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?

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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…)

The Fear and Love of Life With God

About a week ago, I started working my way through the first in the Renovare Spiritual Formation Guides, called “Connecting With God.” The first section began with these quotes from Frank Laubach’s Letters of a Modern Mystic:

  This morning I started out fresh, by finding  a rich experience of God in the sunrise. Then I tried to let Him control my hands while I was shaving and dressing and eating breakfast. Now I am trying to let God control my hands as I pound the typewriter keys… There is nothing that we can do excepting to throw ourselves open to God. There is, there must be, so much more in Him than He can give us… It ought to be tremendously helpful to be able to acquire the habit of reaching out strongly after God’s thoughts, and to ask, “God, what have you to put into my mind now if only I can be large enough?” That waiting, eager attitude ought to give God the chance he needs.

 

Then, about a month later, he writes:

Oh, this thing of keeping in constant touch with God, of making him the object of my thought and the companion of my conversations, is the most amazing thing I ever ran across. It is working. I cannot do it even half a day – not yet, but I believe I shall be doing it some day for the entire day. It is a matter of acquiring a new habit of thought. Now I like God’s presence so much that when for a half hour or so he slips out of mind – as he does many times a day – I feel as though I had deserted him, and as though I had lost something very precious in my life.

 

The thought of this practice inspired me. I wanted this life of living in constant touch with God. I wanted to be constantly aware of God’s presence, to yield constantly to God’s will. I went to bed asking God to remind me first thing in the morning that He was present with me. He did.

For the first time in months, I awoke the next morning before my alarm went off. Usually, I wake up to my alarm, and often times so groggy that it takes me a second to remember where I am. Not on this morning, though. God did as I had asked, and I was reminded immediately of God’s presence with me. Wanting (or at least thinking I wanted) to surrender to His will, I asked/prayed, “God what should I do?”

I ‘heard’ a voice respond, “Get up and pray.”

I politely asked for a new assignment, perhaps going back to sleep. But the voice was persistent, “Get up and pray.”

 Finally, I got up and looked at my cell phone. It was still turned off; it’s set to turn off automatically at midnight and turn back on at 6am. I didn’t know what time it was, but I knew it was before 6. “Why would God want me to be up so early?” I asked myself.

Almost immediately I heard the voice again, “I want you to pray.”

The call to pray was so vivid that I fully expected to come out of my bedroom, turn the corner into my living room and see Jesus sitting on the love-seat… and this thought terrified me. Fully awake and out of bed, I still actually hesitated to leave my bedroom for fear of what Who might be out there. I finally mustered the courage to go into my living room, and was both relieved and disappointed to find that there wasn’t a first century Jew waiting for me. (At least not that I could see.)

I went on with my prayer time, which was better than usual, though frankly not as profound as what I was anticipating. I remember little of the Scripture I read that morning or the prayers that I prayed. What I do remember is the fear. I had a profound sense of God being presence, and I was seized more with fear than anything else. Why? This bothered me for much of the rest of the week.

I continued the week trying to practice this consciousness of  and submissiveness to God’s presence and will. Thursday night finally brought resolution to my sense of fear. I had just returned from the Upper Room’s Bible study and sat down in my living room for some personal devotion and close-of-day prayer. I began with the evening psalm appointed for the day by the lectionary I follow. It was the second half of Psalm 18 (the first half was appointed for that morning). As I was praying this Psalm, I slipped out of awareness of God’s presence and was simply reading the words of the Psalm rather unconsciously, to the point of having no comprehension of what I was actually reading. I caught myself towards the end, and entered back into an awareness of God’s presence. I heard the same voice I heard at the beginning of the week. Only this time, the voice said, “Read it again.”

I responded, “But God, I’m tired.”

Again, the voice said, “Read it again. And this time start at verse 1.”

Somewhat begrudgingly, I turned to Psalm 18:1 and read, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”

I was floored. The words, “I love you.” convicted me in a way that they never had before. I knew immediately that I hadn’t prayed them with any sincerity, that behind my declaration of love to God was no sense of heartfelt devotion. I immediately asked God to teach me how to declare my love to him with sincerity. The voice responded, “Keep reading.”

I read on in Psalm 18, and after each verse I added the “chorus” of “I love you.” I began to read of God’s saving work done for the psalmist, knowing that he did them also for me. My “I love you”s became more heartfelt with each verse. I then began to notice not only the things God’s done for me, but also the attributes of God mentioned in the psalm. I remember reading the beginning of verse 8: “Smoke rose from his nostrils,” and I immediately responded, “You breath fire?!?!?! I LOVE YOU!” My chorus of “I love you” then moved from thanksgiving for what God had done for me to words of adoration to someone I deeply admire.

And then it got better. God had something else to tell me. I finished the Psalm and went on to the final Scripture reading in that days lectionary. I saw the reading listed in my calendar: “John 3:16-21.” I immediately knew what God wanted to say to me. As I read the familiar words, “Go so loved the world…” I felt in my heart God speaking back to me “I love you,” with the same passion and devotion as I had offered to God by the end of my reading Psalm 18.

And then finally, I turned to the Prayer at Close of Day Liturgy, which included these words from 1 John: “There is no fear in love…” My experience of walking with and submitting to God had gone full circle. I was immediately reminded of my early-morning experience at the beginning of the week. I had wondered and sought an explanation as to why I was so afraid that morning. God offered no answer to that question. He simply told me that fear is not the proper attitude to take in walking with God. Reverence, yes. But not fear. Walking with God and submitting to God is to be a practice and experience of love. Perfect love that casts out fear.