The Ordination of Judith Crossett to the Diaconate
Trinity Church — 3:00 p.m.
Jer 1:4-9; Ps 84; Acts 6:1-7; Luke 22:24-27
From the Second Reading this afternoon, from the Book of Acts:Well, now, what’s that all about? At first glance, it looks like the apostles are saying, “Hey, we’re busy doing the cool stuff like preaching the Gospel, we need some other people to do the scut work for us.” And that’s where the Order of Deacons comes from!
Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists [that is, the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, who had come into Jerusalem from the diaspora] complained against the Hebrews [the Aramaic-speaking Jewish Christians, who were the locals] because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
Well, not exactly.
Despite the fact that this passage from Acts has been one of the readings at the ordination of deacons since 1549 (well, actually, 1550), and it has often been seen as the Scriptural warrant for the diaconate as an order of ministry in the church, it’s really not that simple. For one thing, the Seven upon whom the apostles lay their hands with prayer are nowhere called “deacons.” It’s true that their initial task is the “deaconing,” the serving, of tables (that is, the distribution of food to the poor); but that is so the twelve can devote themselves to prayer and the “deaconing,” the serving, of the word. For another thing, who says that the twelve are the only ones to devote themselves to prayer? And for yet another thing, according to what follows in the Acts of the Apostles, “waiting on tables” is not what the seven actually do! Well, five of them, we don’t know what they do; we never hear of them by name again! But two of them: Stephen, full of grace and power, goes out and proclaims the Gospel with great effect, is arrested and dragged before the Sanhedrin, to whom he recounts God’s acts of salvation in Israel culminating with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and he is sentenced to death by stoning, thus becoming the first Christian martyr. The other of them, Philip, goes down to the city of Samaria and proclaims Christ to them with great success, and then he travels down the road to Gaza where he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch traveling in his chariot, and Philip converts and baptizes him. Philip then settles in the city of Caesarea on the coast. We hear of him once more, a number of years later, when he is described as an evangelist, who has four daughters who have the gift of prophecy, and who is host to St. Paul as he comes through Caesarea on the way to his last visit to Jerusalem. In other words, Stephen and Philip apparently devoted themselves to the service of the Word!
So much for waiting on tables. Good help is hard to find.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles was written something like fifty or sixty years after these early events, and St. Luke wasn’t there. So this story, circulating in and from the Christian community in Jerusalem (who by the time of the writing of Acts had been driven out of, or escaped from, Jerusalem), may not have all its ecclesiastical details right. But there are some basic aspects that I think this story does have right: one, that the Twelve very early on recognized that they needed assistance in their ministry; and two, specifically, they needed help with the ministry to the diaspora Jewish families — Greek speaking — who had joined the community in Jerusalem. Although it is unlikely that the Twelve did not speak any Greek — particularly since they were Galileans — they may not have been very fluent in it. They needed assistants who spoke Greek well and who could minister particularly to the poor widows in the community. Keep in mind that the locals, on the whole, had extended families upon whom their widows could rely. The “Hellenist” immigrant women, if they were widowed, had no local family and thus no resources. So it was not so much a matter of the Twelve doing the cool stuff, like preaching the Gospel and running the Church, and the Seven doing the scut work. It was a matter of a needed ministry of service being identified, and people selected for it who could do that ministry better than the Twelve could, apparently including preaching the Gospel in Greek.
Note that St. Luke, the author of this account in Acts, does understand about the ministry of service. In Luke’s Gospel this afternoon we heard Jesus tell his disciples, “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.” We’ve been reading that passage with regular frequency for over nineteen hundred years. Most of the time we seem not to have paid any attention to it at all.
Christian ministry is not about power, in anything like our usual human sense of the word. Power for us means control, it means the authority to command, it means the ability to impose our own will. The temptation to exercise earthly power is the besetting sin of the Church — all the Church, Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal — going back to and even before the time of the Emperor Constantine — and we don’t resist that temptation very well.
That’s why it is very important that in the past couple of generations the Church has again ordained persons to the order of Deacons — vocational Deacons, not just transient new clergy on their way to another ministry. (Yet it is also vital, as I have said before, that we Priests and yes, even Bishops, my lord! should first be Deacons, because that is the essence of the ministry of Christ in the world. “I am among you as one who serves.”)
Of course Judith has been in servant ministry for many years. She is a physician, a psychiatrist, ministering to the healing of mind and soul as well as body. More recently she has been serving those who for whatever reason find themselves homeless, through the work of Shelter House and the Consultation of Religious Communities. As a Deacon, Judith, you will continue not only in servant ministry but as a model of Christian ministry to the rest of us in the Church. And it is a ministry that includes, as did that of Stephen and Philip, the proclaiming of the Gospel by word as well as by action in service. This is why Bishop Alan, after he lays hands on your head with prayer, will also give you a Bible.
Let us all be reminded that Christ whom we call our Lord did indeed come not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for all.