In Honor of the Ordination
Dianna LaMance Deaderick
Patricia Marie Gotautas
to the Sacred Order of Deacons
in Christ’s One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-161 Peter 2:2-10
He looked up to heaven and saw what no one else could see: Jesus, standing by a golden throne, in the empty blue of the Palestinian sky.
It had only started a few months before, following that great Day of Pentecost, when the streets of Jerusalem were filled with thousands of pilgrims from around the Empire: Galileans, Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Jews, Cappadocians, Pontians, Asian, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Cyrenes, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. That day, three thousand people, from around the Empire had heard about Jesus of Nazareth and had been baptized in his name. Peter's words of redemption, hope and forgiveness had pierced their souls and nothing would ever be the same.
But of course, everything was still the same: Tiberius was still on the Roman throne, and Caligula, that man of lawlessness, panted in the wings, waiting for his uncle to die. The followers of Jesus were still a hated and heterodox sect of Judaism, who insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their leader, whom they considered Messiah, was still alive. The twelve men who led them all claimed to have seen him, alive, and munching broiled fish and bread, washing it all down with great swallows of the red wine that they claimed he could even make from water. Joining them, amid the jeers of both the Bible-thumpers and intellectuals, was not the sort of choice one made sanely, weighing the evidence. For the evidence screamed a warning: run the other way.
But he had not run. He had buried himself under the water of the Jordan, as certain as the water which dripped off his head, that their message was true. And not just true in a narrative sense: true in the great galactic sense that the Universe had been re-ordered on that bright spring morning fifty days before. And he knew that day that there was something to this Jesus story, something so wondrous and graceful and joyous that there could be no going back to his home, his old life, the day to day numbness of life under the hope-crushing boot of Empire and Religion. He was called to love mercy, do justice and walk humbly before his God.
So when the followers of the Way, as they began to call themselves, settled in for good in the Holy City, Stephen was one of the voices that proclaimed that being a follower of Jesus meant more than just taking on some sort of religious vow: it meant that your life was suddenly lost and that there was a cross with your name on it outside the safety and purity of the Temple gate. Stephen was one of the voices who heard the hard words of Jesus about the “other sheep:” the women, the lepers, the drunks, the hookers, the gamblers, the insurrectionists, the collaborators and the poor, shoeless little children whose bellies ached for food but whose souls were full of Spirit.
Because, the followers of the Way, the ones who were risking the wrath of both Empire and Religion, of both Law and Prophets, lacked one thing: they did not understand the call to justice. And who could blame them: they had the Bible on their side, a thousand years of tradition, a great scroll of finely scripted liturgy that proclaimed the Lordship of Yahweh for a Hebrew-speaking Covenant People descended from Abraham, and bound eternally to salvation. But Stephen and a handful of others saw that, unless the Way distinguished itself from the rest of the Jewish people and embraced those who slightly less than pure, it would only fade into the irrelevant noise of a world more concerned with people who did things right than with people who longed for all things to be made right.
So when the Phyrgians, Asians, Cappodocians and all the rest set themselves up in a sprawling refugee camp it was Stephen and six of his friends who claimed that the Good News proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth had nothing to do with Religion or Empire and everything to do with mercy, justice and humility. Even the Twelve were no match for the Gospel.
In spite of the fact that believers were pooling their resources together to help the poorest among them, the widows in the refugee camp were hungry and all because they spoke a different language from the majority of the followers of Jesus. Stephen and his friends knew that the Twelve could sermonize all they wanted about repentance and baptism and the prayers, but as long as even one of the baptized suffered, the whole body of the Way suffered.
For they knew that Cross was borne not by Jesus alone, but by everyone who felt the marks in his hands and in her feet and side. Following his Resurrection, Jesus had first appeared, not to the Twelve, but to the women among them, and in fact, one particular woman, the one who had anointed his head and feet with an alabaster jar of the world's most expensive perfume. The one unafraid to touch him, the kiss him, to declare him the single most beautiful thing she had ever laid eyes on. The woman who refused to stay an outsider. The widows in the camp were outsiders to the Aramaic-speaking followers of Jesus, but if they stayed that way, the Gospel itself was imperiled.
The Twelve were concerned with more important things: “It is not right” they said with all the seriousness of Apostolic Order, “that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.”
The People of the Way thought that was a good solution. The Twelve, holy as they were, would devote themselves to making sure that the prayers, the word, and the liturgy were duly celebrated, that baptisms continued in the Jordan, that the great enterprise of Temple, Law and Tradition continued among the Jesus people. So they brought Stephen and his friends Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and the Syrian Nicolaus before the Twelve who laid hands on them and declared them servants of the Table. They would serve to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by their word and example, to those among whom they lived, and worked, and worshiped. They were to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. From the moment the Twelve laid their holy, religious hands on the Magnificent Seven, the Church would never be the same: there would always be the voice of Servants of the Table, the ones who knew clearly that the life, death and Raising of Jesus meant, not a new religion, not simply Word and Prayers and the Apostles' teaching, but the loving of mercy, the doing of justice and the walking in humility to the place where their own Cross awaited them. To be sure, they worked to feed the hungry, but they had another dimension to their new vocation: to prevent the followers of Jesus from believing that it is more important to pray in the presence of poverty than to eliminate it.
And that's how Stephen found himself, on a high place, outside the walls of Jerusalem, his eyes focused on something in the blue sky that only he could see. Earlier that day he had dared to preach in the Synagogue of the Freedmen and declared that the word of all the Prophets and Yahweh himself were fulfilled in the life of Jesus, the Nazarene prophet whose presence still hung over Jerusalem a year after his death. Fury poured forth from the good, pious and holy people who were trying to pray and listen to the Scriptures that day. How dare this waiter—who could not even speak proper Aramaic—come into their place of worship and speak such unholy words. Had not the Chief Priests themselves ordered turned the Nazarene over to be executed by the Roman authorities? Had the Nazarene not died, on the hill outside the Temple, a sign of his false claims? Were they still not the Chosen Ones of Yahweh, the Children of Abraham, the inheritors of an Eternal Promise, the People of the Covenant, of the Land that stretched from sea to shining sea?
He'd been hauled before the same Sanhedrin who had condemned the Nazarene and there he stood, unrepentant before them all. He began a long and winding sermon that took them through the entire sweeping story of salvation, beginning at Abraham, through
Moses, David and Solomon. After declaring that God could not be confined to a building, no matter how holy or beautiful, he fairly spat his sermon's climax: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Then he did it. He committed the act that would forever mark the short, glorious and tragic life of the first martyr of Christianity. Stephen, the waiter, the Deacon, the martyr, looked into that bright, empty unbroken Palestinian blue and told them: “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
That was all the crowd of promise keepers needed. They covered their ears and rushed him, a buzzing angry swarm of hornets, intent on only one thing: destroying this despicable man who dared to blame them for the injustice that they had committed. They dragged him outside the walls of Jerusalem, to demonstrate once and for all what justice looked like: like a rock, soaked with the blood and brains of anyone who would dare question whether that is really justice. The text gives us a tantalizing peek at the future of the Gospel when it notes, almost as a footnote, that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
As the rocks smashed his skull, Stephen struggled to his feet. He raised his hands high to the blue vault above: “Lord Jesus,” he cried, “receive my spirit.” Another rock knocked him to his knees. “Lord,” he whispered, as his eyes rolled back into his head, “please don't hold this against them.” Then he crumbled into a tiny, dying ball of mercy, justice and humility.
The calling of these first Deacons might have passed away into the lost memory of the ancient Church had it not been for one blessed and ironic fact: the Apostles only wanted to get back to feeling holy and not have to encounter the unpleasant reality of a world that cries for justice. Yet, when they laid hands on the Seven, they managed to unhook the Gospel from Religion and turn its power loose on the world. From then on, the Church would understand that in order to devote itself to Word and Prayer, it had to to devote itself to waiting tables. It had to live a forgiving Gospel, an inclusive Gospel, a Gospel that reconciled and made all things new. That young man Saul, who stood there, arms folded, in approval of the murder of the young man Stephen, would later gaze into the sky in Syria, and see what Stephen saw. He would lead the Church into the fullness of the forgiving, inclusive and reconciling Gospel. And though the text does not say it, nor did Saul ever later discuss it in his writings, by the time he became the Apostle Paul, he, too, was preaching the message of Stephen. Some Gospel seed must have taken root in his heart that day.
The history of the Order of Deacons in God's One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church is the history of the Church on its journey to discovering Gospel truth. As the message spread throughout the Empire, Deacons were deployed to the little house churches that sprung up everywhere the message was preached. They had a special role: to serve the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the imprisoned in the Name of Christ and to act that role out liturgically in the Mass for all God's people, wearing their stoles over their shoulders, like the towel Jesus used to dry his disciples' feet at the Last Supper. That's why Deacons proclaim the Gospel and set the Holy Table for the Eucharist. That's why Deacons' sermons are so very different from those of Priests. The Deacon's call is outward, towards the world, and the Priests' inward towards the Church. Because Deacons had a special and prophetic call to remind the Church that as a Body each of us is likewise called to do this, they often came into conflict with the hierarchical structures of the Church. By the time of the Middle Ages, the first Order of Ministry after the Apostles was reduced to a temporary, transitional step towards the Priesthood. Finally, by the mid-20th century, the Church heard once again the message of Stephen and his friends, and the Diaconate was re-established, this time, one hopes, once and for all.
There have been times that the Church has forgotten the simple truth that the Gospel is not pie in the sky when you die, but is the hard, sweaty, dirty work of transforming the world now. And each time it does, the Holy Spirit raises back up the ancient order of Deacons to pick up a towel and start waiting tables. Amen.