This edition of Connections is about deacons, and appropriately so, since the diaconate is all about connection. Deacons are called and authorized to connect us to everything that is around us. Sometimes it is said that deacons connect the church to the world, and vice versa. But I think this sets up a false dichotomy. The church and the world are not two separate realms. The church is fully part of the world, and, at its best, it is the dynamic location of the Holy Spirit’s transformative work within the world. Deacons do not connect the church to the world. Rather, they acknowledge our connection to the world as something that already exists and call us to live into it.
The diaconate remains the order that most unambiguously models our call to follow Jesus into the neighborhood.
This can be painful, because the more we look our resistance to connection in the eye, the more we see how complicit we have been in racism and other biases that separate us from our neighbors. Realizing our essential connection to the world calls us from withdrawal and inaction to engagement and action. This means recognizing that as church we are totally immersed in the mix of human experience and are joined with Christ in restoring that whole mix to health. But this entails our admission that as church we are seldom free from prejudice and serving ourselves alone.
This admission is part of the creation of the diaconate in the very first days of the church.
The creation of the diaconate, as related in Acts 6, emerges out of an episode of prejudice and self-serving at the very beginning of the church’s life. In the early days after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, there were many foreign Jews still in Jerusalem, who had lingered to observe the ancient feast of Pentecost, which marks fifty days after Passover, at which time God delivered the Ten Commandments (and many more) to Moses. These foreigners were Greek-speaking Jews from all over the Roman Empire, who were disadvantaged because they were far from home and probably did not speak the local language. Many of these Hellenistic Jews had become followers of Jesus, following the dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
As converts to Christ, these foreign Jews had a right to the daily distribution of food and goods that the apostles established early on. Nevertheless, they ended up being overlooked in the daily distribution of food and goods. We learn from this that the church in its earliest days was still, as now, a flawed human community: blind to the outsider, busily forming itself into an in-group centering on itself.
Yet what happened next was pretty remarkable. The fledgling church did not reject the complaint of those who had been overlooked. Instead it acknowledged its guilt and sought to repair the breach. More surprisingly, it identified and empowered leaders in the aggrieved group to oversee the repair. These seven leaders, all with Greek names, became the first deacons, and when the twelve apostles laid hands on them, the church witnessed its first ordination.
As I have often stated, all ordained ministry is a variation on this original diaconal ministry. All deacons, priests and bishops are chosen by the people of God to help them continue their exodus into deeper and deeper connection with the world around them. The diaconate remains the order that most unambiguously models our call to follow Jesus into the neighborhood. The ancient liturgical functions of the diaconate illustrate this. In the context of the eucharist, it is the deacon who proclaims the Gospel, and in so doing announces that the risen Christ is in our midst, calling us to follow him out, here and now. Again, it is the deacon who sets the table for the Eucharistic feast, reminding us that discipleship is about service. We cannot effectively engage our neighborhoods as followers of Jesus if we are not willing to do it as servants who serve without hope of gain. Finally, deacons dismiss us at the conclusion of worship. In so doing they encourage us to claim our authority as baptized persons to make the love of God known to everyone we deal with. But they also claim their own authority to lead us out into new territory for mission and learning.
For many centuries the vitality and dignity of the diaconate withered. I am so grateful that over the past century and a half the Holy Spirit has lifted this foundational order back into prominence. I realize that there are many congregations in this diocese that are not yet blessed with the presence of a deacon. I pray that this will continue to change, slowly but surely. I am grateful for the articles in this Connections that highlight what our many very active deacons are up to and what their ministry can mean for all of us.
The Rt. Rev. Thomas E. Breidenthal serves as Bishop of the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.