Last Sunday was a lovely day at Faith Presbyterian. We dedicated a Peace Pole. The Peace Pole had been in planning since had been in planning since last fall. Plans were made here at Faith and by students at Northside Montessori School.
Three charming members of the school student council talked about what it meant to offer a Peace Pole to the community. After Dawn worship, we had a little ceremony. We carried the Peace Pole out into a beautiful spring day and prayed: May peace be in all our hearts. We set the pole on its stand in the garden plot between the driveways over on Hague Road, where the community can see it.
That was the plan. Before the plan could happen, the Peace Pole fell over. It fell over while a car was passing. That Peace Pole managed to leave a pretty good dent in the side of a church member’s car.
That struck some of us as an accurate glimpse into life in the church. Do the right thing, and something is bound to go wrong. Work for peace, and it will bang you up. Try to be welcoming, and someone will get hurt. The best of plans will fall.
I served a church that did the right thing and installed handicapped accessible restrooms in a historic building. Unfortunately, the best place to install them was behind the chancel. During a sermon, you could hear every flush.
Another church installed a memorial garden and wanted to do the right thing by opening the lovely space to their urban community. Soon police were showing up and arresting people for felonious acts on the garden benches.
A congregation does something full of life and welcome, the right thing in the name of Jesus, and it can work out wrong.
I heard about a church whose traditional service had dwindled to five participants. They tried to do the right thing and welcome the traditionalists into the larger, more vibrant service. The plan to include at least each hymn a Sunday has left everyone – contemporary and traditional alike – dissatisfied.
Another church has a small food pantry, which recently got additional government increasing their giving ability to give, but obligating them to ask recipients to verify that they live in poverty. It is awkward for the Christian hosts and belittling to their clients.
When the church puts out the welcome mat, someone is bound to trip on it. It’s going to get dirty. It just might get caught in the door so that it won’t close properly. And besides that, there’s always someone who never liked the color, anyway.
A passage in the Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6, reminds us that even in the early church– when Christians tried to do the right thing, things could go wrong. The early church was flush with the good news of resurrection and trying to live the way they understood Jesus. They were doing the right thing, creating hospitality and welcome. Believers shared what they had and distributed to those who were in need. It was the feeding of the 5,000 over and over again, week after week.
But things go wrong. A problem emerges. In Jerusalem, the home of this young congregation, there were a surprisingly diverse group of Jews, who believe in Jesus as the Messiah.
There are Aramaic speaking Jews – like the apostles – referred to as Hebrews in Luke, and there are Greek speaking Jews, referred to as Hellenists. The Aramaic speaking believers have always lived in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee. The Greek-speaking believers were part of the Diaspora. Their families had been scattered in the persecutions and only returned to areas around Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. They were Jews who had lived in other cultures and whose primary language was no longer Hebrew. So, there were distinct cultural and language differences between the Aramaic and Greek speaking believers in Jesus as the Messiah.
What seems to have gone wrong is that the Greek-speaking Christians in need are getting either less than they need. They aren’t getting a fair share of the distributed food . What was intended to be the right thing – the hospitable and welcoming thing – turns out to make some people feel alienated and angry.
It’s comforting to know that the early church can have a Peace Pole fall on them, too.
But the early church doesn’t leave it there. What does the church do right, when things go wrong?
First, the leadership acknowledges there is a problem and works for a solution. Now the way the leadership is portrayed here has often been a bit off-putting to hearers. The twelve apostles sound as if they can’t be bothered to take the time to worry about who is getting fed what.
But, here’s the second thing that church does right when things go wrong: the church finds the people who are in a position to make things right.
Seven people who have a good reputation in the Church are called forward to take on a new area of responsibility. Their responsibility is to make sure that everyone is welcome and included in the hospitality and sharing of the church.
Notice a third thing the early church does when things go wrong: the people who are appointed to solve the problem are – so to speak – part of the problem. It is Greek believers who are feeling alienated by the Aramaic believers. The Aramaic believers, who are the people who power, at the moment, call forth leadership from the Greek believers. We know this because the new leaders have Greek names. The church asked those who felt wronged and excluded to help make the church more welcoming and inclusive.
A new Testament scholar has said it is a mistake to think that the Acts of the Apostles is a blueprint for how the church should be ordered. Instead, it is a portrait of how the early church was and how God continues to work through God’s people. This dose of reality is both humbling and hopeful. We can mess this up in all sorts of ways in the process of following Jesus and carrying the message of good news, yet because God is in control great things are accomplished.
Like the early church, we believe Jesus is risen and is loose in this world doing a new thing. Like the early church let’s do the right thing even when we get it wrong, even when we get knocked around, bumped about or set upon. Let’s make sure no one is in need, no one is hungry, that everyone is welcome, that each has a place at the table, that every voice is heard. God will ultimately set all things right and peace be in all our hearts.