September 27, 1998
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Acts 6:1-6 and 1 Timothy 3:8-13
A boy was asked what he thought bishops, priests, and deacons were. He pondered a moment, and then replied: "I never saw a bishop, so I donít know. A priest is a man in the Old Testament. A deacon is a thing that sits along the seashore and blinks at night."
Over the last 15 years our denomination has been asking itself the same question, especially about this "thing" we call deacon. You see, once upon a time in our tradition, deacons held a great deal of authority. In a church that for the first 200 years of its existence didnít have professional, paid Pastors, the task of ministry in each congregation was spread out among the members. Some were called to preach, others to administrate, and still others to be caregivers, or deacons. One person was not expected to do it all, sort of like how the New Testament describes it: many gifts that involve many persons working toward the good of all.
The Brethren have changed a great deal over the last 100 years. We added this thing called Pastor, a trained and paid professional, and somewhere along the line the role of deacon got short-changed. Perhaps it was inevitable. In the old way of operating, the deacon board was the "Official" Board in the church, a position of power and authority which, in a few cases, was abused. As congregations moved toward paid Pastors and Administrative boards to efficiently run themselves, the role of deacon was placed on a back burner. There was a time in many congregations when one could have said that all deacons did was (like a lighthouse) just "sit" and "blink" - preparing Love Feast and Communion, but little else. What a shame!
Fortunately, we are witnessing the rebirth of the role of deacon in the Church of the Brethren. The 1997 Annual Conference of our denomination marked a new beginning, a renewed emphasis upon the role of deacon as a significant calling, a special ministry in and of itself, vital to the well-being of the body of Christ... Speaking of beginnings, letís jump back a couple thousand years and witness the birth of this "thing" called deacon.
To do this we turn to the book of Acts, the story of the followers of Jesus after he was no longer physically present with them. In the sixth chapter we read about one of the first conflicts in the early church, a dispute that threatened to tear it apart. It revolved around old-timers and newcomers. You see, in Jerusalem were folks who had lived there forever and a day. They were dyed-in-the-wool, Hebrew speaking Jews, who had turned to Jesus. In Jerusalem were also Jews who, though they now lived in the cradle of Judaism, were born elsewhere, and whose native tongue was not that of Palestine. These Greek speaking Jews, or Hellenists, had also turned to Jesus. There were a fair number of them.
In the beginning of the church, all these folks met together, almost on a daily basis. Furthermore, they shared all things in common. That is, whatís yours is mine and mine is yours. It was sort of like the feeding of the 5,000 every day, only you didnít just put into the basket a little loaf of bread and a fish. You tossed in everything. For some folks that was a lot. Others had but little to share. Especially the widows. Possibly there were more Greek speaking widows, percentage wise, than Hebrew ones. Why? Well, Jerusalem was for many folks a place to return to before you die. Think of all these old men who brought their wives with them back to Jerusalem when they got up there in years, just so that they would have their final exit in the "city of peace." What were these women supposed to do then? Many were left with very little.
Now, Jewish law did provide a little for widows and other needy folks. The Christians, however, went above and beyond the law and made sure every widow was fully taken care of - at least in theory. When making sure everything is fair, though, there is always room for disagreement, isnít there? I know that full well. I have four children. Anyway, the newcomers perceived that the widows among them were not receiving what they should. They saw neglect. And the differences between those who were born and bread citizens of Judah and the immigrants among them had the potential of tearing this new fellowship apart.
Well, the leaders of the church had enough wisdom to respond when they heard what was happening, and were inspired to call out others to take special care of the widows and those on the margins, the people who were in extra need. It was a necessity that someone be especially concerned with the physical needs of everyone, and make sure that no one was neglected. After a time of prayer, the whole community called out seven persons for this task of "serving," or "diakonia" (the Greek word from which we draw the term "deacon"). Now, they were not at this point officially called "deacons," but in these seven we see the beginnings of this ministry.
Steven, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. Of interest is that all of those seven are Greek, not Hebrew names. Iím not saying that this is what happened, but have you ever noticed that when you identify a need and speak it, you often are the one called to meet it? To be honest, I have little patience with persons who point out things the church should be about, but who are not willing to be the ones who step out and do it.
As I said, I donít know if this community of believers in Jerusalem, after praying about it, called out those seven because these individuals had been ones who had seen the need and given voice to it. Such a development makes sense to me, though itís not listed in the criteria. The only stipulations at first were that these individuals be persons of good standing (that is, recognized by others as good, solid folks), and that they be full of the Spirit and of wisdom (that is, led by God).
Now, at least in the beginning, there were not hard and fast lines drawn between these seven "deacons" and the other 12 leaders. There are those words in Acts 6:2 about it not being right for the 12 disciples to "neglect the Word of God in order to wait on tables." It has been suggested over the years that this statement implies there is a ministry of preaching and a ministry of serving, which are distinct from each other: preachers preach, deacons serve. Unfortunately, the Bible doesnít let us draw such lines too boldly. You see, the first of these so-called "deacons" was Stephen, who is remembered not for taking care of widows, but for a sermon he preached. That action got him killed. He was the very first martyr in the church.
The Greek words "diakoneo" or "diakonia" or "diakonos" are used many times in the New Testament. However, depending upon which version you use, there are only six or so instances where it is directly translated as "deacon." The majority of times we find it in our Bibles translated as "minister" or "serve." The New Testament, as I said, does not draw hard and fast lines in the area of leadership. Perhaps thatís because of the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which moves like a wind among Godís people.
In some denominations, the office of Deacon today is a step along the way toward ordination to ministry, as a priest, elder, or bishop. You start there and work your way up. In the Catholic tradition the office of deacon has become a way station for married men who wish to preach and distribute the sacraments, but not follow the oath of celibacy in a religious order. With the shortage of priests, deacons are playing a bigger role than in the past.
In Brethren theology, ministry is not seen as a ladder which one climbs toward greater and greater authority. We emphasize that, if anything, it is a descending ladder. This concept of servant and service is very important to us, and it is something to which every believer is called. Baptism, from a Brethren perspective, is not merely the washing away of sin, it is an ordination to ministry - something we all share. Thatís why it involves an adult decision.
All are called to be ministers. However, we do "set apart" (and thatís the language we intentionally use, we "set apart") persons for specific ministries, so that they might get it done. If anything, Brethren are biblical pragmatists. Persons, such as myself, are "set apart" to be Pastors. That doesnít make me better or wiser than anyone else. Furthermore, for the sake of making sure that, insofar as it is possible, none are neglected or forgotten, we "set apart" ten persons to be deacons. Likewise, this doesnít make them better or wiser than anyone else. Nor does calling them out to be deacons, or myself out to be pastor, take away the calling of God which rests upon us all to be his ministers.
Those who are called have a great deal of latitude in how they respond to the call. The wind blows as it will to meet the needs of the moment. An important part of ministry, whether it be pastoral ministry, or deacon ministry, or even every member ministry, is not so much the finding of a job description and then fulfilling it. Rather, ministry involves moving with the wind of the Spirit to address present needs that this very same Spirit helps us to perceive. Deacon ministry, like all ministry, differs from person to person, time to time, as well as place to place.
Earlier, we heard some mentoring words from the apostle Paul to his young co-worker, Timothy, about some of the qualifications needed for a person to be a deacon, expanding on that original list in Acts. These need to be heard in the context of the task at hand. If a person is to be a servant who has a special ministry to care for others, it makes sense that they should take the task seriously. That doesnít mean take themselves so seriously that they are pompous and self-important. How do reach out to persons on the margins if you are too self-serious? If anything, service means placing yourself on the margin, and the other person in the center with Christ.
Holding confidences, not saying one thing and doing another, or telling one thing to one person and the opposite to the next - these are likewise important qualities for a deacon. Sobriety speaks for itself. A drunkard cares only for his next drink, not for the other person. There is also a material sobriety. When you are very attached to your possessions, how can you freely give? The only thing to really hold onto is the faith revealed in Jesus Christ. As you serve, you do so in his name. Thatís what makes serving possible. Paul listed a few more things to consider, like making sure that you take care of your own family in the process of helping others.
This morning, we have already dedicated our churchís prayer chain to a new year of service. Now, we need to consecrate our deacons. Next week they will be paving the way for a baptism to take place, and later for Love Feast. I work with them, and they with me, in the task of caregiving in this congregation. Together, we try to make sure that no one is neglected. Sometimes we are more successful at this than at other times. Thatís why we need your prayers, your support, your encouragement in Christ. Remember, we are all his ministers, even though some of us are set apart for particular ministries.
In a way that boy was right, the one who said "a deacon is a thing that sits along the seashore and blinks at night." Deacons are like a lighthouse, a beacon to persons in danger of losing their way, reaching out lifelines when ships wreck, and welcoming the weary inside to the Lordís table. Thank God for Deacons!
©1998Peter L. Haynes
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