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Good Standing and Great Boldness

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 25, 2012.

Deacon Ordination and Installation

Psalm 67:1-7; 1 Timothy 3:8-13

I wonder, whenever Paul took his quill in hand – or whatever he may have used as a writing instrument – and wrote the word deacon, if he felt a twinge of guilt. You see, the Book of Acts identifies the man named Stephen as one of the very first deacons in the early church. Stephen, if you are familiar with the story, was  martyred for his bold faith (Acts 6).

According to the way the story is told, there was a man named Saul who held the coats of those who did the stoning of Stephen. By holding their coats, he is obviously giving assent to what is taking place. In other words, he is as culpable for Stephen’s death as are those who actually threw the stones and performed the dirty deed.

Yes, the man known as Saul is the very same Paul who was dramatically converted on the road to Damascus, who is so prominently portrayed in the New Testament epistles, and who was responsible for taking the gospel of Christ to the Gentiles. I guess it could easily be argued that he wasn’t the same person, not after having been accosted by Christ, that is. Maybe that is why he so openly stated that he was not only a sinner but the foremost of sinners, saved by the unmerited grace of Jesus Christ.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder if Paul, also known as Saul, ever felt guilty for what he did.

When he wrote letters to his young friend and colleague Timothy, giving him instruction as to how to lead his church, and when he came to this discussion of the role of the deacons in the church, did Paul stop his writing, sit back in his chair, and with misty eyes recall that fateful day when he thought he was doing that which was right but now he knows was so terribly wrong? I wonder if Paul ever wondered if Stephen might be looking down on him from heaven, still forgiving him for his treacherous deed. Did the final words of Stephen continue to echo painfully in Paul’s ears… “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”? I wonder if that might not have been the thorn in the flesh Paul so famously talked about. It was his sense of guilt for having done such a terrible thing.

There isn’t any evidence of the possibility that Paul felt this way, but he gave Timothy several criteria for the position of deacon, and at the heart of it are these two: deacons are to be people of good standing and are to exhibit great boldness in their faith. “Great boldness.” That describes Paul pretty well, doesn’t it? I wonder if Paul’s great boldness was a result of what he first witnessed in Stephen, the man who died at Paul’s feet. Did he replace any sense of guilt he might have had with boldness?

It’s interesting that Paul should mention boldness. You see, when the role of deacon was first initiated in the early church, it is because the people in the church were grumbling that the apostles were ignoring the widows and the hungry. So, seven men were set aside to fill the role of table waiters, as servants. After all, that is what the word deacon means…servant. Keep your head down, do the job you’ve been assigned, don’t make waves, make sure you’re seen and not heard, and clean up the church’s messes that the apostles don’t have time for or the inclination to do. That was the role of the deacon.

And then a strange thing happened. The deacons, or at least a couple of them, decided they were called to proclaim the gospel too, just like the apostles. Stephen the martyr was one of them, and then there was Philip who converted – and baptized! imagine that… baptized! – the Ethiopian Eunuch out in the wilderness. You know what that means? It means they didn’t stick to the boundaries assigned to them, the box of confinement that had been given them. And one of them, Stephen, got stoned to death for his trouble.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to take some liberties with that, which may even fly in the face of some of the things Paul said deacons ought to do and be in the early church. If you have a problem with this, you can take it up with me later, but frankly, don’t expect me to come around to your way of thinking. I take this whole scenario – the stories of the deacons in the Book of Acts, as well as Paul’s instructions to his colleague Timothy – to mean that when it comes to deacon ministry there are no boundaries, there are no rules. I may get in trouble for saying this, but I think this church needs to give you deacons the permission to go out and live your faith the way you feel led by God’s Spirit to do it without our creating a box in which you have to fit. We will not, or at least should not, restrict you or hold you to a standard that we have conjured up by virtue of our limited vision and understanding.

Like Stephen and Philip, go do your thing. But whatever you do, do it in good standing and with great boldness.

What does that mean? Well, somehow I have a hard time envisioning these seven people, or any of our other deacons for that matter, whipping out the Four Spiritual Laws every time they fill up their cars with gas or buy groceries or go to the mall, forcing it upon the unsuspecting. In fact, I won’t do that myself. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be bold in sharing our faith.

A child once noticed that a woman wore a necklace with a cross. The young child said to her, “Your religion is showing.” Does your religion show? Is your word your word? Do your deeds match your conviction? Do you care for those who are not like you, do not have what you have, look at life from a perspective you don’t necessarily share? That’s the kind of people who are out there. And they won’t come to us first; we have to take our gospel to them. Do we do that by displaying our faith?

Paul also says that deacons must be serious. That doesn’t mean you must have a dour personality. I can tell you that Debbie Rogers, our newly-ordained Deacon, isn’t dour. One of my earliest remembrances after coming here in 1996 was when I was hauling books from the church’s trailer to my new office. The church council was meeting in the room adjacent to the sanctuary, the one that now is used for the handbells. The door was open as I came by. Etched in my memory was the sight of Debbie, sitting in on the meeting, laughing heartily at something someone said. No, she is not dour. In this context, seriousness refers to a thoughtful, bold, caring response to the needs of those you meet and the challenges with which you are confronted. Does your religion show?

People should be able to see our manner of speech, our behavior, the way we respond to crises and difficulties, how we relate to others, and instinctively know why we speak and behave and respond and relate the way we do. And, if they come to believe that all of this is due to our faith in Christ, we have given the best of all possible witnesses to the faith that is ours. Paul would refer to that, I think, as good standing and great boldness.

I guess what that means is that when it comes to being deacons – but please don’t think that because you are not a deacon this doesn’t apply to you as well – you are to give Christ your very best.

Will Campbell, in his autobiography entitled Brother to a Dragonfly, tells about his Grandma Bettye. She lived with Will and the rest of the family in Mississippi.

She sat on the pew that ran crosswise

to the congregation.

Right up front. With Miss Emma, Miss Lola, Miss Eula,

Aunt Donnie, Aunt Ida,

not one of them either “Miss” or “Aunt,” but old, like

Grandma was old.

For old began at thirty.

And she wore the flannel bathrobe to church

the very first Sunday after Christmas.

Because it was the prettiest thing she

had ever seen,

and the Lord deserved the best.

And because it was 1933

and she didn’t have a bathroom.

Good standing and great boldness. Give it your best, let your religion show, and if you will do that, God will bless you for it. In fact, God will use you as a blessing to this church and the community it serves. And that will be a good thing, don’t you think?

Lord, bless these we have set aside today. Walk beside them and guide them, and in our hearts may we all live with good standing and great boldness. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.