Sunday, 24 May 2015

Trouble in the church

In those days, when the number of the disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews... complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. Acts 6:1

Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers. Matthew 5:9

Oh dear! - factions, grumbles and complaints in the body of the church. Sound familiar, by any chance?

We don't need to go into the details about who exactly the "Grecian" and "Hebraic" Jews were, but obviously they were all Christian Jews (though the word “Christian” had not yet been coined) and there was a group who felt their interests weren't being properly taken care of. "It's not fair!"

It's a familiar story, I'm afraid. Divisions, stresses and tensions aren't anything new. In our day we are used to differences between the various denominations and groupings - what form of baptism is correct? how should churches be governed? should worship be planned or “Spirit-led”? - things like that. But there are also differences within denominations and, of course, within individual churches. Very sad.

What’s specially sad is that often when these things happen it is among very good and genuine Christians, people who would never set out to cause trouble. I suspect that the “Hebraic Jews” were blissfully unaware of the hurt felt by the “Grecian Jews”. And the same is probably true in your circles and mine.

In a funny sort of way, though, Luke's words here can be an encouragement to us. For one thing, this happened at a time of exciting growth: “the number of the disciples was increasing”. If Satan is on the move, that suggests that he is worried - which is good news!

But also, they remind us that there was never a time when the church was perfect. We sometimes imagine that there was a golden period way back in the beginning. But that is simply wrong. After all, many of the New Testament letters, especially those of Paul, were written to put wrong situations right.

If you read the first few chapters of Acts, you see that at this point of friction the church was still in its very infancy. Many of the people doing the grumbling will have experienced the thrill and excitement of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost. All of them were newly-baptised. Yet already these difficulties are arising.

So let’s never allow ourselves to imagine that our problems are anything new.

Why do these things happen? Basically, because however Spirit-filled we are (and I hope we are) we aren't yet perfect. Human nature remains flawed and faulty even after conversion. We act wrongly. We speak stupidly. We can be prejudiced, selfish, stubborn, blinkered in our opinions. We take offence. We cause offence. There's a million and one things waiting to go wrong in the life of any church. Every Christian is a work in progress, and some of us still have a long way to go...

And this is why Paul, in Ephesians 4:3, tells his readers to "make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace" (which, to be fair to the apostles, is exactly what they tried to do after hearing these grumbles). How well do you - do I - measure up to that demand?

We are living at a time when unbelief - and beliefs other than Christianity, particularly Islam - are on the rise. How vital it is, then, that we who call ourselves "brothers and sisters" in Christ should indeed be united and loving. I hate to think what non-Christians think of us when they see us in our little groups and factions. No wonder people sometimes say, "Well, Jesus I can respect and relate to. But the church - no way, include me out!"

Those words from Ephesians 4 are translated by Eugene Peterson, "be alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences". I think that's good. Any differences among us we should be noticing? - and putting right? Any fences need mending?

Jesus said “Blessed are the peace-makers”. Perhaps that says all we need to know?

Lord, forgive us that we so easily lose the love of Jesus and the harmony of the Spirit. Please bless your church world-wide - every grouping, every denomination, every label - and help us never to disagree unless we really must. Amen.

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