Deacons and Evangelists

 

Some of us have just returned from the Kanuga Conference Center in North Carolina where we participated in a gathering entitled “Creative Sacramental Leadership in the Small Congregation.” It was sponsored by our Office of Congregational Development with Suzanne Watson providing the primary leadership. It was well attended and brought together ministry developers and others from all over the country. Keynoters included a bishop from Canada, an area missioner from New England, an Archbishop from New Zealand, and our own Presiding Bishop.

The Chaplain for the conference – The Rev. Susan Snook – used our “saint for today” (St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist) as a kind of guiding light for the daily meditations and reflections in our worship. And she focused on the various Scriptural references to  Philip – from his calling as one of “the Seven” chosen to assist the Apostles in feeding the neglected Greek-speaking widows of Jerusalem… all the way through his ministry to the Ethiopian eunuch recounted in our first reading from Acts today and beyond.

The Presiding Bishop preached on that text at the closing Eucharist for our conference and pointed out that deacons in the early Church were not simply “servants” as we sometimes want to define them today. Beginning with the “proto deacons” in Acts – people like Philip and Stephen – they preached, they baptized, they reached out to the poor, and they became administrators in the early church, working closely with the bishops.

And she pointed out the role of deacons is to be leaders in such “diaconal ministry” for all of us! Their primary work is not “in the Church” but in the world.” My wife, who is a deacon, often points out that the deacons’ ordination vows do not say that they are called to “interpret the needs of the world to the church and the church to the world” as is often claimed.  The vows are a one-way street: “You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world!” That’s why deacons – at their best – are often “irritants” to the institutional Church. They’re supposed to be! They’re always tugging at our sleeve saying, “What about them? Where are all the voices? Who’s not at the Table?”

Katharine pointed out that Philip didn’t wait around for the Ethiopian to find his way to church! He followed the Spirit’s leading and climbed into the chariot of this man who – while a God-fearing man – could never become fully accepted as a Jewish convert because he was considered a sexual deviant and as “less than whole” as a human being, really outside the Covenant.

Philip was able to say, “Well, I follow One who offers you a ‘new’ covenant — one of inclusion and grace.” And he “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Well, it must have sounded like good news to this Ethiopian because he asks for baptism immediately and Philip responds!  The text goes on to say that “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more!”

So, I guess we have to hope that someone else followed up on that baptism, that someone was able to provide some “post-baptismal” catechesis. But it wasn’t to be Philip! That’s not the deacon’s role. He was probably off to find some other outcast to baptize. And that, Katharine concluded, is why the Church needs more deacons!    

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