“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Mark 10:43-45
I had been ordained a priest for five years when I realized that being a deacon is something that continues throughout ministry; that just as a bishop never ceases to have a priestly ministry, so a priest never ceases to have a diaconal ministry.
It was the autumn of 1992 in a small country parish in Northern Ireland and I was in a confrontation with a local doctor, whom I had called to the house of a parishioner I believed to be very ill.
He glared at me across a very dimly lit room, “I want to make it clear that I am calling an ambulance purely for social reasons and not for clinical ones. He has a chest infection, he does not need a hospital bed”.
I nodded meekly. I had been brought up to believe doctors, policemen and schoolmasters, ranked only slightly lower than God himself, and I was not about to argue.
Bob, my parishioner, lay in bed looking bewildered; his breath came in short, sharp rasps. He was eighty-eight years old, a widower with no family. He lived in a three roomed cottage. The room was so dimly lit because he worried about having enough money to pay the bills; he had a single, bare 15 watt bulb in the socket that hung from an old and frayed black flex.
The paramedics could have taught the doctor about bedside manner. They put Bob in a chair and gently carried him to the ambulance outside; Bob’s front door opened directly onto the country road.
Bob died from pneumonia the following afternoon.
“What did he die from?” asked a neighbour that evening.
“Social reasons according to the GP”, I said.
Had we been more assertive at an earlier date; had we demanded that something be done before he had become so weak; he might not have ended his days gasping for breath at home and then frightened and alone in a country hospital. A few weeks previously, the local social services office had reduced his home help hours from three hours to two hours a week: the home help could only come for twenty minutes a day instead of half an hour. A man of 88 in poor health, living alone, and with no family, did not merit more than 20 minutes’ assistance a day.
We live in times when the story of Bob could be told many times over. When the mismanagement of national wealth and the resulting cutbacks and have left countless people stranded and voiceless;
When the statutory agencies have failed, who is there left to speak? Politicians? Journalists? Community workers? Certainly, but for them it is a matter of choice.
There’s one group whose job description is a mandate for justice and mercy; one group who daily encounter people like Bob; one group of people who too often are too quiet; one group of people who have a duty to say uncomfortable and disturbing, and even troublesome things, in defence of the vulnerable.
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant”, says Jesus. The Greek word he uses for servant is ‘diakonos’, our word ‘deacon’. The Prayer Book sets forth the duties of those to be ordained as deacon in plain terms:
“Deacons have a special responsibility to ensure that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility. They are to strengthen the faithful, search out the careless and the indifferent, and minister to the sick, the needy, the poor and those in trouble”.
“To ensure that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility”: that diaconal ministry, that ministry of servanthood, is the duty of all clergy. The Gospel passage we read is just one text amongst many that could be adduced that leave us without any doubt as what is the mark of true ministry. This is not a matter of social conscience or politics, this is about a biblical and a theological imperative to serve others. Let us be clear, to fail to serve those in need is to fail the ministry to which we have been called.
Why is this so? Why must we be servants? Why can we not just do the usual things of church life; the services, the sermons, the music, the administration, the organizations, all the ordinary things of parish life? Why must we get involved in the awkward business of people’s rights and people’s welfare? Why get involved in arguments? Why risk being unpopular? Isn’t it much easier to be nice to everyone; to be benign and never to give offence? Isn’t it easier never to raise a voice? Isn’t it easier never to ask difficult questions? Of course it is, but servanthood is about truth and righteousness, and servanthood is at the heart of what we believe.
Our God is a servant God, he gives himself as a servant to others. The most famous line in the Bible is Saint John Chapter 3 and verse 16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son”. Jesus comes to us as a servant, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” When the Holy Spirit comes down on the believers in Acts Chapter 2, they are empowered to serve others, “All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need”.
Service is not something optional, something we take on if we have time after we have done all the other things of parish life, service is part of our understanding of the nature of God himself. Ministry not rooted in servanthood is ministry that is not rooted in God; it is ministry that is not rooted in the life of the Trinity, as that Trinity is revealed to us in Scripture. To refuse to be servants is to deny the nature of God; it is to fail the most basic test of what it means to be an orthodox Christian. At a time when the Anglican Communion is tearing itself apart on what it considers to be ‘orthodox’, we should be looking at God himself and asking, what are the marks of a church that truly reflects God?
If ministry that is orthodox is ministry rooted in service, then more and more ministry that is effective is going to demand a church that recognizes that it has been sent as a servant.
The medieval Christendom way of doing things, where the church assumed a right to dictate to people what they should believe, and how they should behave, has been swept away forever. The social and economic revolution in the last generation; the extraordinary changes in communications technology; the corrosive effect of the foul evils documented in the reports on child abuse; these have torn to shreds the last vestiges of ecclesiastical authority. It endured here in Ireland much longer than in many places. No longer can we presume to tell people anything; they will no longer believe things because we tell them it is so; they will no longer obey rules because we tell them they should do so.
We are the first generation in centuries where the church has been brought to a Christlike powerlessness; where we have nothing with which to confront the world except the Good News of Jesus. We can no longer compel, we should never have been able to do so; all we can do is to try to persuade.
People will look at the church and ask, ‘why should I believe what you say?’ And all we have to offer in response is the story of Jesus and if we do not live out that story, if they do not look at us and see us living as Jesus lived, if they do not see us as servants, they will say to us, ‘No, thank you. If you cannot live by the standards you preach, then why should we listen to you?’
The words of the ordination service are not just words for those being ordained today, they are words for the entire church, clerical and lay, if people do not see us as servants, then they will attach no credibility to our ministry, or to our church. “To ensure that those in need are cared for with compassion and humility”: this is not an option; it is not something that we would like to do, if we had the time and resources; it is not something where General Synod might appoint a committee to write a report; this is at the heart of true ministry, this is at the heart of being the church; this is at the heart of being like Jesus.
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Sermon at the ordination of deacons at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on Sunday, 21st June 2009