St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Pontifical High Mass, 15th December 2009: The Rev Canon John Suggit

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Canon John Suggit, one-time Warden of St Paul's Theological College, preached at a Pontifical HIgh Mass in celebration of the 30th, 40th and 50th anniversaries of Ordination to the Diaconate, on Tuesday, the 15th December, 2009.

He very kindly made his sermon notes available.

Isaiah 6.1-8. Luke 5.1-11.
Thanks & privilege. Good to celebrate diaconate- so many!
We are today living in a period of rapid and amazing change. More marked in the last 80 years than in the whole of the previous two thusand years – instant communication – nuclear fission – DNA & genetics. Christians are confused by this new situation. Some fall back into some literal acceptance of scripture (as interpreted!), while others give up altogether and are happy to follow the crowd in their pursuit of material prosperity and happiness. What does the gospel have to say to us today?

All of us no doubt have been struck by the words of Isaiah “Whom shall I send? ... Here am I; send me”. Not thinking of Isaiah but of words addressed to us. The start of our ministry, our diakonia (Lat/Gk). Not only the start but the continuance throughout our life as ordained servants of Christ – as priests and bishops – all of us start by being ordained as deacons.

So let us start by looking the Bible. Hoskyns or Davey (Riddle of the NT) said something like this
“Look into the Greek lexicon and you will find the glory of God”: description of the way Hoskyns went to work, continually discovering new meanings of scripture as he meditated on the words (Greek) of scripture.

The words in Greek are διακονος, διακονείν  and διακονια . General meaning “servant”,
“service”, In Ac 1.17 the ministry of the twelve was described as διακονια.  But Paul called the financial contributions which the people of Macedonia were to make to the poor Christians in Judaea – the “διακονια τής  λειτουργιας ταύτης” (“the ministry of this liturgy)” (2Cor 9.12). This ecclesiastical sounding term (which could well apply to our celebration of the eucharist) was no more than poor relief.
But Paul saw it as the theological demonstration of the unity between Christians everywhere, between Gentiles and Jews. Paul saw that Christian ministry was not primarily concerned with what went on in church, but with meeting the needs of the poor (Not church finances!). Similarly Eph 4.12 says that the work of apostles, prophets and evangelists had as its object “the equipping of God's people for a work of ministry” (διακονια) all Christians are called to be servants of others; all are called to be διακονοι.

There is however a difference between the duty of all and that of the ordained deacon.
Ordination to the diaconate is a sacrament, not simply an authorisation to perform a new kind of work: by the grace of God a deacon is now different from other Christians.

Ordination is primarily not functional but sacramental, and a deacon thus becomes one who is empowered to be a representative of Christ himself and of Christians who are all called to be διακονοι  servants, not only of Christ and fellow-Christians, but of the world. So διακονος is regularly used to refer to liturgical ministers (Phlp 1.1; 1Tm 3.8,12 etc), as shown especially in 2Cor 3.6, where Paul and Timothy (and perhaps others), are described as those whom God “enabled us to be διακονοι  deacons, ministers, of a new covenant (διαθηκη)”. The ordination of deacons is not just a stepping-stone to the presbyterate. According to scripture it is a sacramental rite by which we have been placed in a new relationship both with Christ and with the church. We have been ordained as deacons, servants, ministers.

This leads on to a further thought. The NT cannot be understood without the OT, and the Hebrew of the OT was rendered, even in the time of Jesus, by Greek. The Hebrew עבד was used 780x in OT and was rendered sometimes by διακονος, and sometimes by δουλος. The NT, always influenced by the OT, sometimes uses one word and sometimes another. They have rather different meanings: δουλος means “slave”, someone who belongs entirely to his/her κυριος, lord/master. A slave could scarcely call his soul his own: anything he owned belonged to his master – even his own children! A slave was the opposite of a free person. Διακονος had a wider meaning: it could refer to a δουλος, but it could also be used of any kind of servant or service.

In the NT δουλος means slave, and it could describe any slave. So the significance of the parable of the vineyard (Mt 21.33-41) is shown by the relation between the master (κύριος) and his slaves (δουλοι) who are sent out to do his bidding and who suffer or die as a result, just as the son of the κυριος was “thrown out of the vineyard and killed”. So Paul is fond of speaking of himself as the δουλος of Jesus Christ (Rm 1.1; Gl 1.10; Phlp 1.1) or of God (Tt 1.1), indicating thereby that he belongs to God: his life is truly “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3.3). He is the slave of Christ – a thought often obscured by English translations. It is true that δουλος can also mean “servant”, but its original and proper meaning is “slave”, and in the 1st century this is how it would have been understood.

Of course the true servant of God is Jesus himself: he fulfilled the role of the suffering servant (עבד ) of YHWH in Isaiah, as exemplified in the washing of his disciples' feet, the acted parable of the extent of his act of service culminating in the cross. He was the true representative of Israel who came to be “a light for the gentiles”, “the light of the world” (Jn 8.12). He is the true διακονος, who came “not to receive διακονια but to serve (διακονείν) and to give his life for many” (Mk 10.45). Although the NT does not describe Jesus as a δουλος, it is likely that the title of Jesus as παῖς (Ac 3.13,26; 4.25,27,30) should be rendered like the South African “boy”, meaning “servant” as well as “child”.

In spite of the similarity, there is a difference between a slave and a servant. We ministers, deacons in the church, are called to be both slaves and servants, slaves of Christ because we belong to him, and servants of the world because it is the world that Christ came to save, and we deacons are his agents in bringing fullness of life (salvation) to the world. We are reminded of this vocation by the words of the collect at Matins “to serve you is perfect freedom”, where the Latin original (cui servire regnare) meant “to be his slave is to be a king”.

Cranmer's rendering of the Latin captures the true meaning: we become truly free when we recognise that we are slaves of our κύριος. Paul expresses the paradox: “He who in the Lord is called a slave is a freedman of the Lord, just as the one who is called a free person is the slave of Christ” (1Cor 7.22). A freedman was the legal term for a slave who had gained his freedom, but though a Christian slave may still legally be a slave, Paul means that in Christ he has become free, not because he is legally a freed man but because by his unity with the Lord he is free to serve his Lord. For the Christian true freedom is being free to serve others, freedom for, not freedom from or freedom to do what you like.  The deacon expresses his freedom by his readiness to serve others because he/she recognises himself as a slave of Christ.

What does all this mean for us today? First, it reminds us that though we are slaves of Christ in that we belong to him, yet we have the freedom to use our own gifts and initiative in finding the proper ways in which we can show ourselves as servants of the world. We are not simply liturgical servants operating in church, however important that m ay be. God is not worried about the church so much as about the world: the church is God's servant, his agency to bring fullness of life to those who are in darkness – just as in deutero-Isaiah Israel was called to be the light to the world. So our first need, as priests or bishops, is to recognise who we are – the body of Christ, = the living person of
Christ. True of all the baptized, but esp of those ordained as deacons.

Four short words: “Gladly learn, teach ungrudgingly” (Clem Al). Learn from prayer, from study, from the world around us – go on discovering who you are – so frail & unimportant, selfish and sinful – yet privileged to share in the kingship of Christ as well as in his servanthood. As a result our task is to help others be what the Lord intends them to be. Therefore go on teaching ungrudgingly what you have learnt and discovered - teach by your words uttered, by what you write and what you do, by what you ARE – slaves of Christ yet sharing in his kingship

 

 

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