|Phoebe, Deacon and Patron of the church, praised by Paul in Romans 16:1-2|
Scripture can be found here....
I feel as if an explanation is in order.
Since September, we have been following the Narrative Lectionary, which has taken us through a kind of “highlights reel” of scripture. We’ve gotten the Notable Characters, the Big Picture, the Big Story, roughly in narrative order—the story of God’s love for us, from creation to the day of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Today, we deviate from that trajectory. Having finished our time in the gospel of Luke, we delve into stories of the fledgling church. But some of you may notice that we have skipped over a pretty Big Event… the story of what has come to be known as the “birthday” of the church, Pentecost. For these next five weeks we will read stories of the early church, and then return to that Big Event on Pentecost Sunday, May 19. And now, without further ado…
Deacons, sit up straight. This is your origins story.
It all started in the church kitchen. Or, maybe, the warehouse. Wherever it was the early church was organizing or preparing or otherwise resourcing its ministry of feeding its most vulnerable members.
And what they were doing was following Jesus’ lead. Jesus fed people… in fact, Jesus very specifically pointed to a meal and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”
And feeding people didn’t start with Jesus, though he certainly raised the bar. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with powerful exhortations to the people to care for the most vulnerable members of their community. In biblical times, that meant widows and orphans, because in a society in which women’s status mirrored the status of the man they were primarily attached to—father, husband, brother—a woman without such a man easily fell through the cracks. There was no social safety net, except for the kindness of the community.
And so the community that was the early church reached out. They used their resources to feed the most vulnerable. And sometimes, they got it wrong.
Today’s passage begins with the note that, “when the disciples were increasing in number,” someone got upset because the food distribution was not working the way it was supposed to. The church was growing. They were welcoming new members. And in the midst of that happy chaos of life and strength and seeds that had been planted coming to flower, someone lost the list, or someone forgot what day they were up for delivering meals, or… something. It seemed to those who were complaining that they were being left out because they were from a different ethic group, the Greek-speaking Jews, as opposed to Jews who spoke Aramaic. Maybe they worried that, as newer members to the community, they were not valued as much as the original “pillars” of the church. And… my guess is that, the older, original members, those who had maybe followed Jesus in Galilee, might have been worrying that the older ways were going to be lost, that there would be changes, compromises, new members bringing new ways of being Jesus-followers.
Probably, everybody was a little right, and a little wrong. Probably, every concern everyone had was legitimate, on some level.
And, knowing that things needed to change, that the growing church needed to figure out ways to do its mission effectively, the elders came up with a plan. Seven, they said to the people who were grumbling in the kitchen, “Select seven good people.” Ok, they said “good men,” at first, but very soon women would join their ranks. “Seven [people] of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task.” And that is what happened. The people who were feeling left out, who were feeling they had been neglected, selected people they knew to be wise and filled with God’s Spirit of love and generosity, and they elected them to be their deacons.
And you may wonder, well, why the need for wisdom? Why the need for the Spirit? Isn’t this, simply, a food distribution problem?
They needed to be exemplary because, in becoming deacons*, they were becoming witnesses.
The Random House Dictionary defines a witness as “a person who, being present, personally sees or perceives a thing… a person [who] gives evidence.”
A deacon gives witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Sometimes they do that, as the earliest deacons did, by providing food and resources to the most vulnerable people of the community. Sometimes they give witness by visiting those who, because of age or illness, can’t be present when the community gathers for worship or fellowship. Sometimes deacons give witness by bringing the Lord’s Supper to those who are sick or homebound. Sometimes they send care packages to those who are far flung, our college and graduate students. Sometimes deacons give witness by simply listening to someone pour their heart out.
Sometimes, deacons give witness by defending their faith. Stephen, an Aramaic-speaking Jew and one of the first deacons, found himself at the center of a group of fellow Jews who were questioning the claims of the Jesus-followers. He was hauled before the council of high priests, to defend his faith. He did, giving witness by means of a fiery sermon… “You stiff-necked people,” he roared, “uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.” As someone noted, this is not exactly the kind of message that causes folks to shake hands with the pastor on the way out of church. “Great sermon today!” Shortly after this exchange, Stephen gave his final witness, with his life. Guess what the Greek word for “witness” might be? It’s martyr. Stephen was not only the first deacon. Stephen was also the first martyr.
Deacons, this is your origins story. And if some of you are shifting in your seats at this point, a little unsure what you’ve got yourself into, well, then I guess you’ve accurately heard this particular story of the early church.
Deacons minister to the sick. And I don’t think I need to persuade anyone that our world is badly in need of healing. The kind of vitriol that led to deadly confrontations between people with different understandings of God in the early church is with us still. In my lifetime, we have witnessed Christians killing Muslims in Bosnia, Jews and Muslims and Christians all in deadly confrontations in the Middle East, violence against Hindus, Muslims and Christians in India. Oh, and Christians killing Christians in Northern Ireland. I’m sure there are more.
It’s enough to make one wonder, really, whether there is any hope. Enough, that is, until we remember another witness. Read chapter 7 of the Acts of the Apostles, and the first verse of chapter 8, and you will see him there, a young man watching the coats of those who are stoning Stephen. His name is Saul. “Saul approved,” the scriptures tell us, he approved of this sectarian act of violence. Later in his life, he will become a witness, not against Jesus, but for him, and he will write some of the most beautiful words ever committed to papyrus.
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. ~ 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
What kind of witness does the love of God in Jesus Christ need today? How can we heal the kinds of division that lead people to believe their God wants them to harm or even kill? I believe we begin by being witnesses, yes, to the brutality of our age, but also to its beauty, to its kindness, to the kind of love that is patient and kind and never fails. We can be witnesses to that love. We can be like deacons, extending a hand in kindness to the poor, the struggling, the homesick and the homebound, all in the name of this love that has claimed us and will not let us go. Thanks be to God. Amen.
*Corrected from the awesome typo "beacons".
*Corrected from the awesome typo "beacons".