The Fire and the Fireplace

Acts 6:1-6 ~ Zechariah 8:20-23

When the Amish need an elder, they have a process. They believe that every baptized believer has already said “yes” to Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Baptism implies consent. If you agree to be dunked because Jesus said so, then it’s just assumed that you are already prepared to do whatever else it is that Christ might ask you to do. The only task that remains is for a church to figure out who it is that the Lord is asking to be their elder.

The Amish go about this by a process of prayer and discernment. When they’ve finally got their settled list of candidates, they write a scripture on a piece of paper, and they hide it in a hymnal. That hymnal is then placed in a stack of hymnals, the number corresponding exactly to the number of names on the list, and then each candidate goes forward and chooses a hymnal. The one who gets the hymnal with the Scripture in it becomes the next elder of the community.

The Amish will tell you that they don’t choose their elders. The Holy Spirit does (Acts 20:28). And we Disciples laugh nervously, squirm in our seats a little, and look for the door when hear things like this. You see, we aren’t real big on the “woo woo” stuff. As one of those hymns we love to sing puts it –  

“I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies, no sudden rending of the veil of clay,
no angel visitant, no opening skies, [just] take the dimness of my soul away.”

“Reasonable” and “Pragmatic,” that’s how W.B. Blakemore described “the mind of the Disciples of Christ” in his famous 1963 essay in the Panel of Scholars Report that resulted in our restructure from a “Brotherhood” to a “Denomination.” We’re a head church not a heart church. If there is something that needs to get done, we Disciples need a good reason for doing it (that’s our “Reasonableness” at work), we want to know the best way to get it done (and that’s our “Pragmatism”), and then we just want you to get out of the way so that we can get on with it.

The very first General Assembly I ever attended opened with a Communion service. There were more than 9,000 of us in the arena that day. It was a powerful experience. But when it was all over, what people talked about was not the spiritual impact of that sacramental moment, that many people celebrating with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of God in Christ at the same time in the same place, but rather the efficiency of the distribution. All over the Assembly floor and in the arena hallways afterwards I heard people saying – “It took less time to serve that many people than it takes to serve a hundred people at my church back home!” We’re a church of engineers not poets, managers not mystics. In my 50 years of local church ministry, I found that it was always easier to get people out for a church workday than it was to get them to a prayer meeting or a Bible Study. This is just who we Disciples are.

Acts chapter 6 describes the first organizational expansion of the church.

1 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. And 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. Therefore, brothers and sisters, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” 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. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.

Numerical growth had complicated the things that that the church was doing. Some new leaders were desperately needed to make it all work, and Acts chapter 6 tells us about how the early church went about solving this leadership crisis. 

There was a time when we thought and talked about our denominational project as Disciples as “Restoration.” For more than 100 years we were actually known as the “Restoration Movement.” We were in the business of seeing how the church in the New Testament did things, so that we could then turn around and attempt to duplicate it in our own time and place.  And so we have baptized people by immersion upon their confession of faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God, and their Lord and Savior because that’s what we saw in the New Testament.  And we celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week as a church because that’s what we see in the New Testament. And we’re fiercely congregational, insisting on the right to order our own life together under the Lordship of Christ, because that’s what we see in the New Testament. And we have elders and deacons as our congregational leaders because that’s what we see in the New Testament.

At times we Disciples have treated the New Testament as if it were a blueprint, and so we come to passages like Acts 6 with a view to church administration, focusing on systems and structures, policies and procedures. We want to know how do we make this (the church) look more what’s in this (the New Testament).

Sam Shoemaker (1893 –1963), the Episcopal priest from the first half of the 20th century, called this the “fireplace” of the church. You’ve got to have one and it’s got to work, to be sure. But fireplaces are not the point. Fire is, and so Sam Shoemaker warned churches about becoming so preoccupied with fireplace design and fireplace efficiency that we forget what fireplaces are for. If we read Acts 6 and all we see are flow charts and job descriptions, then we’re doing this, we’re missing the “fire.” If we read Acts 6 and don’t see verse 3, then we’ve got a classic case of missing the “fire” for the “fireplace.” When it was time for the New Testament Church to expand its leadership base what mattered was not what the new leaders could do but rather who the new leaders were. Their credentials were not a list of their demonstrable skills but the evidence of the vitality of their spiritual lives. They were people who were known (of “good repute”) to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.”  This is how it still works in the Coptic Church.

The Coptic Church is the Oriental Orthodox Church in Egypt.  It traces its origins back to St. Mark the Evangelist, the traditional author of the second Gospel. When a Coptic congregation needs a priest, they look around at the people who are already part of their worshipping community, and they ask their bishop to come and ordain the one who in their judgement displays the most spiritual maturity and vitality.  This is a pretty standard part of the way that Eastern Orthodox Christianity does things. They understand that a theologian is not someone who has read lots and lots of books about God but is rather someone who talks to God regularly, intensely, and personally. 

If the bishop concurs with the congregation’s choice, then the bishop sends the newly ordained priest off to a monastery for 40 days to learn the ropes of performing the sacraments. They believe that in a month and a half they can teach someone everything he needs to know about fireplaces and their operation, but they will do this only after it’s been clearly established that the faith has already caught fire in him, and is burning brightly.

In Acts 6, when it was time for the church to expand its leadership team, it was those who were known to be “full of the Spirit and wisdom” who were recruited to serve. The designation “elder” does not refer to chronological age in the church’s usage, but to spiritual maturity.  When Gene Getz opened his Bible to learn what spiritual maturity looks like, he zeroed in on the list of elder qualifications found in I Timothy and Titus. He counted 20 specific characteristics. As he drilled down into each one of these prerequisites for spiritual leadership in the church, he was startled to discover that there was nothing in these lists of expectations for the spiritual leaders of the church that were not found elsewhere in the New Testament as an expectation for every member of the church!

You see, an elder is not some kind of exceptional Christian. You aren’t here this afternoon because you’re better than, smarter than, or stronger than the rest. You aren’t a capital “S” saint with an impressive resume of miracle and sanctity to your name. No, you’re here this afternoon because you have been determined by your fellow church members to be representative of the kind of Christian that they themselves are trying to become. The language that the church once used to describe what it is that you have been determined to be by your spiritual peers is “proficient.”

Martin Thornton, the Anglican spiritual theologian from the last generation, said that what it means to be a “Proficient” is that you are regarded by your spiritual peers to be a spiritual “adult.” This doesn’t mean perfection, mind you. You are not being asked to pretend that your life is free from all of the difficulties, dangers, temptations, tests, doubts,  struggles, and snares that are common to us all as Christians. No, what you are being asked to do is to put your Christian life with all of those difficulties, dangers, temptations, tests, doubts, struggles, and snares at the disposal of the community as a source for their clarification and growth.  You’re a wounded healer, a fellow struggler on the way.

The late Kallistos Ware, the British Orthodox Theologian, said that the “one who climbs a mountain for the first time needs to follow a known route; and she needs to have with her, as companion and guide, someone who has been up the mountain before and who is familiar with the way. To serve as such a companion and guide is precisely the role of the ‘elder.’” A “Proficient” becomes a “Pontifex.” That’s the dynamic that I want you to leave you with here today.

“Pontifex” is a Latin word for “priest,” and that word “priest” comes from a Greek word in the New Testament – “presbuteroi” – a word that we translate as “elder.” You see, what some parts of the Christian family calls priests, we call elders. Let that sink in for a moment — You’re priests! You’re a “pontifex,” and what this means is that you’re a “bridge-builder.” “Pontifex” is a combination of a word for bridge – “pons” or “pont” – and a verb – “fex” or “facere” – that means “to build” or “to make.”

A priest/elder is a person with feet planted in two places at once. One foot is planted in a specific community of faith.  You are a representative of the people who called you to be a priest/elder. A priest/elder’s other foot is planted on the holy ground of the presence of God, what is perceived to be familiar terrain for you. You are an interpreter of who God is, and what God wants, and what God has done and is doing in and for the world.  The task of the priest/elder is to bridge this gap, to bring the hopes and fears of the people you represent to God, and the ways, the  words, and the will of the God you know personally to the people who have called you to represent them spiritually.

This is why St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that spiritual leaders need to be both reservoirs and channels. He said that reservoirs are for filling, and channels for flowing. You’re a priest/elder because you are already thought to be a reservoir by this church. Your brothers and sisters in this community of faith view you as being full of the Spirit and wisdom. Now, your ministry as a priest/elder going forward is to become a channel. Your assignment is to open yourself to them so that the Spirit and wisdom that has flowed in and filled you can in turn flow out and be of help to them.

One of my favorite passages in the whole Bible is Zechariah 8:20-23.

20 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, 21 and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, ‘Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.’ 22 And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.” 23 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, ‘Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.’”

There’s a saying in the spiritual tradition of Russian Orthodoxy that when a person “acquires the Spirit” that “a thousand people will be saved.” What this means is that a person who truly knows God will begin to spontaneously attract other people who desperately want to know God too. That’s what Zechariah 8:20-23 is describing, people being drawn to Jerusalem and to the Temple because God was known to be there. 

It was his familiarity with passages like this one from the book of Zechariah that led the Quaker theologian Thomas Kelley to observe that the spiritual life has two distinct movements. First, God pulls us deep into His heart so that we can know that we are chosen and beloved, and then God hurls us out of His heart to be part of the way that God holds everyone, everywhere, and always in the infinitely tender love that we know in our own experience of Christ. This is the spiritual rhythm of who a priest/elder is and what a priest/elder does. A priest/elder is a “Proficient” who gets asked to be a “Pontifex.” 

We sang a song in youth group back in the day that I still find to be a near-perfect expression of this ministry to which we have been called –

“Accept Him with your whole heart and use your own two hands. With one reach out to Jesus, and with the other, bring a friend.”

We receive in order to give. We are filled in order to flow. You are a “Proficient” because your hand has reached out to Jesus. You will become a “Pontifex” as your hand reaches out to others.

We are pulled into the heart of God to be filled.

We are hurled out of the heart of God to flow.

Reservoir – hand up to Jesus.

Channel – hand out to others.

Proficient – hand up to Jesus.

Pontifex – hand out to others.

It’s who we are.

It’s what we do.


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