By Joey Royal
I preached this address at St. Jude’s Cathedral in Iqaluit, Canada, on June 27, when four of my former Arthur Turner Training School students were ordained to the diaconate.
What a wonderful occasion this is! We’re here to witness Esau, Martha, Annie, and Manasee being ordained deacons in the Church of God. I find this occasion especially moving as I spent the last two years teaching them, growing in faith with them, and, yes, learning from them.
The first thing I want to say to the four of you is this: You are here because God called you. It probably feels like you’re here because you (and the bishops) made a choice — or rather a series of choices — to be ordained. On one level that’s true, but there’s more to it. Remember what God said to Jeremiah when he called him to be a prophet? “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart” (Jer. 1:5). That is true of you as well. Before you were born God chose you to serve his Church in a special way, and he kept working with you until you were ready to say Yes to that task, and ready to carry it out.
And so what is this task God has called you to? He’s called you to be a deacon, which means he has called you to be a servant (that’s what deacon means).
In the Gospel text we’re going to read (Mark 10:35-45), Jesus compares two kinds of leadership: what I will call worldly leadership and servant leadership. He describes worldly leaders as those who “lord it over” others and who rule as “tyrants.” These are people who get into position of leadership for selfish reasons, to increase their wealth, their power, their honor, and so on. We see people like this in business world, in government and — sadly — even in families and in churches. This kind of domineering leadership is so common that many people don’t even realize there is another way.
But there is another way, the way of Jesus. This is servant leadership, which Jesus both taught and exemplified. He teaches it all through the Gospels, and our text in Mark is one of the clearest places where he does that. But more importantly, Jesus exemplified it: he consistently modeled servanthood in everything he did. In his life and death, he shows us that he “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). If you want to understand servant leadership, then you will need to observe closely how Jesus lived and how he died.
The disciples in this story failed to grasp this, just as we often fail to grasp it. We see James and John seeking positions of honor in God’s kingdom, wanting to sit on Jesus’ right and left, so that they would be superior to the other apostles. This of course led to anger and division among the apostles, just as it leads to anger and division in the church today.
Christian leadership is servant leadership; it is an imitation of Jesus’ life of servanthood and his sacrificial death for us. Jesus’ entire life was poured out as an offering for others. That is what servanthood means — no more and no less. If we want to be servant leaders in the Church we must strive to enhance the name and reputation of Jesus Christ, and to improve the spiritual and material state of our fellow Christians. This, says Jesus, is the path to greatness.
It is important we don’t misunderstand what Jesus is teaching here. Servant leadership is still leadership, which means we must lead. We cannot be passive or evasive, and we must not be driven by the need to make everyone like us, or always to do what people tell us is most urgent. It doesn’t mean we can retreat when difficult decisions have to be made, nor do we let people walk all over us and manipulate us.
Servant leadership is leadership motivated by love, which means it is leadership that seeks the good of others. And sometimes seeking the good of others means we have to confront them with things they don’t want to be confronted with. It sometimes means we need to have difficult conversations with people. It may mean we need to intervene in a conflict that threatens to escalate and destroy the unity of the Church. It certainly means we will have to forgive and ask for forgiveness ourselves.
The point, though, is that this is all driven by love, which means we are guided by the love of God to imitate Christ in seeking the good of others and the unity of the Church, which is bound together by the Holy Spirit. Christian love is not a feeling but a commitment to treating people in a way that honors them as God’s creation and builds them up in faith.
To lead in this way is to lead as a servant. To lead in this way is to lead as a deacon.
All Christians are called to be servants, so in a sense all Christians are deacons. However, some are called in a particular way to the office of deacon, which is an ordained ministry. In this way, they can lead others and care for them in a more formal capacity.
This goes back to Acts 6, which we will also read tonight. This took place after Jesus had risen, and the apostles — filled with the Holy Spirit — had begun preaching the gospel and seeing many people from all nations converting. But the task of gospel ministry became overwhelming and so the apostles needed help. Most obviously, this arose to prevent widows from being neglected. And so, to meet these sorts of needs, the office of deacon was born. The idea of servant leadership goes back to the beginning of creation, but the office of deacon in the Church was instituted for the first time in Acts 6.
The apostles chose seven men “of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom” (Acts 6:3), people whose lives clearly showed forth the love of Christ, people who embodied servant leadership, and who in a sense were already ministering as deacons: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus. They stood before the apostles, who prayed and laid hands on them. You will do that very thing tonight, and you will be called to the same task of servant leadership that they were called to. (Of course, the first seven were all men, but I should note that there were also female deacons. In Romans 16:1, Paul speaks very highly of a deacon named Phoebe who was a good friend and supporter of Paul and others).
You need to know that being a minister in the Church is neither easy nor safe. It will require you to take risks, and to follow Christ wherever he leads. You never know what kinds of struggles or successes your ministry will involve. Stephen, the first Christian martyr in history, was killed for his faith not long after being ordained. Philip traveled to different regions and preached the gospel, which resulted in the conversion of a famous sorcerer named Simon, as well as the first convert from Ethiopia (which would become a Christian country several centuries later). Tradition has it that Philip later became a bishop. Other revered deacons throughout Church history include Francis of Assisi, who challenged the corruption of the Church and called all Christians to return to humble discipleship, following Jesus Christ in serving the poor and neglected.
Perhaps some of you will lead ministries like these deacons. Only God knows. What is certain, however, is that God will mold you into the image of Christ, so that you too can pour out your life in the service of others.
When a bishop ordains you, it is always so that you can minister in a specific place. In your case, you will minister in the Diocese of the Arctic, which as you know is the largest Anglican diocese in the world. It is of course also one of the most sparsely populated and isolated.
Being a minister in the Arctic has special challenges and blessings. In my experience, the blessings are many: Christians here have a deep faith. They know of the power of God and the need for forgiveness. They are not as corrupted by the secularism of southern Canada, where people are taught that God is optional and largely unimportant. Many Christians in the north have seen miracles and can recall moments where God spoke directly and clearly to them. Many are able to praise and pray in their own language. This is all wonderful, and worth protecting and preserving.
The challenges, however, are many. We are seeing young people influenced by secularism and turning from God. Many people in the north, overwhelmed by generational pain and trauma, are turning to drugs and alcohol, and many lose hope entirely. Many have been abused and have nowhere to turn to deal with their hurts. There is anger, which is sometimes (understandably) directed at the Church.
We know that government programs and the promises of politicians are not the answer. While they can do some good, the real answer is the gospel because the real problem is spiritual. People need hope. People need to know that God loves them, and they need to see that love in action. People need to know that Christ died for them, and that God can forgive them and change their life in surprising ways.
And so, my friends, you are being called to this glorious and wonderful ministry. You are being called to look for people in your community who are neglected and suffering and at risk of being forgotten. They might be elders or youth or the homeless or single mothers. Reach out to these people and show them the love of Christ. You will find this overwhelming because you usually cannot fix people’s problems, much less change their behavior. But you can serve them the way Christ has served you. You can teach and model the gospel to them. In doing this you will fulfill your calling as a deacon.
Of course, most of you will also be leading churches, which means you will preach, visit people, bury the dead, baptize, lead vestry meetings, and so forth. But as you do these things, remember who you are. You are a deacon in the church of God. You are a servant who imitates our Lord and Savior, who is the greatest servant of all.
And remember you are not alone. You have colleagues who are doing similar work. Rely on each other. Pray for one another. And of course you have God’s help. He has promised to never leave you nor forsake you. And he has given you the Holy Spirit, so that the same power that raised Christ from the dead is available to you. You have nothing to fear, because this is Christ’s church and Christ’s ministry. Let him work through you, and be happy that he has called you to such a wonderful task.