A sermon Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
January 12, 2014
Deacon Ordination and Installation
Numbers 27:15-23; Acts 6:1-7
Doing church is not easy. Never has been, never will be. Doing church the Baptist way makes it even messier at times, given our penchant for congregational self-governance. I don’t have a bishop telling me what to do and how to do it, nor do we have a district superintendent who gives orders to our church as to how we need to make our decisions. Being on our own, so to speak, provides a lot of wiggle room that then furnishes freedom to a congregation. But it can also lead to difficulties. Freedom always does. However, that’s been our way for more than five hundred years, and so far there’s been no compelling reason for us to change.
Unfortunately, that’s also the reason why a certain congregation in Kansas can call itself Baptist when many of us would question, because of their extreme activities, whether they are even Christian. In fact, I heard just recently the suggestion that those who follow Jesus should do so in a way that Westboro Baptist Church folk would show up to picket at their funeral.
But, being independent is the Baptist way.
It’s also the way the church operated in its infancy, and, because of that, it didn’t take long for difficulties to emerge and controversies to raise their ugly head. In Jerusalem, things had been ticking along fairly well until…
But before we talk about that, let me explain something else that will help with the context for the story Wendy read earlier. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, often stops his narratives to provide occasional reports of how the followers of Jesus are doing. One of my seminary professors, the late Frank Stagg, referred to them as “summary statements.” You’ll find them interspersed throughout the Book of Acts.
In reference to the disciples, at one point Luke says “they were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (1:14). “And day by day,” he says at still another point, “the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (2:47b). Later, he tells us, “And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah” (5:42). Summary statements or progress reports, Luke tosses them in from time-to-time to let his readers know how things are going with this infant church movement.
And judging from all this you would think that everything was going along just swimmingly. But evidently there was some grumbling going on in the pews. The church, by this time, had become a mixture of those who had started the church and those who had more lately come into it. These newer members, referred to by Luke as Hellenists, were Greek-speaking folks who had come into the church by means of their adopted Jewish faith. And even though they were accepted gladly, there is little doubt that some of the blue bloods in the church thought of them as being hybrids. They were just as faithful to Jesus and his church as anybody, their money was just as good, certainly, and they had contributed their worldly possessions just like everybody else. But, it seemed to them their widows were being neglected in a way that the Hebrew widows were not. So, the complaints started coming in.
The church did not have a pastor as such. They were still being led by the twelve apostles, and when word reaches them that there were troubles a-brewing, they called the fellowship together for a town hall meeting. “It is not our role,” they said to the congregation, “to wait on tables. We’ve been called to preach the word of God, and in response to that word, to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah. That job requires all our time and energy and focus. So we have a recommendation for you: select seven men from our congregation, men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, and appoint them to this task. They can serve the church in this manner while we continue to devote ourselves to prayer and proclamation. This motion comes to you from our group and does not require a second. All in favor say aye.”
The recommendation passes unanimously, and in the election that follows, Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus are chosen. Some of them are Hebrews and some Hellenists, providing a good mix so that everyone should be happy about these who have been selected.
And what are their marching orders? Basically, if you read between the lines, they are to be seen and not heard. They are to do the grunt work of ministry, the heavy lifting… of visiting the sick, making sure the widows are taken care of, and to see that no one has lack of what they need. These are the things the apostles did not have time for, so the church establishes the office of the Deacon.
It seems to be a good solution. In another of his reports on the state of the church – one of those summary statements – immediately following this narrative, Luke tells us that “the word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7). Things are going really quite well.
Except… some of these (and even though they were not called Deacons, we’ll refer to them as such because they have since become the model for this church office) didn’t exactly stay within the box that had been created for them. Their job was to “wait on tables” remember, that is to take care of the needs of the flock. Today, we would refer to that as pastoral care. And while I have no doubt they continued to do that, a few of them expanded their responsibilities on their own and pushed their job description beyond the boundaries that had been set for them. In other words, they wanted to be heard and not just seen.
Stephen, for example, evidently performed miracles. Who knows, as one author has suggested, maybe one day he handed someone her lunch and healed her by mistake, or that he thought he was just stirring the soup and ended up stirring the Spirit.1 “Full of grace and power,” we are told, Stephen “did great wonders and signs among the people.” He’s giving Peter and John a run for their money, isn’t he? Stephen got into public debates with those who opposed the church and its message and ministry. All the while, we are told, those who were opposing him could not help but look intently upon him because “they saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (6:15).
We know what happened to Stephen, don’t we? Eventually, he was stoned to death for what the religious authorities considered to be his blasphemy, uttered during his active and very public preaching. It opened the door to further persecution of those who followed Jesus, and soon the church found itself scattered. At this point, only the apostles remained together in Jerusalem because of the problems they were encountering.
But it didn’t eliminate the office of these first deacons. Consider Philip. He left Jerusalem and went to Samaria where he could find a job waiting on tables, right? No! He began doing what the apostles were still doing back in Jerusalem. He started preaching Jesus, began healing the sick, and soon a church was begun there because of his efforts. Of course, Peter and John had to make sure the church was operating according to their standards, so they went to Samaria to check on things and found them to be quite in order before going back to Jerusalem to re-enter the fray.
No sooner had they left than Philip received orders from an angel of the Lord to take the wilderness road to Gaza. Along the way he encountered an Ethiopian Eunuch who was reading scripture. Before their encounter was over, Philip had explained to the Ethiopian how Jesus was the response to the scripture he was reading, and baptized the man the moment they could find some water. From there he traveled to Caesarea, never to wait on tables again. Everywhere he went, Philip told people about Jesus.
What does all this mean? It means to me that the first deacons, though they were told they should be seen only and not heard, refused to be boxed in by such limitations. They had things to do, to be sure, but they also had a story to tell.
So I would encourage our new Deacons, and all those who serve with them, not to be limited by the rules, even the rules developed by this church to govern what you do. Instead, as did these who first modeled the office for you, respond to the urgings of the Holy Spirit to fulfill this position with the courage and faith that is required. In doing so, you might just provide all of us an example of what it means truly to be a follower of Jesus. And that would be a very good thing, don’t you agree?
Lord, bless the ministry of these Deacons and all those who are touched by them. Help us all to be followers of Jesus who are seen and heard because we are led by, and have responded to, the urgings of your Spirit. Through Christ our Lord we pray. Amen.
1 Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way, (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 125