Richard Bastable explains the ministry of the deacon
The ordination of deacons in the Book of Common Prayer does not direct a sermon to be preached at the ordination itself. Were we to be following that rite, you could be spared my homespun thoughts on the matter in hand. However, directions are given that a sermon shall be preached after Morning Prayer on the day of ordination “declaring the duty and office as such as come to be admitted Deacons; how necessary that Order is in the Church of Christ; and how also the people ought to esteem them in their office.”
Taking the last of these first, the deacon is to be esteemed by the people. In the Primitive Church the threefold order clearly emerges and the Acts of the Apostles gives us the origins of the order of diakonos. We often translate the Greek diakonos as servant (or slave) which connotes images of lowliness and servitude; an alternative translation would be to render it as minister. This can connote the same servant images, but as in English usage, minister can also indicate a high-ranking official – such as the political offices of our own country. We see that the deacon is not just a menial dogsbody, but holds an office and a status which is invested with dignity. Ignatius of Antioch instructs the early Christians that they are to “reverence the deacons as commanded by God,” and also says to them, “let all respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as the Bishop is a type of the Father.” Deacons are not just servants, but are types of Christ himself and to be reverenced as we would reverence the ministry of Christ. Often our ministry-related images of Christ focus on his universal priesthood and therefore the sacred priesthood of the Church, but Christ himself and his salvific ministry cannot be so contained; we must look to the deacon, we must look to John, and see not just a servant of the Church, but also the ministry (both lowly and esteemed) of Christ himself.
Our first reading reminds us that diaconal ministry is Levitical. As the Levites ministered in the Tent of Meeting and the Tabernacle, and had charge of the holy furnishings, so too do our deacons exercise the Levitical ministry at the meeting place of heaven and earth at this altar, in the sacred tabernacle of the church (both building and people) where God indwells by his Spirit, and have charge of the treasures of the Church which, as the deacon and martyr Lawrence reminds us, are both silver and gold and the holy poor and marginalized. Jesus is the heart of this – his is the presence in the church and tabernacle, and his is the image and likeness that we see in the poor – in serving both the place and the people, John, you are ministering to him and a minister of him.
In the Prayerbook we are told that “it appertaineth to the office of a deacon” to: assist the priest in Divine service, especially Holy Communion; distribute Holy Communion, read the Scriptures; catechize the young; baptize if the priest is absent; preach (if permitted!); and reach out to the sick, poor and powerless, and offer them the support of the parish. Having been ordained, the new deacon is then immediately to read the gospel at the ordination Mass, further modelling the duties on his new ministry in the liturgy of the church. These very same duties find more contemporary, though perhaps less poetic, expression in today’s ordination rite. The language may have changed, but your duties, John, are timeless.
In the Acts of the Apostles one meeting exemplifies some of the deacon’s duties: the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. It is highly unlikely that the eunuch would have been a Jew, and so Philip is reaching out beyond the bounds of the safe and known community. The eunuch is travelling in a chariot which Luke tells us Philip had to run to get close to – a graphic image of the deacon’s drawing alongside those searching for faith. Philip interprets the scriptures with him and brings him to faith and to baptism. The fact that the Ethiopian was a eunuch, too, is not inconsequential. As such, whilst enjoying a high-powered role in the court of the queen, he was socially and religiously marginalized. His being Ethiopian indicates to us Luke’s particular interest with the exotic, though by exoticising him Luke has othered him – a deliberate motif which then allows Philip to undo this marginalizing and othering by incorporating him into the community of the church through baptism.
The final of the Prayerbook’s three points, though I haven’t addressed them in order, is the necessity of the deacon. The deacon exemplifies in the liturgy the ministry to which the whole people of God are called in the world. That is to say, what you do in church, John, is a model of Christian living for the people of God. John, you must be devoted to the altar of God as a model for the people’s desire to come to the Lord in the Eucharist; John, you must proclaim the gospel in church so that the people may learn to proclaim it in the world by their lives; John, you must assist the priest in the mission and ministry of the church so that the people see that it is not the priest’s task alone, but the common task of all the baptized to bring others to faith, and to minister to those in need. You must be faithful to this calling, so as to show the holy people of God that their faithfulness is what defines the church’s character – without faith, the church is just another organization, with faith it is God’s instrument and dwelling on earth.
The Prayerbook calls on God to make the new deacons “modest, humble and constant” that they “may so well behave themselves in this inferior office, that they may be found worthy to be called unto the higher ministries in thy Church.” If he be found “faithful and diligent” then he may be admitted to the priesthood. We look forward, John, hopefully and prayerfully with you to that day, but there is much to accomplish, and much yet for you to be and become in this ministry.
This ministry begun today is undertaken not within the framework of your subsequent ordination as priest, but within the framework of our gospel passage. The deacon’s ministry is eschatological. You are instructed by the Lord to have “your loins girded” – this may sound quaint or ridiculous to our ears, but you must be ready for immediate action – action to be undertaken before it is too late. All Christian experience, and especially all Christian ministry, stands within the immediate expectation of the Parousia. A deacon is to minister with urgency, and this diaconal urgency will not depart when priesthood is further added to your character, but rather will intensify, so I might colloquially say, “get used to it.” There will always be more to do than you can possibly get done, but like Philip on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza you must be alert, attentive and obedient to the prompting of the Spirit, often laying aside your best-made plans to act swiftly as he directs.
What joy now for the church, and for us, as the Holy Spirit hovers close by and prepares to give you this gift. John, we promise you our prayers and our esteem; be faithful in your duties and, by so doing, remind us always of the necessity of diakonos in God’s church and in the world.
Fr Richard Bastable SSC is the Vocations Adviser for the Bishop of Fulham. This homily was preached at the ordination of Fr John Blackburne to the diaconate at St Andrew’s Holborn, by the Bishop of Fulham.