(This was a sermon I gave at New Danville Mennonite in July of 2020)
Sin is insidious. It stealthily works its way into every nook and cranny of our lives affecting every part of us and how we interact with others, bringing pain and brokenness all around. We’re looking at just one aspect of this, this morning –
THE SIN OF PREJUDCICE
Prejudice is when we treat people unfairly because of how they are different than we are or how we think they are different.
I was raised in the South – mostly Alabama and Georgia – and so I’m certainly aware of prejudice based on something as simple as the color of someone’s skin. And, of course, I mean white people treating black people unfairly. And this still goes on despite the way white people enslaved and brutalized African Americans – a monstrous sin that still today stands as a giant scar on the soul of America.
Prejudice can also be based on differences of culture, region or country. Some people treat differently, dislike or even hate those who come from a different group than they do. Jesus notes this human tendency when he says that Gentiles only greet those who are like them in Matthew 5:47.
Prejudice can also be based on gender, and almost always this involves men mistreating women.
And prejudice can also be based on social class; usually involving wealth or the lack thereof. James talks about this in the second chapter of his letter – and how when we favor the rich and dishonor the poor, we sin (James 2:1-13).
Prejudice can be based on any differences between people. And it’s especially dangerous when those who are different are a minority among a majority population that has social and political power – all the way from school yard cliques that pick on those who are different to the kind of oppression, including ethnic cleansing, that happens among nations when one group gains power over another.
Next, let me say – and I believe we will see this in our Scripture text today – apart from conscious, willful acts prejudice can be as simple as the majority not being aware of or taking into account the needs and concerns of the minority, so that they’re left out and thus treated unfairly. Right? I’m fine and those I know are fine, so everyone else must be too. And that’s often not true.
I do not doubt that many of you have experienced prejudice in various ways. Just to take one example, although I was not raised Mennonite, I know that Mennonites have always been a religious minority. And our views, especially on loving enemies, have brought prejudice and persecution at various times in history.
I want us to look this morning at –
– to see what we can learn from how the apostles responded to an example of prejudice in their midst. The church at this time was still all Jewish, but nevertheless there were differences among them; different kinds of Jews. And where there are differences, prejudice often lurks in the human heart.
And sure enough there was prejudice in their midst. Verse one says, “1Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.”
The Hebrews were the dominant group in Jerusalem. They were Aramaic speaking and culturally Palestinian. The Hellenists may or may not have been born abroad. But Greek would have been their first language and they would have had more affinity for aspects of Greco-Roman culture.
We learn earlier in the book of Acts that all these different groups had come together and were caring for each other’s needs, so that “there was not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). This was a beautiful example of love and unity among people from all different Jewish backgrounds.
But here we see that something has gone terribly wrong. The Hellenist widows were not getting their fair share of support. And this is how they fed themselves and met their basic needs. This is how things worked back in that day.
The Hebrews, who were in charge, including the Apostles, have treated them unfairly. Now, we don’t know the details of what happened. Was there willful, overt prejudice on the part of some? Or was it that, as the majority, they simply weren’t careful to watch out for the needs of the Hellenists? Given the response of the community, that we’ll see in a minute, it looks more like the latter.
In this story we learn that the apostles did three things: 1. The apostles listened to those who had a “complaint.” This is evident in verse 1, that we just looked at. They heard the “complaint” of “neglect” of the Hellenists about their widows, the substance of which was that an injustice has happened.
Now the apostles were overseeing the setup that was being unjust to widows. So even though they may not have been personally involved or have had any willful prejudice themselves, they are a part of the problem. Again, you can be involved in mistreating others, even when your heart’s in the right place or if you’re not personally prejudiced in your attitudes. The apostles were in charge (Acts 4:34-35) and so were implicated.
And so it would have been really easy for the apostles to get defensive, “Well, I’m not prejudiced; I wasn’t the one overseeing giving out resources for the widows” – and so forth and so on. But they didn’t do this, they genuinely listened to the complaint and the pain of the widows. And the pain wasn’t just that they got less than others, it’s that they were treated as less than the others; they were disrespected.
2. The apostles saw the prejudice as a very serious problem. Verse two says, “2And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples . . ..”They stopped everything and brought everyone together to deal with it. They saw prejudice for what it is, which is sin. And so they purposed to take action to correct things, which is the next point.
3. The apostles made changes that empowered those who were mistreated. Picking up the last part of verse 2, “. . . and (the apostles) said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3Therefore, brothers and sisters pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
Two kinds of service are contrasted in these verses. In verse 4 it says literally the “service of the word,” and in verse 2 “table service,” which has to do with meeting practical needs. The apostles’ call was to the service or ministry of the word – preaching and teaching. And, given what happed, they feel that they can’t both do this and oversee taking care of the widows in the community, especially as the group was getting bigger and bigger. So they ask the community to pick qualified people to perform what they call, “table service.”
Table service might mean literally serving at the tables where food was distributed or it might refer to handling and distributing the money needed for this. In any case, they made structural changes to put in place the first deacons. The system wasn’t working well, so it had to change.
Our passage ends with verses 5-6, “5And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
Here the community does what the apostles ask them to do, and what they do is quite amazing. Every person chosen has a Greek name! Now, some Palestinian Jews had Greek names, but that all of these deacons have them shows that most, if not all of them are from the Hellenistic group. They are now in charge of the care of all the widows. And these were commissioned by the apostles to do just this. So their response to the injustice was to empower those who had been mistreated, to make sure that it didn’t happen again.
THE CHURCH STILL STRUGGLES WITH PREJUDICE
If there was prejudice in the church overseen by the very apostles of Jesus, you can be sure that we have these problems among us as well. God calls us to be his new people made “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) united in love under allegiance to our Lord, Jesus. God calls us to be “a city set on a hill,” as Jesus talks about (Matthew 5:14), that shines the light of a better way – in this case, of a community that welcomes all and values all equally under Jesus’ lordship.
But, sisters and brothers, we do not always live up to this calling! We often look just like the world around us with all of its divisions and hatreds, and this should not be so! It cuts at the very core of who we’re called to be as followers of Jesus; a people marked by love and peacemaking.
I’m not saying that Acts 6:1-6 teaches us everything we need to know about dealing with prejudice, but I am saying that it teaches us three very important responses that we should put into practice in our church communities.
And as I close, let me also say that we should also respond to any prejudice we see in the world in the same way. No one should have any doubt about where we stand! In love 1) we listen to those who are mistreated, 2) we call out prejudice as sin, and 3)we support the empowerment of those who are mistreated. This is who we are as God’s people.
This world has enough hatred and bitterness. So let’s be God’s beacon of light of a better way; the way of love and respect for all.