When you hear the word “ministry” what do you think of? In the UK, in the non-Christian world, you’re most likely to think of a part of the government. “The Defence Ministry”, “The Pensions Ministry”, “The Foreign Ministry” and so on.
When I was a teenager my parents used to want me to go into the army, and when I said I wasn’t going into the army, they wanted me to go into the diplomatic service. When I saw my father again before coming to Japan, I said “I’m not going into the diplomatic service, but I am going into the foreign ministry.”
Because we’ve given “ministry” this special Christian meaning. People talk about “starting a new ministry” or tell each other what “their ministry” is. A “minister”, if we’re not talking about politics, means a pastor or a religious professional.
But actually “ministry” just means “service”. It means helping people out. Both the “prime minister” and the minister of a church are supposed to be people who help others out. I want to take a look at what the early church saw as its ministry.
I want to read that again but in a bit more of a literal translation.
“In those days when the number of the disciples was increasing, there was a murmuring of the Greeks against the Hebrews, because their widows were being neglected in the daily ministry. So the twelve called all the disciples together and said ‘It is not good for us to leave behind the word of God to minister at tables. So brothers, choose for yourself seven witnesses from amongst you, men who are full of the Spirit and wisdom, who we can put in charge of this necessary thing, but we will continue in prayer and the ministry of the word.”’
This passage in Acts is all about the ministry of the church. Now the Book of Acts is quite a strange book, because it alternates between talking about what the early church got right and what the early church got wrong. So in Acts 4, you have the disciples preaching and testifying and things are going really well. And then you get to Acts 5, and like we saw last time, there are problems with greed and mistrust in the church. But then the church is growing again and there are wonders and miracles. But now again in Acts 6 there is a problem.
This time it’s a racial problem. Most of the believers came from Israel, and they were Hebrew speakers. But some of them were Jews who emigrated from the countries of the Greek empire into Israel. And the Israeli Jews looked down on the Greek Jews. The Israelis thought that the Greeks had got corrupted by the Greek culture, that their religion was a bit suspect, that they weren’t quite Jewish enough. And even within the church, the two groups weren’t quite working together.
The early churches used to keep a list of the widows who needed support and food, and they would make sure that someone went around every day to look after them and feed them. Very early on in the church’s existence, and it’s running a day care service. But it’s not working very well, because the Israeli Jews aren’t going to look after the Greek Jews. Why not?
Well, at this point Israel has been under occupation for hundreds of years. It’s a very poor country. Meanwhile those countries which were part of the Greek empire are doing very well, thank you. And Greek culture is a bit more refined and philosophical and a bit more high class. Now to be honest the Greek Jews who came back to Jerusalem probably had to make a lot of sacrifices to be there, but the Israeli Jews still thought they were a bit snobby and a bit rich. So they thought “Why do we poor people have to go around and look after these rich peoples’ families?” So they weren’t doing it properly. There are racial problems. Class problems. Money problems.
Now bear in mind that while all this is happening the church is growing really quickly. The apostles are preaching, many people are coming to faith, Jesus is busting the apostles out of prison. The vertical relationship between God and the church is going really well! But the horizontal relationship between people inside the church… not so good. It’s the same as in Acts 5: people are loving God, that’s going very well! But loving each other… that’s a different story. There are problems with greed, with mistrust, with different races, different classes, different social groups. But despite all of these problems the church is growing. Or rather God is growing the church.
I love the fact that God can do great things through a church that has a lot of problems. I love the fact that we don’t have to get it all right before God can use it. I love that fact that He can bring people to himself even if the church is getting everything else wrong. But I think God wants us to build up the inside of the community as well as bringing in people from the outside. I was talking yesterday to someone who was very interested in church growth, and he was saying “We need more church growth in Japan!” Yes, we do, definitely! We definitely want our churches to be bigger! But when you get a bigger church, you get bigger problems!
So the apostles came together to try to solve this problem. They said that they should be involved in the “ministry of the word” but they also wanted people to be involved in the “ministry of tables”.
Ministry to each other - love for one another - Scott’s story Qualifications - seriousness - for careworkers! - not credentials but gifting What is your ministry - the church’s ministry that you can fulfil