Filling the Water Jars: On Being a Deacon

Upper Room‘s leadership team is beginning the process of appointing deacons. It’s an exciting benchmark for us. It means we’re growing – both numerically and spiritually. It also means we’ll likely see open doors for new ministries in the church. However, it also raises a question for us: What is a deacon, anyway?

I think for many of us, our memories of deacons ministries in our churches could be summed up as: “It must be better than this.” I was ordained as a deacon back when I was a teenager. In my church at that time (though perhaps only in my perception), deacons did five things: 1.) assist the elders and pastor in serving communion, 2.) serve the donuts, punch and coffee during fellowship hour, 3.) take the flowers from the sanctuary on Sunday and deliver them to  shut-ins, 4.) serve on a church committee, and 5.) collect and deliver baskets of food for low-income families around Christmas time.

In retrospect, all of these were actually quite important tasks. Aiding in the performance of sacraments, creating hospitality,  visiting those on the margins of our community, doing the ecclesial work of the church, and  feeding the hungry all really matter. At the time, though, most of it felt mundane. And frankly, it was probably my own fault. Assisting in serving communion seemed like something anyone could do. Serving donuts and coffee felt like a thankless job. As a teenager, I knew nothing about sitting on a committee. I did see the value in delivering flowers to shut-ins and food to the poor. But those tasks seemed less frequent than the other three. How can being a deacon be more about caring for people in real ways? How can we have the eyes to see the  mundane tasks of being a deacon with importance?

At our business meeting last week, I introduced Upper Room’s leadership team to the office of deacon by first introducing them to three Greek words in the New Testament: diakonos, diakonia, diakoneo. These words could mean, respectively “deacon, the diaconate (or ministry of deacons), and to serve as a deacon.” Altogether, these words appear more than 90 times in the New Testament. But rarely are they translated “deacon.” This, of course, is for good reason, on the one hand. The words have a wide range of meaning, and don’t always refer specifically to the office of deacon as we know it. Sometimes the words refer to the work of servants, attendants, administrators, etc.  However, when the office of deacon was established, the title almost certainly connoted a more full-breadth of the words’ meanings. To understand what a Deacon is supposed to be, we need to have a fuller understanding of these words.

So, being the Greek language geek that I am, I handed my leadership team a list of all of the verses in the New Testament where diakonos, diakonia, and diakoneo appear. I told them to read as many of the verses in context as they could, and then we would share what we learned. We all, myself included, were stretched, even surprised, by what these words meant and what the implications are for being a deacon. We were all amazed at where these words appear and how they’re used. Perhaps I’ll do some followup posts on other verses we talked about. But for now, my absolute favorite appearance of these words comes in John 2, the story of Jesus turning water into wine. Normally diakonos is translated “servants” in this story. Read it below, though with the word “deacons” substituted:

1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

5 His mother said to the deacons, “Do whatever he tells you.”

6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

7 Jesus said to the deacons, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the deacons who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

Through the lens of this story, being a Deacon is about faithful obedience to Jesus. It’s about witnessing Jesus’ miracles in ways others don’t get to see. It’s about a special place of intimacy with Jesus.

Mary’s instructions to the servants/deacons in the story could make a good charge to newly ordained deacons: “Do whatever [Jesus] tells you.” Be a faithful servant, attending to every word you hear from Jesus. And expect to see miracles. I’ve said before about this chapter of Scripture that the reason the wine tasted so good was that it came from the fruit of obedience. When we do the work that Jesus calls us to do, we can expect Jesus to reveal his power in ways we wouldn’t otherwise witness.

I wish I had this perspective back when I served as a deacon. I may or may not have done anything differently, but I would have approached what I did do with a different attitude. I would have seen myself as one of the servants filling the water jars. I would have served communion knowing that I was doing the physical work that sets up a miracle that Jesus would do in our midst. I would have visited shut-ins with the understanding that Jesus was going to be there too. I would have approached church committee work as an opportunity to listen and discern the voice of Jesus together, wondering what miracle he was going to do next. I would have served donuts, coffee and punch looking for Jesus to show up in the fellowship that was experienced. And, who knows, maybe I would have expected him to spike the punch!

As Upper Room continues to press into this, my prayer is that our whole church, and especially whomever God calls to be our first deacons, will see the ministry with all of the humility, potential, and power that this story calls us to. Who knows what Jesus will do next when we obey?

A Poem for Palm Sunday and Passion Week

This is a poem that I wrote and preached as the Palm/Passion Sunday sermon this past weekend at the Upper Room. A number of people have requested copies of it, so I’m making it available here.
 

What kind of king are you?

 

What kind of king

rides on a donkey

a donkey that might be borrowed,

or might be hijacked?

 

What kind of king

builds a castle

with a wide open door for children to enter

but a needle-eye sized hole for the rich?

 

What kind of king

rides on a donkey

into the city where

his assassins are waiting?

 

What kind of king

enters his assassins’ city

with a ragtag commotion for all to see

and not one security guard?

 

What kind of king

lets his subjects treat him like a

military liberator but doesn’t

come with a single sword or weapon?

 

What kind of king

lets his followers send a

public message to the competing powers

with no intent of answering a single challenge?

 

What kind of King are you?

 

What kind of King

can send two followers

to fetch a donkey

and know exactly what they’ll need to say?

 

What kind of king

can tell a blind beggar

“your faith has made you well.”

And actually make him see?

 

What kind of king

can weep at the funeral of his friend

only to say, “Lazarus, come out!”

and watch him come back to life.

 

What kind of king

can sit at the dinner table

with his subjects and be subject to them

and wash their feet?

 

What kind of king

can carry his own cross

can serve his assassin and

help in his own execution?

 

What kind of king

can die

so that his assassins

can live?

 

What kind of King are you?

 

A King who came not to be served

but to serve and to give

his life as a ransom

for many.

 

A King who keeps his promises

A King who I can trust

A King who can save

A King I want to follow

 

And so I come to you, King Jesus

not to be served by you

but to serve you

and to give my life to you.

 

So take my cloak

use it to clothe the naked

or use it for your donkey to step on.

I don’t care

so long as you’re the one taking it.

 

Because you’re the only one who

will give me a new garment in return,

a white robe made of saints righteous deeds,

a garment that fits so well it’ll be

a new self, your self.

 

Use me, King Jesus,

all of me.

As you see fit.

Make me a knight or a bishop or a rook,

or make me an expendable pawn.

I don’t care what piece I am.

So long as yours is the hand that’s moving me.

 

Because yours is

the mighty hand with an outstretched arm.

Yours is the hand that rules with an iron scepter,

and that knit me together in my mother’s womb.

 

So let me follow you,

King Jesus

all the way to Golgotha.

 

Let me walk next to you

and put palm branches at your feet

and shout “Hosanna!” with the children.

 

And if the child in me shouting “Hosanna!”

grows up to an adult shouting “Crucify!”

bring me back to the water where I can be born again.

 

Let me sit at the table with you

and take bread and wine from you hands

and let me lay my head on your chest.

 

And if thirty pieces of the world’s silver

are ever enough to draw me away

Wash my feet and make me clean again

 

Let me pray with you at Gethsemane

and learn from you how to be vulnerable with the Father

let me see your tears and sweat and grief.

 

And if my prayers give way to sleep

wake me again

with the waters of regeneration.

 

Let me walk with you to the cross.

Let me be Simon of Cyrene,

and learn to carry your cross with you.

 

And if my Simon of Cyrene becomes Simon Peter

and I walk away from your cross to deny you

lead me back to these waters where I can still die with you.

 

And live.

 

And all along this long rough road

let my song be:

 

Hosanna!

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!

Hosanna in the highest!