Today we are going to look at the third characteristic of the church, diakonia, “service.”
To begin with, we need to make an important distinction. Familiarity with scripture should not blind us to some things considered normal in the Bible which are now rightly considered wrong and sinful. Often in the past the Bible has been used to justify — one is tempted to say sanctify — things which were wrong. I am thinking here specifically of slavery, which is part of the worldview of the Bible and was considered part of God’s ordering of human society by Christians for centuries.
Which brings us back to diakonia. It is interesting and extremely important to note that the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, differentiate between diakonia, “service,” (and diakonos, “one who serves, ministers, an office in the Church) which Jesus demands of his followers and which he uses to describe himself (Luke 22:27) and douleia, “slavery” (and doulos, “slave”). Slavery is mentioned in the NT, which most often accepts it as a fact of life with little or no comment. However, one notices that slavery is not seen as a Gospel value. Matthew 20:26-28 is significant: “Whoever wishes to be great among you, must be your servant (diakonos); whoever among you who would be leader, must be your slave (doulos), even as the Son of Man came not to be served (diakonēthēnai) but to serve (diakonēsai).” The ideal is Jesus, who is one who serves; slavery is not the norm or goal.
Diakonia, service, is the primary characteristic of the ministry of Jesus and the disciples in the Gospel. As the one who “came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus “teaches in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing all kinds of diseases and illnesses” (Matt. 4:23-25). In Luke’s Gospel (4:14-30) Jesus begins his ministry in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town. He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me…to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favor from the Lord…”
and he declares,
“This text is being fulfilled today.”
Throughout the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’s ministry consists in the Messianic service of proclaiming the Good News, teaching, the healing of sickness and the driving out of demons (Matt 4:23-25; Mk 3:7-12; Luke 6:17-19, etc.) However, preaching, healing and driving out demons are also used regularly in the Gospels to describe the service of the Twelve and the other disciples (Mark 3:13-19; Matt 10:1; Luke 9:1; etc.) Diakonia, service, therefore, is the way that Jesus describes not only his own ministry but also that of his followers.
However, diakonia is more than what one does. It is also an attitude — one with which the Twelve and the disciples constantly struggled. For example, when Luke presents the disciples wondering who among them was the greatest — this, at the Last Supper! — Jesus rebukes them and reminds them that he is among them as one who serves (diakonōn) (Luke 22
In Acts chapter 6, there is the somewhat odd story of Greek-speaking Christian widows being neglected in “the daily distribution (diakonia)” of goods. The Apostles appoint seven men (all with Greek names) to take care of these widows. Traditionally this is seen as the institution of the office of the deacon in Christianity. Through the institution of the diaconate, the first generation of Christians institutionalized service.
In dealing with the notion of diakonia, service, as one of the characteristics of the church, several things are especially important to note.
First and foremost, diakoniais a characteristic of Jesus and his incarnation. Service is something that Jesus demands of his followers. It is also a characteristic which his followers seem to need to work on constantly.
Six times in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, we find the disciples arguing among themselves over who was the greatest. There is one account of the “sons of Zebedee,” i.e. James and John, trying to outmaneuver the other ten by getting places at the right and left of Jesus (Mark 10:35-45). In Matthew 20:20-23 they get their mother to do it!
Diakonia puts the other and the needs of others first. Perhaps 20 centuries of Christianity also highlights a characteristic of diakonia that has encountered resistance since the time of the Apostles. Diakonia is not status-conscious; it does not seek the first place in anything. It always seeks the good of the other first.
Diakonia is the last of the “characteristics” of the Church we will discuss. Diakonia, “service,” lacks the complexity of koinonia, “solidarity;” it does not have extra layers put on its original meaning like martyria, “witness.” It is, nevertheless, clear that it is at the heart of who Jesus was and what his ministry was about.
Put simply: service puts the Other first and puts the Self second. Service does not seek recognition, to say nothing or prestige, much less power.
In many places in CNEWA’s world diakonia shines brightly. If we are honest, it is very often shining brightest among women who are serving refugees, the sick, the uneducated, the exploited and abused — sexually and otherwise. One thinks, as one of many examples, of the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena in Iraq. When ISIS attacked the Plains of Nineveh, these women became refugees, accompanying their fellow Christians to exile in Kurdish Iraq. There, while living in tents and container trucks, they set up schools, clinics, youth and women’s groups. Their service received no prestige, fame, recognition or power. For the most part, even their names are not known outside where they serve. Each one of them is simply there as “one who serves” (Luke 22:27).
With diakonia, service, we close our series. It is perhaps the least exotic and most “every day” of the three characteristics. But it leaves us with this interesting challenge: this is essentially a prime characteristic of Christianity, the one which Jesus used to describe himself and his ministry.
It is also the characteristic that from the very beginning his followers have struggled with varied success to embody.