Ordination and Installation of Deacons
February 25, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
I could have chosen any of an immense number of texts to make the simple and obvious point I wish to make this evening. I chose these four verses because they make the point briefly, powerfully, and memorably.
“Do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
Readers of Holy Scripture are well aware of the careful attention to caring for others, especially for others in need – the suffering, the poor, the slave, the victim of injustice – that is a feature of the law of God from the very beginning. It was always a first principle of biblical ethics that God’s people were to be generous and practically helpful to others, particularly to others in great need. You may not be aware of how this emphasis, how this generosity distinguished biblical ethics from the systems of morality prevailing in the world of that time. There is nothing like this in any of the other law codes of the ancient Near East. You also may not be aware of how unique was the motivation for this doing of good to others. God’s people were to be kind and generous to the needy for two reasons: 1) the first was that, having been slaves in Egypt themselves, they knew very well how hard and how miserable life could be when one is powerless and poor; and 2) God had been wonderfully kind and generous to them. You won’t read this in any of the other legal codes of the ancient world. You won’t find these motivations in modern ethical reflection or instruction either.
It was these powerful motivations, each of which lay deep in Israel’s understanding of God and salvation, that produced the remarkable provisions for the protection of the poor and needy that we find in the Law of Moses. Think of the laws that required farmers to leave what remained after the first pass through the field at harvest for the poor to reap for themselves, or the laws of Jubilee that required lost property to be returned – in an age when property and financial stability were the two sides of the same coin. It was a revolutionary and immensely important provision that ensured that no family could lose its property, its land permanently. Or think of the requirements that the poor be paid per day lest they go hungry waiting for their wages at the end of the week or the prohibition against charging interest on a loan to one’s spiritual brother in need. Interest could be charged on an investment but not on a loan that was given to someone in financial straits. Or consider the elaborate provisions for the care of slaves who became slaves because of an inability to repay debt: for their redemption if possible and for a generous severance when their period of servitude came to an end.
All of this God made a law for the life of his people because he himself is the vindicator of the poor; their protector. We are to treat them with mercy and generosity because God is merciful an because God takes note and will answer the cries of the poor for vindication against those who mistreat them or ignore their need.
No wonder, then, that the prophets excoriated Israel when later God’s people were uncaring of the poor or when they manipulated for their own advantage laws meant to provide for the poor. This, in Israel, was not simply wrong-doing; it was a failure of faith in God and a failure to appreciate his gracious salvation.
So, it is no surprise that we find the same concern for the poor and needy in both the teaching and the example of the Lord Jesus and his apostles and the same prophetic condemnation of a failure on the part of Christian people to be generous to the poor, such condemnation as we find, for example, in the letter of James.
But lest we miss the point, perhaps the most profound demonstration of the emphasis placed on kindness, mercy, and generous provision for the sake of the poor is the existence of an office in the apostolic church responsible to ensure that the church’s ministry to the poor and needy was not forsaken, nor even done with half a heart. The Christian life requires faith and understanding because we live and love out of the teaching of the Word of God. So, it is no surprise that there should be an office responsible for the teaching of God’s people. The Christian life also requires obedience to the calling of Jesus Christ, so it is unsurprising that there should be an office to oversee, even to demand that obedience and to punish disobedience. But so much is the Christian life a life of mercy and compassion that there is also an office to ensure that the church, the people of God, fulfill their responsibility to the needy. And so we have those three offices: minister, elder, and deacon, to ensure that our lives are nourished by the truth of the Word of God, that we live in obedience to God’s commandments, and that we are merciful and helpful to the needy.
Have you ever thought of that? Those three dimensions of the Christian life are so important, so critical, that each is assigned an office in the church. There is no office to ensure that you are self-fulfilled; no office in the church responsible to ensure that you are making the wisest financial decisions; no office to help you to succeed in your chosen career. But there is an office appointed by the King of the Church to ensure that God’s people are merciful and generous to others in need.
If you want to know what matters to Him, consider what responsibilities he has entrusted to the officers of his church! He wants his people to be an engine of relief to those beset by life’s troubles and of generous provision to those in want. If this is not our life, and it has far too often not been the life of God’s people, then our lives are seriously defective at a key point.
In the ancient church, the church before the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the laws governing the corporate life of God’s people – what we today would call the state – were designed to ensure that those in need were given adequate help, though that help had a highly personal character to it: the farmer in his field, the lender with his slave, the kinsman redeemer, and so on. In the new epoch the social/political situation was very different, but the need and the spiritual obligation were precisely the same. And so it was that the office of deacon was created, as we read in first paragraph of Acts 6.
It is our calling as a congregation of Christ’s disciples and servants to be faithful to his Word, to be obedient in our lives, and to be merciful toward others. If we are that, we are what we ought to be as a Christian church. And lest any of these dimensions of gospel holiness be neglected, there are those appointed by the Lord himself to ensure that they are not. So, this evening, we are seeing displayed before our very eyes, what matters supremely to our God and savior: his Word of grace and truth upon our hearts, our obedience to him, and compassion, love, and practical care flowing from us to others; the three legs of the Christian stool.
These men who have now joined our diaconate are responsible to ensure that generosity to those in need and mercy and compassion as a feature of our common life remain a keystone of our witness and our work. Without them, I guarantee that our individual and our corporate commitment to compassion and mercy will weaken. It has times without number through the ages. How did the church acquiesce, as it did, to the widespread misery of most people who were grindingly poor, all of whom would have identified themselves as Christians, in the medieval times when serfdom and systemic poverty were characteristic of the life of Christendom? Well, one answer to that question was that office of deacon had been lost to the church. The diaconate had been subsumed under the ministry and there was no longer an office whose reason for being was to champion the cause of the poor as an essential feature of Christian commitment. The bishop was responsible for the poor and even the most faithful bishop had many other responsibilities. [H. Bouwman, Het Ambt der Diakenen, 21]
The diaconate was reborn wonderfully at the Reformation and did yeomen work enlisting the church in the practical help of believers and unbelievers alike. Refugees, the sick, and the poor were faithfully cared for at the church’s expense and under the supervision of its deacons. But it was not so many years later that the diaconate became moribund again. We are still selfish people and it is easy for us to think that this is the part of the Christian life we can somehow do without. And in the Presbyterian Church, which tended to be a middle class or even an upper-class church, especially in America, the diaconate virtually disappeared as an office focused on this great responsibility laid upon all believers and fundamental to the very nature of Christian faith and life. And so you had generations of Christians who not only rarely encountered the poor and needy but did little to nothing on their behalf, as if one could read the Bible and think that appropriate, much less possible! If the desperately needy who know themselves to have received grace upon grace are not gracious and merciful to the needy themselves, is this not proof that they either do not understand their own salvation or remain unimpressed by it?
The other day I had lunch with a wealthy man. He lives well north of Seattle and I was with several other men speaking to him on behalf of our Covenant College. In the course of the conversation he told us that he had sent a gift to his church for its ministry to the poor. This was a Reformed church, a Presbyterian church if you will. They told him that since they had no direct ministry to the poor, they had sent his gift on to denominational headquarters for them to do with it what they thought best. He was disgusted! And rightly so. How could officers in a Christian church actually utter the words, “We have no ministry to the poor ourselves, so we sent your gift on to someone else?” No child growing up in such a church will be schooled in the imperatives of the Christian life!
No! Never! Not here. “Do good to everyone, especially to those who are of the household of faith.” That commandment is addressed to us! It is repeated so many times and in so many ways in the Bible, that we should be determined that it will be obeyed in our church, enthusiastically, comprehensively obeyed in our church. We cannot be living a faithful Christian life if this charity is not part of it! And if, as has never been the case, we can’t find those in want in our own fellowship, we will go looking for them elsewhere. It is important for them; it is desperately important for us that we do that. If there is not a ministry of mercy and compassion and generous provision, we will not meet the profile of an apostolic Christian church, as that profile is give us in the New Testament.
Pray for our deacons and support their work, help them in it, for the sake of the needy and for your own sake and the sake of your children who will not understand the Christian life or find it compelling if they do not see this dimension of it being practiced with a vengeance of love and mercy. This is the most public way in which we treat others as our God and Savior has treated us!