Coming home from Ireland last week, I expected a little more excitement than the chuckling of pheasants looking for a handout as I looked out the back door every morning. My expectations were more than fulfilled. So far as rapid political developments, chaos, and confusion are concerned, I’ve now had more than enough for this year. At least we have yet to see the pulpits of the country turned into political soapboxes.
So I feel comfortable enough turning to the scriptures of the day, which tend to focus on ministry, of all things.
The Letter of Peter speaks of “living stones,” a host of human bricks, if you will, resting on a single, unshakeable foundation, the cornerstone that is Christ. In the gospel, Jesus speaks of “many rooms,“ — the Greek word is monē, a place to stay, to dwell, living room. One can hardly avoid thinking of the image in the Book of Revelation, where the City of God is measured. And it’s really big. Enough room for everyone.
The most significant notion comes in the reading from Acts, where Luke describes what will be a long development of ministry in the Church, a diversity of ministries as St. Paul will later insist. “…[Christ’s] gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature humanity, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ…” [Eph. 4:11-13]
The word “deacon,” diakonos, is used about 30 times in Christian scripture, but in the Acts of the Apostles, it is never used as a title. Most of the time it simply means “servant” and often “minister.” Jesus seems to have used it in both senses — as in the Gospel of Matthew, where he says, “whoever would be great among you must be your diakonos, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” [Matt. 20:26b-28].
What “deacon” meant in the world of Jesus was much more and much less than “servant.” Minister comes closer — a diakonos was the personal representative of important persons, someone sent to act in their place. These seven deacons were hardly table-waiters. From the beginning they were emissaries of the apostles, representatives of Christ himself who came to serve, not to be served. The men and also women selected for this service, like Phoebe, whom Paul mentions warmly in his epistle to the Romans, [Rom. 16:1], were to be “deeply spiritual and prudent.” More importantly, as in the case of Stephen, the most important of the seven and the first Christian martyr, someone “filled with faith.” This Sunday it’s helpful to recall that we know the names of other important women deacons in the early Church – Saints Macrina, Theodora, and Olympia among them. It is estimated by scholars that in the first millennium of Church history, there were about 50,000 women deacons in the Eastern Church alone. Over 100 of their names are known. Something to think about on Mother’s Day! [http://www.womenpriests.org/deacons/]
In the house of God, we are all to one extent or another deacons, ministers, building blocks. And faith is keystone that rests securely on Christ. The Letter of Peter reminds us of this forcefully: “Whoever puts their faith in that rock shall never be shaken.” The author goes on to remind us twice more that we are, by that faith, and as living stones in the house of God, a “holy priesthood,” a “royal priesthood.” The Church as a whole and thus in all its parts, its “bricks,” is priestly, just as it is prophetic. That character is rooted in Christ and will never falter or fail. That cornerstone is the foundation that remains unshaken, even when time and trouble require some tuck-pointing of the rest. Sometimes, even quite a lot of it. But there is no shortage of bricks if we know where and how to look.
Our faith and our ministry stand or fall on our love of Christ — the closer we are to Jesus, the stronger, the stronger and more effective our faith, the richer, more diverse, and more productive our ministries. Whatever else may happen, however challenged we are by events, whenever we are discouraged and disappointed by the frailty of the living stones that make up God’s house, we need only turn again to Christ, the cornerstone, to renew our faith.