than that, I was reminded that my presence might be a gift to others. I say this not as an arrogant comment, but to encourage the hearts of others. You see, after attending Christ Community in person for 16 years, I have spent over three years watching online. Through my battle with leukemia, stem cell transplant, pandemic quarantine, and now a depressed immune system, I have been so grateful for a church that has made it possible to witness strong biblical teaching of the gospel and beautiful worship online. 

With a weakened immune system, I have been encouraged to avoid large groups of people, and to keep my circles of exposure small. I feel that there is a fine line and a lot of gray area between the wisdom of protecting myself from illness and letting the fear of getting sick keep me at a distance from others. I don’t share this to be complacent, I share it with an empathetic heart for others who find themselves in a similar situation. I have been contentedly watching online with 60 or more Leawood campus congregants every Sunday for much longer than I ever expected. Every Sunday I am reminded there are many of us dealing with health issues or other circumstances that keep us worshiping at a distance. And while we may enjoy the convenience of watching in our pajamas and welcoming God into our living rooms on Sunday mornings, we may also experience similar feelings of fear, loneliness, or guilt as we miss worshiping in a community with others. I truly feel as though God has used this time away to draw me closer to him, but recently I have been longing for more.

I recently attended the Ash Wednesday service at the Leawood Campus. I was not planning to attend since I just finished a bout with an upper respiratory virus, but I really wanted to attend since I knew it would be a smaller group than a Sunday service. Once again I felt as though I were in a game of Double Dutch. You may know that playground game, two jump ropes swinging as you wait for a time when you can jump in. But the timing sometimes just seems off so you just wait a little longer until the timing feels more right for you to take the leap. That is how I felt. Should I wait a little longer or jump back in while the group seemed smaller? Is now the right time? Well, as God often does, he made things a little more clear when I woke up that morning. He gently spoke to me through my morning devotional from Genesis. Genesis 2:7 says, “the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.”  This passage was not new for me, but I saw something new this time. From the wisdom of my devotional writer I was reminded that out of all the ingredients in the world, God chose dust to breathe life into mankind. Dust does not signify an end. It is often what must be present for new to begin. Was God showing me that he intended to use the ashes of Ash Wednesday to breathe life into me? Ashes are like dust, right? I couldn’t stop thinking about it and so I decided I wasn’t going to question it, God had my attention. I was jumping back in.

In obedience to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and after many moments of second guessing, I grabbed my mask and arrived in the church lobby to attend a service in person for the first time in three and a half years. I distanced myself as I greeted new and old friends, but it did not take long for me to realize how much I had  missed seeing, and being seen by my church family. It felt good to see the smiles and surprised looks on friends’ faces to see me in person. I knew I had missed others, but never thought that maybe I had also been missed by them. 

As I entered the service, I grabbed a chair and sat with only one close friend away from the larger congregation in the back of the room. Looking at the church community that I love in front of me felt more comforting than I ever could have imagined. I was at a distance, but among them. The music began and I could not seem to hold back tears. It was the same music that I experience in my living room on Sunday mornings, but why did it seem so much more powerful in these moments? And then it hit me, I was back in community with others, as God intended. I have underestimated my need for worshiping in a community. We were never intended to do this life on our own, to worship alone. He created us to need each other’s presence to grow and thrive. 

It was a powerful night that led to deep reflection in my own heart about what God is up to in my story. He revealed some places that I have forgotten to surrender to him. Places where I am trying to figure out my “new normal” on my own. Places where I was longing, but not listening. I see now that while it has been a necessity to stay at a distance for a season, it is not meant to last forever. While I still need to be wise for my health and may have moments where I am fearful or unsure when to jump in more permanently, I am so grateful God directed me to notice a glimpse of what I have been missing being away from a loving church community. 

I want to offer encouragement for anyone in a similar season of missing a church community in your life; I hope you know that your church community is also missing you. Praying for you. Longing for your return. Whether you are already part of Christ Community or seeking to find a new church home, I hope you know that you will be as much a blessing to us as we might be to you. Whether you are feeling led to jump back in this week or months from now, I pray that God is already revealing big and small ways that he wants to use the dust of your current or previous circumstances to strengthen you, and knit you back into a loving community where others are waiting to welcome you in. I hope we can see each other there soon!

 

Serving the Table – Serving the Word

If you haven’t noticed, Acts is a really long book. We’d love to cover every detail on Sunday mornings, but sometimes we’re crunched for time, and things get left out. So we want to supplement our sermons with occasional blog posts covering some portions of the text we couldn’t engage fully on Sunday.

Digging Deeper

In seminary I was introduced to the oddity of Acts 6:1-7. Maybe you’ve always seen it, but isn’t it strange that those assigned to “serve the table” so that the apostles can “serve the Word” end up being the ones in the next two stories who proclaim the gospel the loudest? In fact, Stephen’s sermon is the longest and most important in Acts, and Philip is the first one who takes the gospel outside the Jewish people.

Maybe it’s not that strange; it’s been said that those who serve often speak the loudest. But it does seem inconsistent for Dr. Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, to tell the history in this way.

The Issue

In Acts 6 we find an internal issue requiring discernment and action. Notice that as the number of those who follow Jesus grows, so do the problems.

…a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. Acts 6:1

While the first internal division of the church revolved around money (Acts 4:32-5:11), the second revolves around the tension between these Hellenists and Hebrews: two people groups with at least one big difference. One speaks Greek and the other Aramaic. The “Hellenists” represent those Israelites outside Jerusalem who primarily spoke Greek, and the “Hebrews” represent Israelites who primarily spoke Aramaic or Hebrew.

Thus, in the early church we find tension between two different people groups. Two groups that are so similar and yet so different. It takes very little imagination to see what is going on. Those who have more in common with the majority crowd of Jerusalem have more opportunity and inclusion while those who are not quintessential Israelites are ostracized. Before the ethnic tensions between Christian Jews and Gentiles, there was a noticeable neglect and segregation of the Hellenistic widows.

These Hellenistic widows would have been one of the most marginalized groups in Jerusalem. Outside the power structures of the ancient world, widows had no influence or opportunity. Rather than a value add, they were a drain. Primarily speaking Greek, these widows would have had an identifiable difference from the majority. These women perpetually stood on the outside looking in.

The Table

But looking in on what? What exactly were they missing out on? What does Luke mean by “daily distribution” (v.1) or the solution to select seven to “serve tables” (v.2)?

At first read, this might seem like an early welfare system or distribution to care for the poor. Of course, it does mean caring for the poor, but it probably doesn’t mean what we think.

When we read “distribution” in verse one, we actually find the same word used in verse two, “serve tables,” and the same word used in verse four, “ministry [service] of the Word.” It is the language of service, and in this context, service, day by day, around the table.

As we read this story, it reminds readers like us of earlier descriptions of this Christian community.

And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts… Acts 2:46

Rather than the imagery of a food bank, Luke is talking about the inclusion of the outcast to the daily shared meal(s), from house to house. Being “served” at the table. The question is not about blanket distribution to the poor, but rather asking why the Greek-speaking widows are being excluded from the “table fellowship” of the Christian community.

Table fellowship is one of the most significant themes in Jesus’ ministry throughout the Gospel of Luke and one of the most significant ways the marginalized are made part of the family of God. Over and over, we find Jesus eating with the undesirable (Luke 5:27-32), calling the unlikely to the eternal banquet (Luke 14:15-24), and creating an uncommon community through the symbolic act of table fellowship (Luke 9:10-17; 22:1-38).

If you’ve ever had the joy of sharing a meal with someone, you’ve undoubtedly experienced this unique space of being cared for and being known, being face to face, enjoying connection and conversation. Because both then and now, the table is a unique place for life growth and transformation.

The same is true in the writings of Luke.

“Luke shows that the act of waiting on tables is precisely the means through which the Word of God can be proclaimed among other marginalized communities.”[1]

The table is one of those places where the unity of the church is expressed and the gospel is proclaimed. Thus, to hear that one group of people are not being included must be swiftly addressed. To hear that one group doesn’t have the opportunity to have a seat at the table is contrary to the continuing ministry of Jesus.

The Ministry

Seven are chosen to serve the table. Seven who, by their Greek names, must be from the “Hellenists.” Those who brought the issue are now empowered to bring the change, and a structural issue is given a structural solution.

This solution provides the context for the word of God to grow beyond the Hebrews of Jerusalem. Their status as “table servers” provides the context for them to become servers of the Word.

“The dichotomy between the ministry of the Word and the ministry of the table cannot be found in the accounts of Jesus, nor can it be found in the ministry of the Seven.”[2]

They continue the ministry of Jesus to the outcasts and oppressed. They continue the ministry of Jesus to call and create the family of God.

Those who serve often speak the loudest — not just through their words, but through their actions. The same is true for at least two of these seven. Stephen goes on to proclaim that God’s presence is not confined to one area, and Philip brings the gospel to the first non-Jewish convert.

Their bold speech constitutes a major turning point in Acts. As the gospel spreads from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and to the end of the earth, the Spirit works through those who serve at the table and who serve the Word to others. May we, too, grow in our proficiency at both tasks.


[1] David W. Pao, “Waiters or Preachers: Acts 6: 1–7 and the Lukan Table Fellowship Motif,” JBL 130 (2011): 143.

[2] Ibid., 142.