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?