It’s not long before the Church has to start to take formal shape – the work of caring for everyone, or even of organising the care for everyone, is too much for the apostles to do if they are to be able to carry on their main role, of teaching and preaching. So they ask the church to select the first deacons, with the condition being that they are of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. They’re being called to practical ministry, not to teaching, but still they need the Spirit and wisdom. Then the apostles lay hands on them to commission them for their work.
I’ve just been at our annual Archdeacon’s Visitation, where our churchwardens, chosen by the congregation, are commissioned by the Archdeacon and admitted to office for the coming year. In many ways, their ministry feels a bit like that of the deacons of Acts – dealing wisely with the practical stewardship of the church, working with the clergy to ensure that together we lead the people of God in this parish in God’s way.
Perhaps when we formally pray for them in front of the congregation, it would be good to lay hands on them and pray for the Spirit’s guidance. I’ll think about it!
One of those deacons, Stephen, had a short ministry.
As he stands before the mob (with a certain young man called Saul holding the coats of the ones who actually do the killing) Stephen preaches. And given that he doesn’t exactly have a lot of time to play with, we might question his starting point. He doesn’t go straight to talking about Jesus, or calling his hearers to repentance. And of course he doesn’t plead for his life.
Instead, he tells the mob a story they already know – going right back to Abraham, and rattling through the whole Old Testament – leading up to Jesus, the latest and greatest of those who have brought the word of God to Israel and been rejected. I heard an interview with the American Franciscan Richard Rohr recently, where he pointed out that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are unusual among the sacred texts of world religions in that a large part of them can be summed up as ‘look at all the ways we’ve messed up.’
Stephen tells the story that the mob already knows, but in a way that makes it clear that their part in that story isn’t the glorious one they’ve assumed it to be. It’s a well-worn track of refusing to listen to God, and drowning him out with violence when necessary.
They now turn that violence on Stephen, and he sees Christ welcoming him to eternal life.
Perhaps we could do more of our evangelism by telling people their own story, and helping them to see from a different angle. Admittedly it didn’t end up that well for Stephen, but it may be worth a try…