(Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, by Herbert Boeckl, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)
Readings for the feast day of Philip, Deacon and Evangelist, October 11, 2019:
One of the perks of working as an interim priest is that in three assignments, I’ve gotten to work with four great deacons, all very different in personality and background. Two were nurses. One worked in banking, industry, and as an agent in a medical recruiting firm. One served in the White House office of communications during a previous administration. Yet all of them had one thing in common, and it’s the trait Philip illustrates in our Acts reading today, in the story of the Ethiopian eunuch. They all had a nose for someone in need, and enough self-awareness of their diaconal ministry to find a way to meet that need without hesitation.
Although we traditionally tout the ministry of deacons on December 26, Stephen’s feast day, it’s always good to give a little extra credit to this ministry on the feast day of Philip the Deacon, the “other” Philip, one of the seven appointed to the role in Acts 6. (History and hagiography have had a way of blurring the lines between Philip the Apostle and Philip the Deacon, so it’s probably good to give Philip the Deacon his due.)
When Philip meets the eunuch on the roadside, and hears of his desire to be baptized, thanks be to God Philip didn’t say, “Well, gee, maybe we ought to wait until Easter…” He took the eunuch’s idea (and his earnestness) at face value and baptized him. This story is also a great reminder that evangelism (Yes, I used the “E” word) doesn’t have to be leaving flyers and tracts lying around, or coercing people to come to church. Our friend the eunuch had been out there figuring things out on his own. He dearly wanted to align himself already, in the direction Isaiah was taking him; all he needed was someone to tell him the Good News in Christ, and open the door for him through baptism. It clearly wasn’t for Philip’s benefit–our reading describes Philip suddenly finding himself in Azotus immediately after he baptized the eunuch.
Deacons tend to follow their noses rather than roll things around in their heads. Even if a congregation doesn’t have an ordained deacon, it’s a safe bet even the smallest congregations have at least one person who is out there following his or her nose, putting the church out into the world. These are exactly the people we ought to be tapping on the shoulder and saying, “Hey, is it possible you are called to be a deacon?”
The reality is that our church is chock full of undiscovered deacons, and a thriving 21st century church can use all of them we can discover. Just as history has blurred the lines a little between Philip the Apostle and Philip the Deacon, the church historically has blurred the lines defining the ministry of deacons, confusing the roles of priests and deacons by creating the transitional diaconate as a way station to priesthood. Even though it’s been decades since Ormonde Plater’s writings helped us to rediscover the diaconate as the vocation it was meant to be in the early church, that confusion is still there. Priests still spend a period of time as a transitional deacon. Laity who are already out there following their noses, being diaconal, are not always recognized as good candidates for the diaconate, because they’re not always showing any inclination towards the things we see deacons do on Sunday morning in our liturgy. Deacons are all over the place–yet we are still woefully short of ordained ones. Historically, the formation process has probably been too long, too ponderous, and too expensive, and even though dioceses are working on making the diaconate more accessible, one fact still remains: We don’t tap potential ones on the shoulder enough.
Who are the people in your parish who are known for following their noses and finding people in need, whether it’s food, clothing, or faith? Have you considered pulling them aside and asking, “Hey, have you ever considered the possibility you’re called to be a deacon?”
Maria Evans splits her week between being a pathologist and laboratory director in Kirksville, MO, and gratefully serving in the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri , as the Interim Pastor at Christ Episcopal Church, Rolla, MO.