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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Holy Spirit Encourages

Walk in the Spirit, a sermon series after Easter on Spirit, Holy Spirit, our spirit, week 2 of 7, preached April 28, 2024



Scripture               Acts 3:1-10 (NL)




We are in a series called Walk in the Spirit. In the traditional church year, Holy Spirit gets one Sunday, one, Pentecost. This year, we are giving her seven Sundays. The two books of the New Testament that mention Holy Spirit more than any other are Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke’s gospel all about the early church, and First Corinthians, Paul’s letter advising new Christians how to be church. Over these seven weeks, we are reading 1st Corinthians, then preaching from Acts, listening for Holy Spirit in, under, and behind everything God is doing.

Last week, in Acts 4, Holy Spirit INSPIRED Peter and John to speak in the temple. They were resisted by the religious, but 5000 outsiders heard and believed. We learned Holy Spirit inspires us to say and do things a few religious folk may not like, and prayed Holy Spirit inspire US to speak and act toward the 5000.

Today, let’s pray and listen for Holy Spirit in…

Scripture               Acts 6:1-10

6 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.

2 So the twelve 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. 3 Therefore, brothers and sisters, select from among yourselves seven (people) of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, 4 while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 5 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. 6 They had these (seven) stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. 7 The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

8 Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke…

Sermon                 Holy Spirit Encourages

If last week, Holy Spirit INSPIRES disciples to speak tough truths, even if they may be resisted or rejected, this week Holy Spirit ENCOURAGES disciples to keep serving, even if things get tough or scary.

The Hebrews were the Jews holding onto the old religion, traditions, beliefs, even foods. They were Jews who likely spoke Aramaic as their main cultural language, then some Hebrew for scripture, and a little Greek to survive around town. The Hellenists were also Jewish, but more indoctrinated or incorporated into the modern culture. They likely spoke Greek as their main cultural language, and maybe some Latin, with far less Hebrew or Aramaic.

Before Jesus, they were separated from one another at worship time or meal time. They tolerated the differences of each other because it didn’t directly affect either community. I think of this text when someone tells me they can't stand guitar and drum songs from a screen, or when someone else tells me they don’t like four part harmony hymns with organ. Odd how following Jesus is sometimes secondary to our primary traditions or preferences.

Then, Jesus, and the people of “The Way” brought folks from Jewish and Hellenist groups together. That’s what they were called back then, not Christians yet, but people of the Way, not lots of different ways but THE WAY. Because of him, what he said and did, communities of the Way pulled in Hebrew and Hellenist, male and female, slave and free, and things got complicated, inside and from the outside.

Inside, they might have said we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, but in these gatherings, they didn’t like each other’s worship styles. They didn’t like each other’s foods. And maybe worst of all, they were not treating each other’s widows with the same attention and care they were treating their own.

It must have been nice to have the disciples still around. The church folk could go straight to the 12 with their complaint and get a quick ruling. Most of the first 12 disciples were probably Hebrew Jews, but 1 or 2 could have been Hellenist Jews. Made sense to ask them, “Hey, disciples, does this seem fair? The Hebrew members aren’t giving the Hellenist widows a fair share of food or attention?”

They had options, the 12 disciples. They could have said, “Well, that’s your job Hellenists. Let the Hebrews serve the Hebrew widows, and the Hellenists serve the Hellenist widows,” but they didn’t. Every widow was every follower’s responsibility to love and serve. They could have said, “My goodness, we’ll take care of that,” but they didn’t. If they had jumped in and started serving the widows by themselves, as a new bullet point on their job description, it would not have been sustainable. There were only 12 of them, and if they turned more and more of their attention inside the congregations, new people would not have heard and believed and come.

Instead, they would stay focused on leading worship and teaching, growing the congregation from the outside in, and on the inside, they advised, “We hear you, and yes, every widow should be remembered and served. So from among you, nominate and elect some people who get that already, whose heart and words and actions gladly gratefully serve those in need.”

These seven were the first Deacons. That word, diakonos, means waiter, or servant, one who serves, or ministers. They were not in charge of the property or the money, they were servants of people in need. They were not employees of the congregation, like those subcontractors in all black at a wedding, trying to be inconspicuous and whisking dirty dishes away. They were leaders. They were nominated and elected by the church to be out front examples of the important things the church must do, but often forgets or struggles to do, notice and serve the alone, the least, and the lost.

At this church, we have a beautiful board of Deacons, three classes of 2 or 3 folk each year, serving staggered three year terms. The Deacons have three primary responsibilities because we confess, there are VERY important things we the wider church aren’t great at remembering or doing.

First, the alones. The deacons at this church take care of the Homebound members of the church, those who cannot come to church, so the Deacons take church to them. They write and call and text. They visit, and deliver care packages. They help them get connected to worship on their TV, computer, or tablet. They make sure they are on the church email and prayer chain. They extend Communion to them sometimes, after we have communion here. Our deacons remember and serve the Homebound.

Second, the least. The deacons of this church take care of those on the Prayer List. Deacons again send cards, emails, texts, or make calls or visits to see if there’s anything the deacons or wider church can do to help folks through their time of need. Can we run errands? Bring a meal? Can we check on your pets or houseplants? Give you a ride? Our deacons remember and serve the Prayer List people.

And third, the lost. The deacons of this church reach out to those who have drifted away. Sometimes, we look around and wonder, “Hey, where’s so and so? I haven’t seen them in a while?” Members or regular attendees, without being homebound or on the prayer list, can fall away from community for all kinds of reasons. Our deacons follow up and ask questions. “How have you been? What’s changed? How can we love and support you?” The deacons listen, and invite them to worship, or a meal, or a small group. Our deacons remember and reach out to those who are missing.

I think of this text when we are in a Deacons meeting. The deacons are nominated and elected to be the servant leaders to those in need, and Caitlan and I are freed up to design and lead worship, to prepare and lead small groups, to go to the college campus and into the community, just like this scripture suggests. The deacons tell us when someone wants or needs a pastoral conversation, and Caitlan and I trust the deacons of this church to serve every person here with generosity and I am so so grateful that this church has a culture of deacons who serve like this.

But I will tell you, being a Deacon is not easy. Stephen was one of those seven, and he was “full of Holy Spirit and faith, grace and power.” Stephen did great wonders and signs among the people. I can just imagine him, cutting through a crowd around the buffet table and making a mounding plate of mixed foods, while folks scoff and sneer at him. “Who gives you the right to do this?”

And Stephen firing back, “Have you not heard how when you enter, sit yourself at a lower table? Have you not heard how the last shall be first, how the least shall be the greatest? Have you not heard how just a few loaves and fishes provided more than enough for everyone with plenty left over? While you feed your own faces, and worry you will not get enough, I am following the example of our Lord and serving first those in greatest need.” Some even follow Stephen around questioning and complaining. At one point, Stephen says to them, “51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” Did they even realize the food he is getting is not for himself, but for the back corner table near the door, where the elderly came in and collapsed, because that’s as far as they could make it.

It takes great courage to be a servant leader like this. That’s who Holy Spirit is, what she does, she encourages radical servant leadership. The word encourage doesn’t just mean comfort and console. In means to put courage into someone, so they can make the tough call or do the hard thing. You may ask, what’s the tough call or hard things about serving widows. Well…

At the end of Acts 7, some drag Stephen outside and stone him to death. But with his dying breath, he begs God to receive his spirit, and to forgive them. That’s the courage of Holy Spirit.


Let’s pray…

Come Holy Spirit, put your courage into us. If we are alone, give us to courage to cry out for company. If we are in need, or in trouble, give us the courage to raise a hand and ask for compassion. If we are wandering away, give us the courage to forgive, to hold on, to turn back to connections and relationship. And please, Holy Spirit, give us the courage to risk of seeing, loving and serving those who are alone, least, or lost. Amen? Amen.




Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you this day, this night, this moment, and forever more. Amen? Amen.

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