Commemoration of Philip the Deacon
When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, men pretty much did everything. The preacher was male, the ushers were too. And then there were the gentlemen who passed out the communion elements (platters of bread cubes and containers with tiny individual cups of grape juice), and other things like going to meetings periodically. These were the deacons, chosen and elected by the congregation as leaders and examples of living Christian lives. My adoptive father held several terms as a deacon in that church. He took his job seriously, and, I believe, was exemplary in helping others, doing what was right even if others didn’t quite agree, and loving his Lord completely.
Philip the Deacon was another such person. He was a follower of Jesus, and worked within the new community of the Way when he, along with six others, were chosen by the disciples to help serve and care for the less fortunate, oversee the distribution of foodstuffs fairly and equitably, and whatever else the disciples asked them to do. When the persecutions began it was a signal for many to leave, especially those who were in leadership positions. Philip travelled to Samaria where his preaching and teaching encouraged many converts. Peter and John came from Jerusalem to officially lay hands on the converts and imbue them with the Holy Spirit as Philip watched. Later, he met an Ethiopian eunuch who needed an interpreter to explain a passage of scripture. Philip provided the necessary information and the eunuch himself requested baptism. Later it was said Philip lived in Caesarea Maritima with four unmarried daughters who were prophetesses and hosted a visit from the former persecutor who became an apostle, Paul.
Some Southern Baptist churches, being somewhat autonomous, have begun allowing women to be elected as deacons, a great departure from most others in the denomination. In the Episcopal church, being raised to the office of deacon is a more complicated procedure, involving discernment on the part of the candidate and his/her congregation, courses of study (of which Education for Ministry, EfM, can be one source), meetings, retreats, background checks, examinations and, most visibly, work within the church as directed by the bishop and the rector to whom the candidate is assigned . It takes several years and in the end, the new deacon is entitled to wear the collar and add “The Rev.” to their name. In return, they have ministries that they are personally called to pursue such as serving chaplaincies, working with the homeless, immigrants, and members of various age groups, etc. Above all, they are called to maintain healthy spiritual habits like daily prayer and frequent corporate worship.
Some years ago I attended an ordination at our cathedral. The candidate was a slight African-American woman, soft spoken, quick to laugh and with a quiet confidence. Watching her and knowing her, it seemed pretty clear that God had a hand of blessing laid on the top of her head; that ordination just confirmed it. Even before the stole was laid across her shoulder, she glowed. Ok, maybe she didn’t look like the Jesus nightlight my spouse used to have, but there was an almost visible aura around her. I see her occasionally and each time I am struck again by that sense of an invisible hand of blessing on the top of her head and a feeling of being in the presence of a holy and dedicated human being. She preaches, but her best sermons are the ones people see in her actions and care for God’s creation, reflecting her love of God and God’s love for her.
I wonder if Philip had the same effect on people that the deacon (who is now an archdeacon) has on me each time I see her. Did people feel drawn to him, sense the presence of God surrounding him, see the love of Jesus within him, and the power and grace of the Holy Spirit showing through him? Were those the things that made him successful in Samaria and other places where he lived and worked?
Did Philip continue his diaconal duties once he moved to Caesarea? Did he find a new mission field to cultivate? Did he still serve the widows at the table, or did he serve at another table in another way? Deacons aren’t limited to only one focus of attention or one set of duties. They, like the rest of us, may find that at some point in time they are called to a new mission, a new job, in a new field of endeavor. They may discover that they have a passion that meets the world’s needs in some heretofore unknown way, unknown at least to them. Sometimes, like most of us, deacons will juggle many jobs — administration, teaching and counseling among them — but always they are to be attuned to God’s will and God’s way.
The foundation of a strong church is the laity who fill its pews and various ministries, led by the Spirit and guided by trained specialists who are also lay persons but also by the ordained clergy. Each lay person is a minister by virtue of his/her baptism but some are called to another, more dedicated service. The deacons, like priests and bishops, originally come from the laity and, in turn, will both serve the church, both lay and clerical, and those in the world who are in need. Some deacons will continue on the ordination track to become priests and, perhaps, bishops, yet many will choose to be and remain deacons. They will preach, teach and serve in various ways, sometimes visible, sometimes almost invisibly, yet their service will be making a difference in the lives of those they serve. They will have the example of the faith of Stephen, the first martyr and the only other deacon named in Acts. They will also have the example of the life, travels and service of Philip.
If I could wish for a calling, I think I’d wish to be a deacon. God hasn’t called me to it and I’d undoubtedly make a lousy one, but I admire those who are both called and dedicated to the job. A verse from 2 Timothy gives all of us the guidance to “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved by him, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly explaining the word of truth” (2:15, NRSV). It is a good verse for all of us to contemplate, but most especially those called to ordained ministry.
Deacons are often the ones who remind us at the end of each Sunday service to “Go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.” It’s a charge for all of us equally. It’s a reminder that we are all followers of Jesus who encouraged all of us to be servants of each other and to the world.