Working Together, Working Apart

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In one of his most loved poems, Robert Frost describes a solitary workman raking a field who comes upon a tuft of flowers spared earlier in the morning by the mower. The discovery wakens a moment of joy in the workman. He realizes his work is shared with another, and he exclaims, "Men work together, I told him from the heart,/ whether they work together or apart."

Learning this truth was one of the first tasks of the early Christians in Jerusalem. Having chosen to share their possessions, they began well. They spent much time together in the temple. They ate together in their homes, sharing gladly and generously, rejoicing because they had the goodwill of all the people (Acts 2:43-47). It was not long, however, before they ran headlong into a difficulty. In Acts 6:1, we learn that the widows of the Aramaic-speaking Christians were being favored over the widows of the Greek-speaking Christians in the distribution of the daily food. The community work of sharing had broken down.

Luke does not tell us why this occurred. It may have been prejudice. It may have been inadequate networking. It may have been incompetence or overwork. Luke does, however, tell us the immediate response of the disciples; they moved to correct it. They called the entire community together, the privileged and the neglected (Acts 6:2). This recognition of common concern was their first work in addressing the problem.

Their second work was to divide the labor of the community to provide for both the maintenance of its welfare and the spread of the Gospel (Acts 6:2-5). In choosing to divide the labor, they established a structure that recognized the legitimacy of different tasks. However, they did not invent the structure. They found instruction from their tradition.

The people of Israel complained about the lack of meat in the desert, and Moses betrayed his frustration with them to the Lord. Then, the Lord commanded him to call together seventy elders. He said, "I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not have to bear it all by yourself" (Num. 11:17).

The disciples followed the solution God provided Moses. The community selected seven men full of the Spirit and wisdom. These men would take care of the people while the disciples continued preaching the good news (Acts 6:3-4). As a result, the word of God continued to spread (Acts 6:7). The disciples and the seven worked apart at different tasks, and they worked together fulfilling the responsibilities of being Christ-bearers to Jerusalem.

In this age of cell phones and emails, few people work like Frost's laborer, in literal fields where a wildflower reminds us that we don't work alone. No, but we are still curiously disconnected. We forget the common task we share. The good news, the goodwill of all the people, depends on us working together, tackling our individual assignments, whether we work together or apart.