Jesus asks, ‘Who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table?’ Jesus’ own answer, however, negates the expected response, bluntly asserting, ‘But I am among you as one who serves.’
The saint we honor today – Phoebe – is a woman who Paul names as ‘a deacon of the church at Cenchreae.’ The call of a deacon is to serve, and Phoebe does. She is entrusted by Paul to carry his letter to the five house churches in Rome, and Paul commends her to them. Being entrusted to carry this important letter to gatherings of people whom Paul has never met and that include both Jewish and gentile converts is a huge responsibility. Besides delivering the missive, Phoebe is expected to read the letter to the different churches, and then to help them interpret what Paul is saying.
Arguments continue to fly over whether naming Phoebe as a diákonos, a deacon (the only woman named as such in the New Testament), signifies that she was an officially ordained deacon appointed to serve the church in Cenchreae, or whether Paul’s use of the word diákonos here implies instead that she served as an exemplary minister of Christ, but not in an ordained capacity. As an ordained deacon myself for the past 22 years, my heart goes out to Phoebe, hoping that she is somehow able to ‘rest in peace’ amid the ongoing tussles over who and what she was, and what it means for the rest of us.
I actually wonder how much it matters what Phoebe’s ‘official’ role was. Clearly she served as a trusted servant of Christ. It’s what we’re all called to be and to do. Not being ordained doesn’t let anyone off the hook. Our Baptismal Covenant elicits the promise that, as followers of Jesus, we will ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons,’ following his example of servant ministry.
Some years ago now, Episcopal deacons created a document that focuses on the servant ministry (the diakonia) of all who profess to be Christian. It begins: ‘Diakonia is not optional in the Gospel of Jesus Christ; rather it is an essential part of discipleship. Diakonia reaches out to all persons created in God’s image, and all of God’s creation. While diakonia begins in unconditional service to neighbor in need, it leads inevitably through advocacy and prophetic proclamation to bear witness in word and deed to God’s presence in the midst of our lives.’ In other words, diakonia isn’t about ordained ministry, but about following Jesus, about being in the world “as one who serves.”
This makes me think of the Sunday mornings after church when I get to watch children working side by side with adults in such activities as writing notes and arranging flowers for shut-ins, making ‘bee houses’ to attract bees to our Memorial Garden, baking bread for communion, crafting prayer flags to hang at the busy corner of our property: serving the lonely, the created world, and the church, while also bearing witness to the wider world through their prayer flags. There are plenty of other intergenerational activities, including picnics and adventures and play, but I love that serving is interwoven into the faith formation of our children.
All of this is why I appreciate the ambiguity that surrounds Phoebe, the reminder that what matters isn’t her title but her ministry, her willingness to make the long and arduous journey from Cenchreae to Rome, carrying Paul’s words to the five churches who weren’t necessarily getting along, to be emissary and peacemaker and servant. She is a reminder that all of us, from the youngest child to an aging grandmother like me, are called to serve others in the name of Jesus, using the gifts God has given us.
And I also love that one of our stained glass windows actually shows Jesus wearing a deacon’s stole, reminding us that besides being our Lord and Savior, Jesus himself remains among us ‘as one who serves.’