Last Sunday, we heard in the first reading (Acts 6:1-7) that there was a need surfacing in the little community of believers in Jesus—there were many Hellenists (= Greek-speaking Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah-designate) who felt neglected by the “leaders” in distribution of food, compared with the Hebrews (= Aramaic-speaking Jews who accepted Him). What should be done?
Jesus never spoke of deacons! But if the Holy Spirit were truly operative in the early Christian community (John 14:15-17; 16:12-13; see also Matthew 28:16-20), then in the context of prayer the Apostles could make sound decisions in accord with the desire of Jesus. They chose seven men and laid hands on them to dedicate them to the work of charity (the equivalent breadlines, or soup kitchens, or food stamps, if you like).
But some of them at least went beyond this assignment. Stephen preached and argued with various groups that, it seems, were Hebraic Jewish converts. We don’t know the substance of the debates, but we know that Stephen is a Greek name, and his perspective on the new movement seems to have gone far beyond what believers raised in Palestine thought or expected. The stage is being set, in fact, for the issue that the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) wanted to resolve. So much for “serving at table” (Acts 6:2)!
Philip is even more dramatic. As we hear this weekend, he preached to the Samaritans (fulfilling the promise of Jesus in Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8), and he will preach to the Ethiopian eunuch (8:26ff). What was the secret of his success? Perhaps in part it was that the ground had been prepared for the seed of the Word by Jesus Himself (see John 4). Perhaps it was Philip’s “signs” performed on those who needed healing. Perhaps it was great insight and skill in interpreting Holy Scripture (as he did with the Ethiopian eunuch). Whatever it was, he was successful and highly regarded as a preacher: he is also described as “the evangelist,” even though a deacon (Acts 21:8).
So: what’s a deacon for? The answer is that we don’t know! The answer in Scripture is to pray and fast and do what seems right, and let the Holy Spirit take over. Let God be the God of surprises. Let the Lord act in ways we pathetic and limited humans think is unworthy or impossible or inappropriate. We have to remember the words of the vision to Peter (Acts 10:15): “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane.” If pagans like Cornelius could be converted, who is not acceptable? If servers at table like Stephen and Philip could become evangelizers, who is not worthy to minister and lead? Re-read Acts 16 and tell me how unlikely it was that the leader of the community of believers in Philippi was Lydia, or that it was her house where
the community gathered for prayer and worship and Eucharist, and from which the collection was taken up to support Paul’s missions?
Let God be God—let the Holy Spirit surprise us. Who really knows what deacons (or priests, or bishops, or lay-folk) are really for?