In the journey to priesthood, the first major step is the ordination to the deaconate; a process as one would expect which involves prayer, scriptural studies and other course work and learning the deaconate Manual. As a part of my journey towards the diaconate, I have read manuals from the Roman church, Anglican Church, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church and the Baptist Church in an attempt to understand t he catholic nature of the diaconate and what it means to be a deacon, whether it be transitional as in the path to priesthood, or part of a vocational calling to be a permanent deacon of the Christian church. While specific duties, training and expectations varied among these various denominations, one common theme became apparent; a deacon is a servant and a messenger to the people in and a steward of Christ’s church.
The title of Deacon comes from the ancient Greek term diakonos (dia: through + konos:dust) meaning servant or messenger and is used in the New Testament writings to describe those who were commissioned to carrying the Gospel out and minister to the people of the world. As the church grew in numbers, the disciples found it increasingly difficult to perform all the same duties they once did for Jesus for now they were the teacher with an ever increasing flock of followers to minister to. So, in the example set forth by our Lord, the disciples called others to follow them, to learn from them and to go out into the world and minister to the needy.
In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them. So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. (Acts 6:1-7 NIV)
Remember, at this time there was no new testament written and compiled, no books of commentary on the meaning of Jesus’ parables, no Jesus to ask “Master, what does this mean?” The early disciples had to confer with each other to remembers what Jesus taught, they had to rely on prayer to receive answers to their from God, and they were responsible for preaching to the crowds and seeing that the good news spread; they had to prepare others to take their place as teachers just as Jesus prepared them. As so they called others to be the messengers of the Gospels, to go and be servants to those in need, to feed the hungry in body and soul, to hastily go out into the dusty streets and invite everyone they found to come to the wedding banquet, to be diakonos for the church.
Acts 6 appears marks the creation of the diaconate in Christianity, however I believe this commission of diakonos was first instituted by Christ himself and is recorded in the Gospels of Mathew, Mark and Luke. In Matthew 10 , Mark 6 and Luke 9 Jesus calls his 12 disciples to go forth among the Israelites and having given “them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (MT 10:1) Jesus commends them to “proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give” (MT10:7-8). Again in Luke Jesus calls 72 of his followers to go out and “Heal the sick who are there and tell them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’”(Lk 10:9). In each, these messengers of the good news, these servants of Christ are sent forth to minister to the people who welcome them, healing the sick, casting out demons, and raising the dead; and for those places where the people reject the message, Christ instructions were to “leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them”(LK9:5). Shaking the dust from your feet, an ancient symbolic act signifying unworthiness and denunciation, for if the hearts of the people are wicked and they reject the good news then even the dust from which they are created must also be defiled and should be “shaken off” lest it is carried with to the next place.
These chosen messengers of Christ’s gospel, these deacons were the original stewards of the Christian church; they walked the dusty path that Jesus walked, they ministered to the poor, fed the hungry, healed the sick, and invited the disenfranchised to enter into the kingdom of God. In Matthew 25:35-36 Jesus describes the true ministry of the faithful “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’” This is what it means to be a deacon for Christ! And so, through their ministry, a deacon is always to be a living example of Christ’s teachings: “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (MT 5:14-16).
Today the role of a deacon is just a crucial as it was 2000 years ago. Members of the diaconate are the stewards of His church, carrying and preaching the Gospel, assisting at the altar of His sacrifice, overseeing the business of the church and forever ministering to the people. With Jesus as the body of the church, a deacon must act as the lips, eyes, ears, and hands: always seeking chances to proclaim the good news to the world, seeing the needs of others, hearing their calls for help, and lifting those in need out of the dust and raising them into the light of Christ! With Jesus as the tree of life, the branches and leaves are the bricks and mortar of the church providing shade and refuge, but deacons are the bearer of the fruit of God’s love, sharing the sweet nectar of hope and charity with the people of the world, providing succor to those in need, the forgotten widows of the world.
Diakonos, the stewards of the dust, the dust from which God created humans, the simplest, basic component of earth from which kingdoms and mansions are built, from which crops and fruit trees grow and where those who are most in need can be found working, laying on their mats, eking out their existence. This where a deacon lives and rejoices in God.
Berghoef, Gerard and De Koster, Lester. The Deacons Handbook. A manual of Stewardship. Christian’s Library Press, Inc. 1980.
Gerard M. Nadal, Were the Apostles the First Deacons?
March 19, 2012 .
Rev. Fr. Jason Van Lieshout is a Priest in the United States Old Catholic Church. He has worked as an educator and have multiple degrees. He lives in Greenville, South Carolina.