First Presbyterian Church

of Hemet
                                             The One Thing That (Sadly) Unites Presbyterians? 
                                                                 Acts 6:1-7; Acts 14:21-23
 
Three true stories of, well, church conflict to begin. It tells you a lot about why I’m a Presbyterian Christian. 
First story: When I was in the 9th grade the First Baptist Church of Toms River, NJ was roiled by conflict. Some middle-aged men, including my father and my uncle thought our pastor had stayed too long. It was time for him to move on. I suppose he had been there 20 years although I didn’t know. I remember raised, angry voices on the phone from my dad, and a congregational meeting to decide the pastor’s future employment with the church. Word was that Pastor Thompson lobbied heavily with the members who were part of the retirement communities of which there were many in our town, and he survived the congregational vote

Second story: Our family and about ten others left the church. My uncle, my aunt and my cousins went to another local Baptist church. But my family and about five others got together at someone’s house and started a new church. We called ourselves Emmanuel Baptist. We rented a fire station nine miles south of First Baptist with a beautiful reception hall and asked a local chaplain to be our preacher. There was an excitement to starting a new church, and I remember having the once-a-month duty on Saturday nights to set up the fire hall to convert it into a place for Sunday School and worship.
 
Then I went off to college five states away. By this time Emmanuel Baptist had called a pastor from the closest big city, a recent Bible College grad. There was conflict again. This time it was about the role of deacons. In the Baptist church of my upbringing they had no elders, only deacons. The pastor was insisting that since he was the only one trained in the Bible he was an elder who directed the ministry. The deacons were to wait on tables and look after the poor. I didn’t know much about the Baptist Church—there was no confirmation class but only a one hour believer’s baptism class--but I knew you didn’t tell a Baptist deacon that they were only to care for the poor and wait on tables. Deacons were to rule the church. There was another congregational meeting about the pastor’s future. My flew me home from college, from Chicago to Newark. I put my hand up in a congregational meeting to dissolve the relationship with our new pastor. The pastor who had just been there for two years was given his walking papers.
 
Third story: Fast forward about 20 years, now to Southern California. La Canada Presbyterian Church, a PCUSA congregation is having conflict with their new pastor who they just called from a congregation in Texas. The tall Texan followed a popular pastor who had been there about 25 years. The Texan had an unfortunate initial of G.O.D. and it was said the Texan was too directive and other things. Who knew? The reality was he wasn’t his predecessor. So the Session asked for help from the presbytery. The chair of the Committee on Ministry, what’s sometimes called the corporate bishop in our denomination, another pastor from a church 20 miles away sat in a chair in the center of the chancel. The Session sat in the choir loft. A microphone was set up in the center aisle and people were encouraged to come to the microphone and state their opinion. The Session adjourned to the choir practice room and talk and pray. The pastor was to stay. He was counselled and went on to a very successful fifteen-twenty year pastorate from which he recently retired.
 
The two passages we heard are from the earliest days of the church. In the first passage we heard they’re in Jerusalem and the twelve apostles of Jesus are in charge. The first passage is on the occasion of conflict: the Greek speaking Jewish Christians are feeling their widows are being neglected in the daily distribution of food. Jerusalem must have been in some kind of famine, or the first believers must have come from the poor people of the land who were dependent on the church for their daily bread. The church was more than about gathering around the Word and daily prayer. It was a place to get food.
 
So the twelve apostles of Jesus appoint seven men to “wait on tables”, something that quite possibly meant more than serving food. The seven may have handled all the finances. Although the word deacon is not used, these seven are largely considered the first deacons. They’re the same group that people Paul addresses in the church in his letter to Philippi twenty years later and who Paul or his close follower addresses on the island of Crete some thirty to forty years later. [Titus] Presbyterian and Reformed churches continue to follow this tradition, that is to have a group of people who are set aside to care for the poor and all those in physical or mental need.
 
The second passage is the first mention of elders in the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas are in the remote mountains of modern-day Turkey. The are going from city to city or town to town and making the case for Jesus as Messiah and Lord. They are facing considerable opposition from some of the people. Paul and Barnabas want to continue the work after they return to their base in Antioch of Syria hundreds of miles away. So they appoint elders--our pew Bibles has a note that says appointing could also mean ordaining or had elders elected. Leaders were left behind in three towns with assignment to watch over the faith of those who believed. 
Deacons and elders. They come from the practice of the early church in the first 25 years after Jesus died, rose again and was ascended from the earth.
 
Fast forward another twenty years. You start to hear of not just elders and deacons but overseers, also called bishops. It’s clear that sometimes the word elder is interchanged with overseer. It’s one in the same person. But then about twenty years later still you start hearing of a single person who has responsibility to a group of churches. In the literature it’s called episcopal monarchialism—episcopal for bishop, monarchialism, for one-person rule. That’s how the Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans and Methodist gets bishops who are one person instead of a group of people like the Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists. 
You wouldn’t think it matters much but in the definitive statement on what divides the churches that was published from Lima, Peru forty years ago it spends half its pages talking about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. But just as many pages are about what’s called ministry, how we get our leadership, the all important question of Who decides in the church?
 
So here’s what unites all Presbyterian USAers? More than theology or politics, more than our views on the hot button issues of abortion, homosexuality, guns or marijuana, what unites Presbyterians is our suspicion and resistance to bishops. Ours is a tradition that points to the Roman Senate instead of the Roman Ceasar as the model for the way it should be in the church and in the world. Paul and Barnabas appointed elders, plural, not an elder, in the towns and cities of what we’d call the Turkish highlands. The next chapter in Acts, when there’s a dispute about circumcision and Jewish purity laws as necessary for salvation, not any one individual but a group of individuals get together and decide what God’s will is. Our impulse is to defer to the group, because we think the Holy Spirit speaks through consensus and deliberation, not through the individual inspiration of any one person. 

Now we’ve woven a whole fabric around that one conviction. We have a group of people, not just one elder “study, recommend and implement” like the Worship and Property Committees on behalf of the Session. We assign representatives from the congregation to the region to say the church is one. We insist on an equal number of clergy and laity in all groups larger than the congregation, what we call presbyteries, synods and the General Assembly. It’s this fundamental suspicion of private inspiration or too much power in the hands of any one person that drives how Presbyterians live our life together. 
The downside of this insight to rely on group discernment, of course, is that sometimes God has uses individuals to shake things up. He used Moses and Deborah and David in the people of Israel and Judah. In our passage Paul and Barnabas did the appointing. Some one or two persons has to get the ball rolling. Stephen, the first deacon appointed was said to be” full of faith and the Holy Spirit” was the first martyr who gave testimony to the city council, called the Sanhedrin of his day. Each of the twelve apostles were disbursed to spread the Good News to the then known world. We pay a price for not believing that one person can be used by God to represent unity and ensure that all play according to the same rules.
 
Today we’re going to ordain and install two elders and install an elder and a deacon. Ordination is for life, unless you lay down that ordination because you feel God has something else for you. Ordaining and installing is a holy act. Because it sets aside people for specific acts of leadership. The first elders were reminded that “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God”. Because the appointment or ordination of deacons and elders came out of struggle. With deacons, people needed food. With elders, people needed teaching and encouragement.
 
One year my wife and I received a fish bowl at Christmas time filled with little slips of cardboard. Each slip had a saying on them. The giver of the gift was a nurse or in the medical field. And the one that stayed with us the most was this: It said, “everyone you meet is fighting a tough battle.” That’s why God gave us deacons and elders: everyone we meet is fighting a tough battle. We need help. We need people looking out for us. We need people in the church who will get up on the balcony and check that we’re all in our places with bright shiny faces. That’s what a good Session does, a good Board of Deacons does. They get up on the balcony that overlooks this Sanctuary and makes sure that everything going on below is building people up. That takes meetings, visits, occasional confrontation and persistence. That takes prayer, attention to the Word and self-knowledge. It’s best done in company, with a deep trust in the Spirit of Jesus. It always has been best done together, since the first conflict around food to the widows. Thanks be to God for deacons and elders who continue the work of Jesus! 

There’s one thing that the Presbyterian Church does well. We practice the conviction that there are no super Christians, people who have an added measure of the Holy Spirit. We’re all in this together, because the battle is not ours alone. Join your voice, with the voice of those who first approached these four people who are being ordained and installed today, and you who elected them so they can do the holy thing they are being blessed to do with and for you.