In the spirit of re-beginning a NEW tradition at Washington Plaza, we began taking nominations for deacons this Sunday in worship. But in an effort to fully understand what we might be calling deacons to do, this is the sermon I preached today. I share it here for the benefit of those who missed worship today. Read it, pray about it, and share your nomination in of who you feel God is calling to the ministry of the diaconate this year. I know this ministry is going to be a wonderful addition to our church fellowship!
Deacons Needed! Acts 6:1-9
There’s nothing like a good church fight to get God’s plans for a community moving in the right direction isn’t there?
Though when many of think of the title of “deacon,” nice and hallowed images come to mind of saintly folks who serve in leadership roles of the church, today we get to wrestle with how all the business of deacon hood came to be. And, it wasn’t pretty; it wasn’t pretty at all. The role of “deacon” within the church community evolved out of a conflicted situation that only some attention to administration could fix.
The church, as it began was centrally located in Jerusalem, found itself at a moment of crisis as our scripture passage opens for today. Yet, previous to this lection all was well in paradise. New believers emerged almost daily, somehow the original 12 had somehow convinced everyone that living in the way of Jesus met communal life with holding all processions and finances in common, and powerful healing and teaching was regularly part of daily life. However, all was not well. Conflict was brewing under the surface of things: conflict that could not be easily silenced or controlled by the 12 apostles unless time and energy was given to its origin.
When communities are filled with diverse people, conflict is inevitable. It is important to note that the community of believers in Jerusalem had never been homogenous from the start. Remember that Pentecost occurred on a day, after all, when faithful Jews were gathered from all parts of the known world at the time, speaking more languages than just one.
After powerfully encountering Christ through the coming of the Holy Spirit, many of them stayed in town to be a part of this exciting new religious movement. Language and cultural barriers did not suddenly go away. Consider this: there were Jews who once lived in Jerusalem but had spent many years away from the city living in Greece who recently returned. Their experiences abroad had changed them to the degree that that were no longer a part of mainstream in Jewish culture in the city center. Instead, they were known as “Hellenists.” While traditionally Jews, their dwelling places were in more remote parts of city. They were harder to visit, harder to understand when they spoke, and marginalized from the rest of the community without much effort.
Above all, some members of the community spoke Greek, some spoke Aramaic. Natural distinctions led to patterns of poor communication, mismanaged expectations among community members, and unspoken resentments . . . . sound familiar?
Specifically, those widows who lived outside the city center of Jerusalem felt they weren’t receiving the same treatment as those who lived closest to the 12 apostles. The murmuring of complainants became so loud that a church town hall meeting seemed necessary. “What were the apostles going to do to fix the problem of the marginalized widows?” People demanded to know!
The answer emerging from this communal dispute was the birth of the diaconate: a group of selected, trained and ordained believers who felt a call by God to the service tasks of the community, specifically caring for the often neglected widows, orphans, powerless, and destitute. Though the word “deacon” is not mentioned within this text explicitly, it is a term used in other places in scripture. Deacon comes from a Greek word, diakonos which means servant or helper. The deacon’s role was attending to the ministry of service in the community.
But, before you start rolling your eyes this morning, thinking that this scripture is just so typical of what happens in the church: “You have a problem and the solution is always to start a new committee and give the group a special name,” I suggest the connection is not so simple
For, what was going on in Acts 6 was the development of how Jesus-centered community life could flourish in the long-term. It was about an organization with an “ineffective infrastructure” that needed rebuilding before it could move forward to the next level of God’s best.
And faced with this kind of decision-making, the text serves as a crossroad moment in discernment for those who cared so much about the good thing going on with the gathering of believers. And this is the discernment question: would the church be “ruled” by a select few with assumed superpowers to do everything OR would the church be a place where gifts of service of all could be celebrated and utilized for the greater good?
Depending on what church background we were raised in or experienced before coming to this church, we all might have different ideas of what deacons are and what they do.
If we came from high church traditions like found within the Catholic Church, we might imagine deacons as those who serve in official capacities under the priests, preaching, assisting with preparations for communion, wearing holy vestments. Deacons as persons set aside as servants for the church, usually as pre-cursor to ordination to the priesthood, a position which is set above the congregation in terms of calling and expectations for leadership.
If we came from churches like the Presbyterian and the Methodist tradition, deacons are often present in the congregation but you may not even know that they are there. Often taking a servant role of caring for the needs found within the congregation, these persons might only be known to you if you or your family experienced a time of great need. They are often ordained, but never for administrative tasks of governing the church, only of service.
If you grew up as I did in traditional Baptist congregation, most likely deacons existed in the community for several purposes, but mostly in an “elder” role of being the gate keeping board of persons who instruct the pastor on how he is to do his job. Sometimes deacons are asked to administer caring ministries of distribution of benevolent funds, etc, but usually deacons in most Baptist churches are the elected leaders. Most famously, the deacons are the persons, everybody recognizes on the day the Lord’s Supper is served. (I have many a childhood memory of the precise, almost military-like formation of deacons at the communion table where covering cloth is removed, folded and then the meal is served to the congregation).
While I celebrate the diversity of church tradition and interpretation of this scripture text, what really were the first deacons asked to do? What was their intended role in community life?
Well, despite all of the modern-day confusion, the first deacons weren’t asked to sit on the church council and serve as lawyers for the church.
The first deacons weren’t asked to make theological statements of doctrine about who was in the community and who was out.
The first deacons weren’t asked to pick out what color the altar table would be.
The first deacons weren’t asked to be scholars in theology before their role of service began.
And, the first deacons weren’t given special clothes to wear.
The simple answer is that the deacons were asked to serve. Specifically, deacons distributed food and all other administrative service tasks that the apostles, who were seeking to devote themselves to the overall leadership of the community and the preaching and the teaching of the word, simply could not continue to do in addition.
(For there was no way that the apostles could be preaching the word regularly with quality presentation and conviction if they were weighted down by the worries of if the Jews on the outskirts of town not getting enough food). Deacons were the servant ministers that the church needed.
What were the qualifications for these persons? They were simple. Deacons are to be of good standing, full of the Spirit, and of wisdom. (Notice what part I left out “men” While cultural practice of the day meant that those in line for official leadership in the early were always men, an interpretation of this text better reads, “select from yourself seven individuals.”).
In a nutshell, deacons were to be persons who lived their lives in such a way that their sound character shone through. Their life decisions were grounded in the spiritual discernment and they acted out of sound decision-making practices.
The emphasis was on character not if their resume could fulfill a job description of desired tasks to complete. Deacons were asked to lead, alongside the apostles, ensuring that the gospel when forth into the community through tangible acts of compassion, care and concern.
Such a transition in community life was a HUGE step of faith for the 12 apostles to sign off on. Because if things remained as they were with the 12 of them being the only ones in charge, Peter, James, John and the rest were well on their way to becoming an all-powerful monopoly.
But, instead, by distributing the tasks that needed to be done among the diaconate, the apostles were saying yes to community. Spiritual leadership would now be shared by other members with gifts for service. Saying in the way of Christ, there would not be lone ranger or a dictator based leadership. Instead, Christian community would be about investment from all the members, and no person being left out simply because they can’t easily attend community worship or fellowship activities.
And so too is our step of faith today as a community as we begin the process of deacon nomination. Asking for nominations from among our community about who God has equipped already for the service of the diaconate.
Who among us is well-respected for traits of good character? Who among us is full of spiritual insight and Godly wisdom?
Whose spiritual calling in the coming years is to serve the needs of families within our church?
Who is God calling out in this body to be of help to the pastorate so that more attention can be given to visionary leadership and preaching of the word?
But, I propose that today’s scripture text is not simply about selecting deacons. While there is a strong admonition to do so, this is not all what Acts 6 is about.
Acts 6 should challenge us as a local community of Christ followers in the practices we undergo when we decide who is doing what in the church.
In a community of small membership like this one, most of us wear a dozen or more hats on any given week. We might teach a Sunday School class, bring food for one of our Sunday lunches, and take food collected to Reston Interfaith to on a Tuesday morning . We might be here on Friday night cleaning up after a renter has used the space.
It seems that the needs of the church simply are without end at Washington Plaza. Many of us have eyes to see the needs and we do the necessary tasks, even if no one sees or recognizes our contributions. In a community like this one, many of us serve the church (or have served the church in the past) like it’s a full or part-time job of ours. We go and go and do and do simply because acts of service need to be accomplished.
Washington Plaza Baptist is a community of doers—doers who do even if it means we have to act alone, carrying an entire program or ministry on our own.
But is this really what communal life in the way of Acts 6 is calling us to?
Remember that all the problems began when a group of widows weren’t getting their food.
And it would have been really easy for the 12 apostles to receive the complaining voices as criticism against them. They could have apologized to those who made the complaints. They could have re-arranged their schedules to accommodate just a little bit more. But, they didn’t. They said no.
The apostles said, we are called to the prophetic work of teaching and preaching the word of God. This is our gift to the community. This is our calling. Now, we realize there are a multitude of other needs within the community, let’s pray and discern together who has the gifts to meet those needs that aren’t a part of what God has asked us to do.
Do you see the difference from, “Sure, I’ll take that task. Sure, I’ll lead that committee; I’ve done it for the past 5 years. Sure, I’ll lead this ministry for the 15th year in a row” TO “I feel called to this ministry within the community. This is my spiritual gift that God has given me with the expectation to use. This is how I will bring blessing to the community just as my neighbor Mr. ___ or Ms.____ needs to bring their gifts to bless the community too.”
You see when things began to get sorted out in the community, the deacons were called, and the apostles continued to go about their work, notice with me what happened in verse seven: “The word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem.”
As group of people with specific callings and individuals gifts to share within the community found their place, the atmosphere of the church changed. We don’t hear about the apostles dealing with complaints and bickering and whining about “why we don’t do this and why we aren’t like this.” Instead, we see the gospel shinning forth from this body of believers in such a way that others can’t help but join in.
Don’t hear me saying today, “Ok, everybody you can quit all your church jobs today.” For I fear what kind of ungodly chaos would break out if such was the case all at once (I’m going out of town this week after all . . .)
But what I am challenging all of us to consider this day as we talk about ADDING something new to our ministry through a diaconate body, is that such a transition for us might require some administrative re-arranging for us as a church as a whole.
There might be some of us in this church who might be sensing God’s voice to say “No” to something we’ve always done around here that people seem to expect us to do without question in order that we might say “Yes” to those things which bring us the most joy and have the potential to bless this community with a fresh wind of the Spirit which can bring the word of God to us all in a powerful way.
I don’t know what the particular calls of communal participation and service God is calling you to here today and in the months ahead. But, what I do know is that as we embrace this season of change, of transition for all of us, exciting things are in store for us.
Of course it is easier to sit back and reason with ourselves that what we have is doing ok and not broken enough to fix, but when we are following the leading of God’s Spirit, we might be surprised who comes before us with transforming ideas of faith that will give us an effective infrastructure to sustain all that lies ahead.