SERMON FOR DEACONS’ ORDINATION AT CARLISLE CATHEDRAL
SATURDAY 4 SEPTEMBER 2021
May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of all our hearts, be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Distinctive Deacons are called by God to be ordained, but not to be priests, and people often find this very odd. But deacons have a long spiritual pedigree, because we started right at the beginning of the Christian church, and our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells us how this came about.
There we find that the church is growing so quickly, its efforts to feed the needy widows are failing. In order to address this, the apostles gather all the believers together and put the problem to them. They ask the church to choose seven men to have the responsibility of meeting the needs of those who are being pushed to the margins of the church.
Why do the apostles do this? Why do they not themselves feed the hungry? After all, that’s what they did with Jesus when he fed the 5,000. The apostles’ answer to this question is very interesting. ‘‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.”
For the longest time, this has been interpreted as the apostles doing the really important work, of preaching and praying; while the seven do the secondary work, of meeting the needs of the poor. But is that really what the apostles are meaning? Why are they so concerned about this complaint, concerned enough to call the whole church together, several thousand people? And the people themselves thought it important enough to bring to the apostles, rather than dealing with it themselves.
So important, in fact, that the apostles would have had to leave preaching and praying, in order to address these needs. Of course they could not do so; it was their primary calling. So they authorised others to take on that responsibility.
It was not just an authorisation, though. It was full-on apostolic authority, formal divine authorisation that comes from the Holy Spirit, and the laying-on of hands of the apostles in what we might see as the first recorded ordination.
So this diaconate, as we now call it, was not just an afterthought, it was not just administration. If deacons didn’t do what the church should do by caring for the needy, the apostles knew they would need to do that work as well. Their time spent on preaching and prayer would have been robbed. It is not too strong to say that the mission of the church would be subverted and would no longer look like Christ, who fed the hungry as well as preaching the Kingdom.
So, this caring for the poor and defenceless, this reconciliation work with an ethnic minority, so relevant to our own day, turns out to be central to the life of the newly-forming church. Without it, the church can not be fully the church.
This care is central to what the Holy Spirit was doing in the young church. That’s why the seven had to be people full of the Holy Spirit, and wise. Christ was working through his body, through prayer, preaching, and caring for the needy. So diaconal ministry, at ease on the margins of the church and society, caring for those who are unjustly treated, is crucial for an authentically Christian church and is part of its very identity.
There’s something else here too. The apostles are very clear about their primary focus, and are also clear about when they needed to say no. I sometimes wonder whether our own Church of England ministries might not benefit from being clearer about the primary focus of each vocation. For example, for a long time now the diaconate has been seen as ‘the servant’ ministry. And of course, it is. However, surely all ministry – indeed, the calling of all the baptised, is to servanthood as modelled by our Lord. We all need a servant heart.
A servant heart is fundamental to the church’s identity, and the deacon stands as an icon or image of Christ the servant to remind the church of this. But God the Holy Spirit does not continue to call people to be deacons in order to be just a reminder. The distinctive nature of our calling is still found in that primary focus inspired by the choice of the Seven in Acts 6. You will still find us on the edge of the church, holding the door wide to those who are needy. You’ll find us on the margins of society, amongst the dispossessed and voiceless. You’ll still find us going into the streets and alleys of the town, the country lanes, to bring the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame into the kingdom. You might not always find us inside the church building. But you will find us in the community, making friends, building relationships of trust, working collaboratively with others, making connections between the love of God and those who have not yet experienced that love, so that all of us together may meet people’s needs with the down-to-earth gospel of Christ.
It is also the deacon’s task to animate and enable the diakonia, the servanthood, of the whole church. Ministering with priests and lay ministers, we work out in practical terms how we can learn as Christ’s body to look outwards, to open our arms and hearts, our money and our time, to that community outside our doors. Our diaconal vision is quite simple. How can we help our churches to see themselves as Christ the Servant in our neighbourhoods? Because that’s what we are called to be and to do.
The Church of England is currently engaged on renewal of mission and ministry, working towards a simpler, humbler and bolder church. We’re told that we need lots more priests to make this happen.
We need more deacons. Lots and lots of deacons, working in ordained partnership with priests and lay ministers, side by side in God’s vineyard. We need deacons at national level on General Synod, where some of the debates focus on issues of justice and the powerless in our society. Deacons are those who go out into the forgotten corners of the world, and as such we have something important to contribute.
In the last couple of years General Synod has decided to plant churches on every major estate in England. From the start, I have thought that we should have some kind of recruiting ‘drive’ to identify and train distinctive deacons for estates ministry. As the Faith and Order Advisory Group report says, deacons are those who cross boundaries, make connections, bring people together: they are well-placed to move into challenging new contexts, with their network relationships of mission and evangelisation. It is part of a deacon’s DNA.
Deacons stand in a liminal space, between church and neighbourhood, and it is part of our calling to interpret the one to the other, to understand the different cultures in our work places and communities, educate the church when necessary, and together work out, under the Holy Spirit, how best to incarnate the gospel in our localities. In this we follow our Lord Jesus Christ, who was himself incarnate in our locality, grew up in one of our human cultures, and was therefore able to speak his message of grace and life in a way ordinary people could understand.
It’s not always an easy space for a deacon to be in. Because of this, friends, family, relatives and church friends, you are of the greatest importance to your deacon. There isn’t always a template or a model for what God is calling us to do, because some of what we do is new, it’s pioneering, it hasn’t been done before. We have to move forward not always knowing how to do things. Your prayers are critical for your deacons, so that they are supported as they listen to both God and the community. Your love is a place where they can be themselves. And sometimes, you need to be the ones to bring your deacon back to earth, to stop them overdoing things because there is always more to be done. Help your deacon to recognise when they need to say that important word ‘no’, when they should be turning off that mobile phone. Deacons, like everyone else, need to recharge from time to time. You’re the people who know them best – help them to do it, to be the best God is calling them to be. And perhaps to remind them sometimes, only God is indispensable.
The church needs the diaconate, because the Gospel must be done, as well as prayed and preached. The gospel lies at the heart of diaconal identity and ministry and is the very nature of the church. We deacons are heralds of the gospel, called to proclaim it in word and deed. It is our greatest privilege and highest honour to read the gospel in public worship, because the gospel is our Lord Jesus Christ. Without the gospel of Christ, we have nothing.
Deacons, may the wind of the Holy Spirit fill your wings, as you go out into the world, and proclaim that Gospel with everything God is giving you. Amen.
The whole service can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpBZ1sMN9gY