NOW during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve apostles called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. The word of God continued to spread and the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
Christ is risen!
This reading gives us a small glimpse of the life in the early Church. Let's take a closer look at what is said.
According to the Orthodox Study Bible, "The Hellenists" were the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians from other part of the Hellenized world (basically, from all over the Roman empire, other than Israel), but who had settled back in Jerusalem. While "the Hebrews" were Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, who spoke Aramaic. Both groups were Christian converts from Judaism. And there was a conflict between them because the Hellenists widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food.
What does it tell us about the early Christian communities? First of all, they took care of each other, especially those underprivileged among them, like the sick and the widowed (especially women). This is how Christianity appealed to non-Christians at that time, and throughout history - Christians always took care of their own, and then those around themselves, even if they were not Christian. There was not much tribalism or ethnicism, meaning, they did not differentiate who received the help because help was given in honor and for the glory of Jesus Christ, not for some personal gain. But help was always first given to those in the specific community, and then to the greater community.
Second, the conflict between the two groups shows that Christians were still just human beings, who did not always get along. Saint John Chrysostom notes that this conflict shows a lack of order among the believers, who were growing in number (we can imagine it's hard to keep order when your group is multiplying, sometimes exponentially), even though the neglect does not seem to be malicious.
Third, the twelve apostles, the leaders of the early Church, settled the conflict by calling together the whole community. Notice, they did not "fix" the problem just among the twelve of them. Neither did they just call of few people out of the community. But they involved the whole community. And where did they lay the blame? Did they tell the Hellenists and the Hebrews to just grow up and make up? Did they blame one group, while praising the other? No! The twelve apostles, the leaders, looked in the mirror and said, "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables." In other words, they noticed that, as leaders, they were failing their people.
This is a great example for today's leaders, in any field - if things are not going as you expected, fix yourself first, see what you are doing wrong, because as a leader, the problem is most often with you, not with the group that's following you.
The twelve apostles said that it was not right for them to "neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables." To "wait on tables" does not mean serving food, at the times of the apostles, this phrase meant to count money. Money was exchanged and counted on the tables (recall Jesus cleansing the Temple). Since the community of the Christians grew, the apostles couldn't keep track of the money, which was always donated by the new converts (Acts 2:43-47, Acts 4:32-37), they couldn't keep track of who needs help (hence, the neglect of some of the widows), and they couldn't keep track of prayer and preaching the Word of God, which was their main task.
So, the solution they presented to the community was to "select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word." This shows how the early Church began developing and diversifying its ministries. While the ministries of the Word and of serving widows are both important, one group of the same people could not do it and given proper attention to each.
The apostles proposed the community to choose for itself a group of men who would take care of the "business" side of their life, such as waiting on tables (receiving the donations), daily distribution of food, etc., while the apostles took care of praying, preaching, and teaching. The seven men that were chosen were called deacons, which from Greek means "servant." Their service, initially, did not involve helping during the prayer services, but to help with other things, so that the apostles could pray without worrying whether the widows are fed. Nonetheless, the deacons had to be men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Meaning, they had to be trustworthy and take Christ and following Him seriously.
Who better than the community can judge the character of its members? They chose seven men out of their midst, and the apostles "prayed and laid their hands on them." In other words, they ordain the men for the service to the community as deacons.
The conflict having been solved, "the word of God continued to spread and the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith." The growth of a Christian community happens when three great pillars of church life are fully in place. These pillars are: worship (praying together), evangelism (preaching, teaching, and learning together), and charity (taking care of each other, and others in need). And, any internal struggles need to be addressed together. One person, or even a small group, of the community can't change anything. Conflicts are overcome as a community, but everyone needs to approach each other with humility and readiness to change.
One last not, "the priest," who "became obedient to the faith" were Jewish priests who converted to Christian faith. Observing the life of Christian communities, and the way they overcame their struggles, led these Jewish leaders to conversion.
So, what can we learn from this brief account of the life of the early Christian communities? They were not perfect, they argued. They took care of each other. In fact, they were dedicated to helping each other. They solved their problems together. They had a clear hierarchy, they had leaders. It was the job of the leaders to make sure the Gospel is preached and the life of communities is stable. The leaders proposed solutions to conflicts, but the community decided whether these solutions were good enough. The leaders were humble enough to see that they were lacking in some aspects and were ready for a change. The community was humble enough to accept the changes proposed by the leadership.
Most importantly, they remained loyal to Jesus Christ and being a living witness to His Gospel.
We learn all of this from seven short verses.
Yours in the risen Lord,
Father Aleksey - your friendly Singac priest