When the people heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see the heavens opened and the Human One standing at the right hand of God!" But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he died.
Wow. What a powerful moment for the new Church. One of their own, one of their dearest, the deacon Stephen, pays for his faith with his life. And Saul—soon to be known as Paul—is there as well. It’s like a scene from a serial movie or a murder mystery—this person Saul will become very important to the church indeed—but in a different way than what you expect…
Stephen the deacon. When I began the long journey towards ordination, there were two questions I had to answer to the satisfaction of the committees that interviewed me. The first was, “Is your call to professional ministry? Or can you fulfill your call as a lay person?” This was a very important question, especially since I was a second career pastor. And it is true that there are many people who begin the process towards ordination because others—friends, a trusted pastor, family—encourage them, whether or not the person really feels the call. So that was the first question. The second was just as important, although it might nor seem so at first glance. “Are you called to ordained ministry or to the diaconate?” In the United Methodist Church, the difference is subtle—deacons may lead worship, preach, and teach, but they cannot consecrate the Communion elements, baptize, or marry people. Of course, there are exceptions when a deacon is appointed to act as pastor, but most deacons are never in that position. Deacons are called to a specific kind of service—Christian education, music ministry, administration, youth ministry, and so on. Also, most deacons must find their own positions—they are not appointed to a church as ordained pastors (elders) are. So for me, going through the process in the United Methodist Church, this was a serious question.
I quickly learned the correct answers to the questions about ordained vs. diaconal calling—that diaconal service is a different calling, not better or worse, higher or lower, but simply different. That we all have different gifts, and some of us are gifted with the graces for diaconal service, and some for ordained ministry.
Stephen the martyr. In England, St. Stephen’s Day was traditionally the day boys went out and shot wrens—an echo of Stephen’s martyrdom. Today in Britain and Canada and other Commonwealth countries, it is Boxing Day—the day when you give boxes—gifts—to the post person, to the newspaper deliverer, and so on (it used to be the servant, but nowadays most of us don’t have any).
And that somehow is appropriate. On the day when we remember the death of the disciple who served others, we thank the ones who help us during the year. Who helps you? The people who have helped me over the years--have served me, if you will--include my son’s day care provider, the dry cleaner who is always cheerful, bank teller who remembers to ask me about the church, the server at Tim Horton’s who knows my order by heart (large double double and chocolate chocolate frosted doughnut, if you’re curious). It’s not that I’m better than they are, and so they serve me. It is simply their job. And when the teller comes to church, I serve her. When the dry cleaner needs an ear, and I listen, I’m serving him.
Because the truth is, we all serve each other—or should. Jesus said, “Serve each other.” He gave us the example by washing his disciples’ feet before that last meal together.
Do we allow others to serve us? Or are we so sure that we can do it all ourselves, and that it’s others who need help, never us, that don't let someone else do for us? Are we so arrogant that we cannot accept a gift from someone? I have learned that sometimes the greatest gift is simply accepting the gift.
So serve. And just as importantly, allow yourself to be served.