Topical Scripture: Acts 6
Everyone wants to be somebody. I do, and so do you. Somebody who matters, somebody who’s important to someone else.
The day was Monday, March 11, 1991, and the president of the United States was desperately trying to prove that he was somebody. President Bush was visiting Anthony Henderson’s school, and sat down beside Anthony to read him a book. Suddenly Anthony asked, “Are you really the president?”
Bush was surprised by the question. “You mean, you didn’t know that? How can I prove it to you?” He showed him his driver’s license, but the boy wasn’t convinced. He showed him his American Express card, then a picture of his grandson playing baseball, then pointed to the black limousine outside. But nothing worked.
The picture in USA Today told the whole story: Anthony sitting with a puzzled president, examining his American Express card. Wondering if he’s really somebody or not. We all want to be somebody special.
I came home from work Tuesday to the tragic news of the killings in Littleton, Colorado. How does it happen that two teenage boys open fire in their high school and kill thirteen people, then themselves? Now we know: they felt rejected by them, by the athletes, the “cool” students, the “in” people. They weren’t noticed, or special. They weren’t somebody. So they did something to get noticed, to feel important, to be somebody. And fifteen grieving families will pay for their perceived neglect, for the rest of their lives.
Everybody wants to be somebody. But there’s only one way which really works—which gives our lives purpose and meaning after the job ends, or the money is spent, or the kids move out, or even life comes to its end. One way to be somebody, which anybody can accomplish. One way to be somebody, today.
What is it?
Stephen ministry begins
Travel with me to A.D. 35, and to the greatest crisis confronting the first Christian congregation: “the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (v. 1). What is this?
Some in this first congregation were from Palestine, and spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. Others were from the Hellenistic world, so they spoke Greek. Many of these had become Christians at Pentecost, and stayed in the city. Others of them had moved to Jerusalem to retire.
The Jewish people had long cared for their widows, since they had no one else. When a woman married, her father no longer bore responsibility for her care; if her husband died, his family was no longer responsible for her, either. And employment options for first-century women were extremely limited, as you might guess. So the Jewish people took a daily collection for their needs, called the Tamhui or Table, and a weekly collection every Friday as well, called the Kuppah or Basket.
But if someone left Judaism for Christianity, he or she forfeited this support system. So the apostles took it over. However, the church had outgrown the care the apostles could provide. And these families who were not from Palestine were convinced that their widows were being discriminated against.
This is a very serious state of affairs. Not only could widows starve to death if the church doesn’t act; but the fragile racial coalition, which was early Christianity, is in danger of failing. And this splintering of the Christian movement would doom it.
So the apostles call the entire congregation together for the first business meeting in church history, an indication of the crucial nature of the issue. They will seek seven men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom” (v. 3).
The congregation elects seven such men. Interestingly, each of them has a Greek name, indicative of the church’s concern for the Greek-speaking widows. And these seven go to work. They organize the first comprehensive benevolence system in Christian history, with responsibility for the care, and even the lives, of hundreds of people.
And the results are spectacular (v. 7): “The word of God spread,” as the apostles continue their ministry of Scripture and prayer (cf. v. 4). “The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly,” now that the infrastructure is in place for their care and everyone is involved personally in ministry. Even “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith,” now that they see that their widows and families will be cared for if they leave Judaism. Impressed by the care and compassion of the Christians, even priests come to Christ in record numbers.
And Stephen, a man “full of God’s grace and power,” leads the way, performing “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v. 8). Just one of seven men no one had ever heard of before. Not apostles, or prophets, or priests. Not people of fame or status. Just people who would give themselves to personal, caring, compassionate ministry to people in need. People who cared like Jesus cares. And the church will forever be different because they did.
Stephen ministry continues
And their ministries continue, far beyond their greatest expectations. Stephen is stoned to death, but his witness impresses and convicts a young man from Tarsus named Saul. If there had been no Stephen, there would have been no Paul, the most famous convert in Christian history.
Now Saul of Tarsus is on the road to Damascus when Jesus blinds him with his light and call. He staggers into Damascus in desperate need of help and compassion. So God calls another Stephen, a man named Ananias. This Christian is understandably afraid of the infamous murderer of Christians, but he goes to him anyway. And Paul’s eyesight is restored, and his ministry begins. If there had been no Ananias, there would have been no Pauline ministry such as we know it today.
Now Paul has returned to Jerusalem, but the frightened church will have nothing to do with him. So God raises up another Stephen, the benevolent Barnabas. He vouches for Paul and wins for him entry into the Christian community.
Still later, after Paul had returned to obscurity in his hometown of Tarsus, Barnabas finds him again. He brings him to the church at Antioch, and to leadership in the Christian movement. If there had been no Barnabas, there would have been no Pauline mission to the world, or Pauline letters, half the New Testament, or Pauline theology which shapes our faith tradition to this day.
Did Stephen, or Ananias or Barnabas have the slightest idea that God would use them in these eternally significant ways? Can we ever know how God will use us when we are willing? In all of Christian history, can you name three people whose lives were more significant than theirs? Three people who were more a somebody than they. People no one had ever heard of before. Not apostles, or prophets, or priests. Not people of fame or status. Just Christians who would give themselves to personal, caring, compassionate ministry to people in need. People who cared like Jesus cares. And the world will forever be different because they did.
Today we celebrate Martha Howard’s 80th birthday. When she and Dr. Howard came to Park Cities in view of a call in 1948, he preached a sermon entitled Everybody’s Somebody. It became famous. The church asked him to preach it each year. I listened to it this week with great gratitude and profit.
And he was right: everybody is somebody. This is the central fact of the Christian faith. Every person you know was made by God, in his image, and is somebody special to him. You may be a Saul, in need of help; you may be a Stephen, ready to give it. But you’re somebody. Stephens know that it’s so.
Today we celebrate 66 more Stephens: men and women who have received more than fifty hours of training in personal, caring ministry. Stephens who today stand ready to continue the tradition of eternally significant compassion and care. Stephens who will care like Jesus cares. 66 somebodies.
Perhaps you need a Stephen in your life today. Maybe you’re a Saul of Tarsus, in real need of compassion and personal ministry. We have 66 Stephens waiting to help you. Call the church, and they will.
Perhaps you know a Saul. That makes you a Stephen. You can receive the same training, and experience the same joy of such service. But you don’t have to wait. If you know a Saul, you can care like Stephen today. And when you do, you’ll care like Jesus does. And he will be grateful.
Francis of Assisi was a Stephen. In fact, he founded a movement of Stephens in 1209, and his ministry has given birth to wonderful Stephen stories. My favorite concerns the time when Francis, then a young man, was riding his horse in the countryside and came upon a leper trudging up the road. He was repulsed by the man’s appearance and smell. But something made him stop. Something made him go to the man, and put his arms around him, and hold him. And Francis said that, before his eyes, the leper’s face changed to the face of Christ, and he vanished.
But he didn’t. He’s still here. Every time a Stephen helps a Saul, he helps Jesus. And that’s how everybody can be somebody.