Christian Care – Acts 6
Ian Aitken, February 17th 2013
One of the things that we’re thinking about as a church at the moment is how well, or otherwise, we care for one another and how we might do it better. As you’ll see from the notices we’re setting aside a couple of hours one Saturday to discuss it and I would love if some folk were represented from her to bring your experience, wisdom and perspective. This morning, therefore, I want to briefly think about what it means to be a caring Christian community.
The story we just read records an incident which raised questions about the new church that had formed in Jerusalem and how they cared for one another. As I read this passage, three tensions stand out for me. The first is the tension between the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews, two distinct groups who should have been united in their faith but were divided. One group talks about “their widows”. In the very earliest days of the church there is already a them and us. There is a beautiful picture of the church at the end of chapter 4 where there is no needy person among them, but it has turned ugly by chapter 6 where one complains against the other.
Jesus had said, “They’ll know you are my disciples if you love one another” and already the world could say, “we know they are the church by their contempt for one another.” Which all goes to show that caring for one another as Christians is not easy. It isn’t easy because sin creeps in and brokenness causes a mess. We may not like it, but we are as likely to hurt one another as hug one another, simply because we are all broken people. How do we care for one another when there is so much to divide us? How do we love those who are different from us? How do the brash love the timid and the timid love the brash? How do the certain love the questioners and the questioners love the certain? How do we love and care for one another?
The answer lies in the phrase, Christian care: knowing how Christ has loved and cared for us we live in response to it. I’m not sure that Jesus expected us to be the nicest people around but that in our living together people would see mercy triumphing over judgement; forgiveness triumphing over hurt; peace triumphing over anger. That’s what Christian care looks like.
Which takes us onto the next tension in the early church and every church, the tension between Christian care and pastoral care. The response of the apostles to the crisis in the church has sometimes been caricatured and criticised as “we are above waiting on tables: we’re far too spiritual and important for that.” In fact what they say is that the ministry of the word of God must not be neglected.
Pastoral care is properly a ministry of the word of God. Pastoring, or shepherding, in the biblical sense involves guiding individuals and the church as a whole to take hold of the promises of God in Christ for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Pastoral care helps others to live as disciples of Christ. The danger that is flagged up by the apostles is that the ministry of pastoral care will become neglected: and it is a danger which has all too often come to pass. There are those who are charged in the church with providing pastoral care: in particular the pastors; the elders and the ministers. Their role is primarily the ministry of the word and prayer – it is a ministry of helping people take hold of the promises of God and grow in Christ. It is pastoral care in its proper sense. When we lose that true meaning of the word and begin to expect our pastors, ministers and elders to be the prime carers in the church, two things happen: we lose the centrality of the ministry of the word on the one hand and the church as a whole is disenfranchised from its responsibility, the responsibility of each one of us, to care for each other.
And that brings us onto the third tension: the tension between the church as a community and the church as an organisation. The issue facing the church was a community one: people who should have loved and cared for one another were complaining against one another. They were failing to be the body of Christ. One would hope that with proper pastoral care the community would come more and more to resemble Christ in their care for one another. In the meantime though some were going hungry and others were being hurt. And so the solution to the community being less than it should be was to change the organisation and appoint people with specific responsibility to do the caring.
This is a tension that occurs in the church all the time. The community are meant to care for one another but when it fails we look to organise things so that those who need cared for are looked after. If someone goes into hospital and no-one visits them; if someone is bereaved and no-one comforts them; if someone is struggling with their finances and no-one has the expertise to advise them; if someone is suffering from depression and no-one takes the time to understand them, then we as a caring community should address that issue and organise things so that the weak are strengthened, the sad comforted and the struggling helped.
But the danger lies in our relying on organising things well rather than becoming the people God call us to be. The problem someone else is facing in the church becomes someone else’s responsibility rather than our calling together. There is, in other words, a vast difference between being a place where people are cared for and us being a community of Christian care.
In some ways that difference can be seen particularly well in a community like ours: us as a group of people gathering for worship here in Stocket Grange. Are we a church? Part of a church? For some of us this is our church; for others it is this along with the congregation gathering at Woodhill Court or across at the centre; for others still we are also part of another church altogether with long associations there. It is one of the joys and strengths of our gathering here that we can bring together all these different folk, and it’s one of my great joys that, unlike so many similar services, both Stocket Grange and Woodhill Court gatherings welcome folk from within and beyond the respective sheltered housing complexes.
But there is a great danger in gatherings like ours that some of us are those who put on the service and perhaps provide a degree of caring, inevitably limited, and others are those who attend the services and are cared for. I say danger but perhaps that arrangement is OK. It is, after all, how most such services work. However, I think that the danger is that what we do here becomes less than the church, the body of Christ, where God is truly worshiped; Christ met with, the Spirit encountered and the gospel revealed to the world. Instead we become providers and receivers of some sort of spiritual care which is less than what we should be as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.
Unlike the church in Jerusalem, I don’t think that one group here is complaining that another group are getting more biscuits after the service. But, in a community like ours which, with all due respect is predominantly older with all the issues that brings, there is an obvious need for the church to organise its care. However, there is a greater need, indeed a call upon us all , to live together as the body of Christ, a community of Christian disciples, the church, so that the love of God is revealed and experienced in our love for each other. That is the challenge that faces us here.