May 22, 2011 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

The first reading is particularly meaningful to us deacons because it relates to the foundation of our ministry. The apostles realize that they need assistants, servants, to help them with the enormous task in front of them. When Jesus walked on earth, he had the twelve apostles to assist him, so now when the apostles are in charge, they need servants too. So they choose seven reputable men, filled with the Spirit and Wisdom. These men were called servants, which in the Greek language is “Diaconos.”

These deacons were not ordinary servants, as is clear from the reading. The Apostles prayed and laid hand on them. This is a sign of handing over some of the power and authority that they received from Jesus. So it is now today that we repeat this same process. Our bishop is a successor of the Apostles, but he cannot serve our entire diocese alone, so, like the apostles, he has laid hands on certain men who have been chosen, sharing the power and authority that he received when he became a bishop. So it was four years ago that the bishop laid his hands on my head, and I became a deacon, a servant.

A deacon serves the people of God in many ways. We can look back to the Acts of the Apostles to see how a deacon should serve. First of all, he should be a reputable man. If a deacon sins, it is his own sin, but it reflects badly on the Church. A deacon then must avoid sin on account of his own reputation and on account of the Church’s reputation. More than merely avoiding scandal, a deacon should represent the Church he serves well. He must be filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom. He must be an example to the whole community of what each member of the community should be.

This is a high calling, and surely many deacons have fallen short. We look to some of the great deacons in the history of the Church for an example of how a sinful man can fulfill this high calling. First of all, we consider Stephen, the first deacon named of these first seven deacons. We see how he was unafraid to preach the Gospel, even when it meant that his death. He was the first martyr. As he was being killed, he forgave those who were throwing stones at him. We see the second deacon named here, Philip, who was a great preacher. He is seen throughout the Acts of the Apostles, following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. There are other deacons who have done remarkable things, like Ephrem and Lawrence and Francis. 

The continuing importance of deacons in our present day is clear. We have only to consider the problem that occasioned the original foundation. There was a charity program in the early Christian community, where widows were provided food each day. Some of the Christians were natives of Jerusalem and spoke Aramaic. Other Christians were immigrants and spoke Greek. The immigrants were complaining that their widows were not receiving the food that they should have gotten. The job of the deacons was to make sure that justice was being done.

Today, in our own churches in America, we experience the same problem as the early Christians did. Even though we are all Christians, we are still divided between those who are immigrants and those who are natives, we are still divided above all because of language. The solution of the early Christians can still be a solution today. If we look at the names of the first seven deacons, we see that they were probably chosen from the immigrants who were complaining about injustice.

We need more deacons today, both Deacons, in terms of the ministry, and servants in general. If you see injustice in the Church, the first question must be, “What am I doing to correct it myself?” If some Christians are not being served as they should be, have you considered becoming their servant? It is easy to complain that other people are not doing something correctly, but who will listen if you are not doing anything at all? The best way each of us can reform the Church is to be reformed ourselves, by the Holy Spirit, and then be part of the Church.     

When St. Francis wanted to reform the Church, he did not go to conferences or protest in the streets. He became a deacon and began serving the poor in the way that he knew they should be served. This kind of work is not as satisfying in the short term. It might be more fun to march in the streets, but it is more practical if you yourself become the change you want to see in the world. When the poor or immigrants are ignored by the government, take care of them. Sometimes we need to march in the street, sometimes there is an unjust law that has got to be changed, but we should not be fooled into believing that the best work is done by changing the government.

What we need to learn to do is waste our lives serving others. You and I have been given a certain number of years on this earth. We do not know how many we have left, but we know that it will probably not be as many as we expect. We stand, holding our lives in our own hands, each year like a coin. What will we spend these coins on?  How will we spend our lives? We can hold onto them so tightly; we can spend our lives trying to be as happy as possible with the things of this world, or we can spend our lives serving others; we can waste our lives serving others. If this earth were our entire life, it would be foolish to waste it, but if heaven exists, if we have riches of infinite years ahead of us, we can afford to waste these hundred or so years.   

Earth is earth and not heaven. It cannot satisfy our desires. Our desire for happiness is so strong, because our happiness someday will be equal to our desire. It is possible to be happy here on earth, so long as our lives are oriented completely toward heaven. Every one of us is a rich person. Each of us has a treasure in heaven that makes whatever we hold onto here on earth seem like Monopoly money. If we remember this, we will not be afraid to spend these coins, to spend our lives, doing nothing more than serving others.