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.