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?

Serpents and the Cross: Preaching Lent 4B

I’m preaching this Sunday on the passages in the Revised Common Lectionary. I’ll try to update this post throughout the week with some thoughts and observations that I have. Consider all of the notes here brainstorming more than ideas that I’m fully committed to. Feel free to post your own thoughts in the comments!

The texts this week are: Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21.

What does it mean to be lifted up?

The first thing I noticed about these passages is the connecting point of being “lifted up”. The connection between the passages from Numbers and John is obvious, because Jesus says it explicitly: He is like the bronze serpent (or rather, the bronze serpent points to him). Everyone who looks upon Jesus will receive eternal life. But I’m also thinking about how this relates to the Ephesians 2 passage, especially verse 6: “…and raise us up with him…”.

John’s use of the phrase “lifted up” is interesting. The Greek word is “ups-o-o” (it’s hard to transliterate into English, so just go with it…). Throughout the New Testament, and the Greek translation of the Old, the word is used to refer to Jesus or God being raised up, seated in heaven, or exalted, or to God bestowing honor upon human beings (“Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord, and he will lift you up.”  In fact, in most places in the Bible, the English translations usually render “ups-o-o” as “exalted.” More often than not in the New Testament, it’s used to refer to Jesus’ resurrection and/or ascension. John, however, only uses “ups-o-o” to refer to the crucifixion, to Jesus being ‘lifted up’ on the cross. For John, the exaltation of Jesus begins with the cross. What if we read Ephesians 2:6 through this lens? We are raised up with Jesus, and that begins with the cross. When we allow ourselves to be crucified, those who look upon us will receive eternal life because it will be as though they were looking at Jesus.

Is God Overreacting a Bit?

It also seems like it would be tempting when reading Numbers 21 to think that God is overreacting to the Israelite’s complaints. The people speak against God and Moses. God responds by sending fiery serpents among the people. Sounds a bit harsh. As I was working with the Hebrew text, I noticed something. The preposition is the same in both actions (even though we translate them differently in English). The people speak against God and Moses. God sends fiery serpents against the people. (this is usually translated “among the people”). Perhaps rather than questioning the justice of God’s decision, we would do better to begin with the assumption that God is just, and that this punishment fits the crime. Perhaps the bite of a fiery serpent really is the equivalent of being spoken against. The potential lesson: our words are powerful, and can do more damage than we think.

What do you think? What strikes you in these passages? If you were (or are) preaching any of these passages, what would you focus on? (I’ll try to keep updating this through the week…)

Continuing the Relay

I like to run races. In any race, it’s a lot easier to run when people are cheering for you. When running in the Pittsburgh Marathon last year, by mile 22 or so I was completely spent and sore all over. But as soon as a complete stranger would yell out my bib number and cheer me on, I was immediately running a bit faster.

The most significant crowd support I’ve ever received in a race, though, happened when I was running the Spirit of Pittsburgh Half Marathon. It came from my friend and co-pastor, Chris. As I approached the finish line, I heard him shout “Go Mike!” and I immediately sprinted to the finish line faster than I have in any other race. It wasn’t that Chris said anything profound. It wasn’t even that the encouragement was coming from a friend as opposed to a stranger. The significance was that the race was a relay, and Chris was my partner. Chris had run the first 6.5 miles of the race, tagged me, and I was running the second half. Knowing that the person who started my race was watching made me want even more to end it well. Because my finish was his finish too.

I recalled this experience this afternoon while reading the lectionary’s New Testament reading – Hebrews 11:32-12:2. Hebrews 11 recounts the faithful people of God we read about throughout the Old Testament – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the whole nation of Israel crossing the Red Sea and circling Jericho, and Rahab, and more too many to recall. The writer of Hebrews describes how their faith was embodied in actions – and often times stranger actions. Building an ark. Offering his son to God. Giving up privilege. Harboring spies. And as Hebrews sums up, “conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire…”

The people listed in Hebrews 11 are some of the greatest examples of lived-out faith ever. Yet how does Hebrews 11 conclude? Verse 39 says,

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised…

As great as their faith was. It was for all of them a faith with out an ending. A race without a finish line. But then comes the real surprise. Verse 40:

…since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

The story of God’s faithful is continued in us. We are the continuation of their story. Apart from us, the stories of Abraham, Moses and all of the prophets are stories without endings, a race without a finish.

It’s in light of this that we hear the well-known words that open Hebrews 12:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight… and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…

The witnesses that surround us, all of the faithful named in Hebrews 11, aren’t merely spectators that came out to watch a race. They aren’t even faster runners who have already finished and are now watching the other participants. They’re our relay partners, watching the finish of the race we’ve started. They aren’t merely watching with curiosity, but with great interest, wanting to see how the race they’ve started will finish.

For Abraham, Moses and the prophets, the finish line was not in sight. Christ had not been revealed. In Christ, though, we can see the end the story when every knee will bow and every tongue confess. We can see the finish line, and our relay partners who started the race are watching and cheering us on. And so, let us run – no, sprint! – toward the finish line – Jesus himself, the author and perfecter of our faith!

Weeping Over Scripture

When the seventh month came – the people of Israel being settled in their towns – all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it face the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the Law. The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose… And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground. Also… the Levites helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” Fall the people wept when they heard the words of the law.

– Nehemiah 8:1-4a, 5-9

Generally speaking, I’m not a very emotional person. I don’ t typically where my emotions on my sleeve. With the exceptions of close friends who read my non-verbal communication well, most people won’t know if I’m angry or upset or depressed. For better or for worse, I generally prefer to deal with my emotions internally.

Consequently, it usually takes a lot for me to cry. I can think of very few times that I’ve wept. I couldn’t tell you the last time I cried while watching a movie. I can, however, tell you the last time I cried while reading a book.

It’s happened to me only once. I was in college, and was working on an independent study during my senior year focusing on theologically significant themes in various dramas. I was reading the play Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. Towards the end of the play, which takes place during the Thirty Years War, Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin is shot as she attempts to warn a nearby village of an impending attack by beating a large drum. The soldiers shoot her, but the town is saved. My description of the scene doesn’t give full justice to its beauty. I sat there with tears flowing down my face as I read this scene, and I realized that I was weeping in response to the gospel. Kattrin’s death was salvific for the nearby village.

What bothers me, though, is that I’ve never had an experience like this reading the actual story of Jesus in any of the gospel narratives, let alone in response to any portion of Scripture. In the passage above from Nehemiah, the people weep in response to hearing Ezra read the law and the Levites interpret it. Granted, the people are then told that weeping isn’t the correct response; they ought to be rejoicing. Nevertheless, the weeping is an indication that the law was cutting right into their hearts.

I can think of very few times when I’ve read Scripture and felt like weeping (or rejoicing, for that matter), and I’ve never actually wept. The same is true in most of my experiences hearing Scripture in corporate worship (a context closer to the one in Nehemiah). With some exceptions (most often in Charismatic congregations and non-White congregations), Christians rarely respond with any emotion to the reading of Scripture. In fact, there are times (and I speak firstly in reference to my own worship leadership and preaching) that our reading of Scripture feels only like a “transition” into the sermon.

Now, I realize that being concerned about emotional responses can be a slippery slope. Thinking about this too much can lead to manipulative attempts to elicit emotions for all the wrong reasons. But how do we create in our worship communities a culture of emotional openness? And what obstacles stand in the way of creating that culture?

Lifting Hands in Worship

If you’ve ever wondered why some Christians raise their hands in worship, this is the best explanation I’ve ever read. This is from Patrick Henry Reardon’s Christ in the Psalms. He’s commenting on the opening of Psalm 41: “Let my prayer rise before you as incense, the lifting of my hands as the evening sacrifice.”

Whenever, then, we Christians raise our hands in prayer, as St. Paul tells us to do (cf. 1 Tim 2:8), it is  to symbolize that our prayer, our entire relationship to God, is founded in the power of the Cross. We are thereby proclaiming that we have no access to God except through the Cross of the Lord. The raising of our hands in prayer is acceptable to God only because of its relationship to that true evening sacrifice through which we draw near.

Scripture: The “With-God” Book

The Bible is all about human life “with God.” It is about how God has made this “with-God” life possible and will bring it to pass. In fact, the name Immanuel, meaning in Hebrew “God is with us,” is the title given to the one and only redeemer, because it refers to God’s everlasting intent for human life – namely, that we should be in every aspect a dwelling place of God. Indeed, the unity of the Bible is discovered in the development of life “with God” as a reality on earth, centered in the person of Jesus…

– Introduction to The Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible

In my personal spiritual development, I’ve begun to think more about Scripture. I’ve noticed lately that more often than not my times of personal reading and studying of Scripture have been dry. Many times I’ll read a passage of Scripture, finish, and then realize that I have no idea what I just read. Other times when I am actually making an effort to be fully present to the text, I more often find the curiosities of my brain being stimulated, rather than the desires of my heart.

I find this excerpt from the Intro to the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible to be really helpful, particularly because the emphasis on being “with God” challenges me to heighten my expectations when approaching Scripture. In my life, there are numerous people I would call “faith role-models” – people whom I look at  and think to myself, “God is with that person.” I admire and trust these people. I feel safe following them because I am confident that the path they are on is one toward God.

These people aren’t just friends whom I know personally, although I’m blessed to have many friends whom I count among these role-models. Within the communion of saints, there are men and women, living and dead, whom I’ve never met personally, and some who have lived long before I, who have had great influence on my faith. Brother Lawrence, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Augustine, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are some of the first to come to mind. Again, the theme among all these individuals is a particular “with-God-ness.”

Regardless of how well I know the individually personally, whether friend or stranger, I’m excited to follow these people. I look forward to learning from them, as they challenge me to a greater faithfulness. It’s this same eagerness, likely even a greater eagerness, that I think I need to cultivate in approaching Scripture. Scripture is a book about and written by “with-God” people. In fact, the writers of Scripture are so closely “with-God” that anyone seeking to be closer to God will need to follow them. And, of course, at the heart of Scripture is Christ Himself, God-with-us.

A fruitful reading of Scripture, then, begins with one’s desire for being with God, and seeking to meet that desire in the communion of the saints. The desire to be with God is met in following the writers of Scripture, the prophets and the apostles, as they follow Christ.

Are We All Called to Be Fishers of Men?

I’m writing this from Madison, WI, where I”m spending 10 days in orientation for my Graduate and Faculty Ministry work with InterVarsity. We began the orientation talking about calling, and we studied the call of Jesus’ first disciples in Luke 5:1-11. Something that the group immediately noticed is that Jesus approaches and calls Simon Peter, James and John at their place of work: catching fish.

What’s also interesting is that Jesus not only approaches them there, but calls them in such a way that he speaks directly into their job. After the miraculously large catch of fish, Jesus says, “From now on you will be catching men.” This comes to fulfillment in Acts 2 at Pentecost. Peter preaches the gospel and a “catch” of 3,000 repent and are baptized.

Previously, I had always thought of the call from Jesus to be “catching men”  as a universal call to all of Christ’s followers. (I also always felt a bit of guilt for not converting 3,000…) I’m now thinking though, “that catching men” was a call uniquely given to the first disciples. Most of us aren’t fishermen, and consequently, most of us have never seen 3,000 people come to faith at once.

We do, however, all have particular work that Christ speaks into. For instance, my Dad is an auto mechanic. Would Christ come to my Dad and tell him to be a ‘fisher of men,’ or would he rather say, ‘from now on you’ll be a mechanic of men.”? Thinking about my Dad’s service to church, this actually makes a lot of sense. My dad has never preached the gospel to 3,000 and seen them convert, but he has served as a Stephen’s minister, a ministry designed to meet people individually in their brokenness. Granted, my Dad doesn’t “fix” people in this ministry, he merely walks along side them, but a ministry like this fits the mindset of a mechanic much more than a ministry of mass evangelism.

As one who does ministry in the academy, I also wonder: In what manner does Christ’s call speak directly into the work of those in the academy? How does the work of a teaching professor or research professor influence their ministry in the Church and on campus?

Christ doesn’t only call at the lakeside. Christ calls in the classroom, in the lab, and in the office. He calls in the home, in the studio, and in our neigbhorhood. He calls us all with the universal command to follow, but also calls each of us to particularly ministry for which we are uniquely suited. Will we listen and obey?