Reflection: Jesus’ Community Dinner

October 1, 2023

Today we’re coming to the end of our series on the early followers of Jesus.  We’ve met some familiar characters, and some unfamiliar ones. My guess is the characters we meet today will mostly be in the “unfamiliar” category.  Today we’re looking at the early “deacons” of the church: Stephen, the most famous of the lot, Phoebe, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. The word “deacon” comes from the word DIAKONOS – which means one who serves.

It seems that already in the early years of the Jesus community, leaders were having a hard time meeting all the needs of the folk who looked to them for leadership. The apostles, the folk who carried the Gospel to the new converts, were getting complaints that not everyone was being treated equally – that they were missing some folks when it came time to share bread with the community.  As we’ve heard before, part of the life of the community was sharing food with each other – and it seems that wasn’t just in gatherings but also from day to day.  Those who needed a bit more help received visits from others in the community who brought them food and comfort.  It’s like the community dinner, spread out across many households in many cities around the Mediterranean world.  The apostles couldn’t keep up – remember, at this point there were thousands of people in the community! – and of course, complaints of favouritism were made.

It was determined that another order of leaders should be specially commissioned to do this work of feeding those in need and what we might call pastoral care.  That didn’t mean they didn’t also share the story of Jesus with others; from Stephen’s story, which you can readin the Acts of the Apostles,  they did that effectively and with such impact that Stephen was even martyred because people were listening to him!  Their main task, however, was to share the bread and be Jesus’ presence for others.  That’s why when we were preparing the bulletin I decided to call this reflection, “Jesus’ Community Dinner”!

Our modern United Church diaconal ministers trace their roots back to these servants of Christ: to Phoebe, Stephen and the others.  What began as service at the table of Christ and bringing that table to others, has evolved in various ways across the Christian church. Unfortunately, people being people, historically the ministry of the diaconate has been undervalued – and surprise, surprise! – in Protestant denominations has been mostly associated with non-ordained women. Missionaries, women who worked with the young, advocates for the poor, medical workers – these are some of the roles played by what we used to call “Deaconesses”.  Ironically, the dividing line between diaconal and ordained until very recently has been this very TABLE – this table where we celebrate the supper of Jesus – Jesus’ very own community dinner!  Despite the fact that it was the ministry of sharing the bread to which these servants of God and church were first called according to Acts, one of the last dividing lines between ordained and diaconal ministers in the United Church has been who can serve communion – who can preside at the sacraments.  Now it is automatic practice in most areas of the church for diaconal ministers to automatically be licensed to preside at communion, so that dividing line has faded to insignificance in order to serve the practical needs of the church.  Those of you who were here when Melanie Ihmels was serving during my sabbatical may not have realized, but Melanie is a diaconal minister.  She is now a minister at the Mustard Seed – a perfect fit for her gifts and her calling.

The deacon, or diaconal minister, is shaped by the call to service.  They are commissioned to Education, Service, and Pastoral Care.  When I asked Melanie to share a brief paragraph about one of the things that stands out for her about being a diaconal minister, this is what she wrote:

When Reverend Heidi reached out to ask if I would write something about identifying with Diakonia I pondered for a bit on what I would write about. There is a lot. Even learning and absorbing and turning into practice the word Diakonia was life-changing at the most basic levels. To be a Diaconal Minister means, first and foremost, to learn to serve among others. To take seriously, to live, according to the Matthew 20 scripture, the first becomes last and the last becomes first, to the best of my ability. As I was learning this, one of the biggest lessons I continue to carry with me is the Circle. In a circle, there are no higher or lower points, there are no corners, no hidden angles. Think about this for a minute: in a circle, all can see all else, all exist on one continuing line with a view to all the rest. No one is higher, no one is lower, all are equal and thus have equal say and equal hearing. How better can we serve as leaders than to be one of the group we are ‘leading’? As Jesus’ hands and feet on earth, as His tongue and eyes, as His ears and mouth we must become last, one of everyone, only then can each of us lead as He called.

Melanie reminds us that within the circle of Christian community, no one is more valuable than the rest, no one is more of a leader than the rest, no one is more responsible for the life of the community than the rest.  We lead and serve TOGETHER.  The body of Christ needs all of us.  Together, we are the presence of Christ in the world – that active representation of what we celebrate here at this Table on World Communion Sunday.

Jesus Christ is with us, the bread of life and the wine of blessing. Jesus Christ is in us, by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are Jesus Christ for others – we the worldwide church, not just those of us who have been prayed over as ordained and diaconal ministers.  We are all called to come away from this table ready to share the bread, share the comfort, share the Gospel, hammer the nails, make the coffee, cook the potatoes, add up the numbers, pray our longings and hopes and celebrations, write up the minutes, hang out with the children, answer the phones – whatever is needed so that the whole people of God can flourish and none is neglected.

The deacons of the early church and the diaconal ministers of today remind us that there is something significant that happens when we are invited into the feast of Christ – or when we in turn invite Jesus to come and eat with us – in our homes, in our workplaces, in our churches – wherever we gather.  You’ll remember, perhaps, the Gospel of John’s alternative story of the last meal Jesus shared with his friends.  At that meal, Jesus knelt with a towel and a basin of water, and washed the feet of his friends. He told them then, and tells us now, that those who wish to be part of God’s dream for the world, God’s kindom, must serve as Jesus served.  That basin and towel are not the primary symbols of the diaconate.  This is our calling as well.  May God speak to each of our hearts this day, as servant friends of our servant Christ. Amen.



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