A Homily, delivered to the Deacons of the ELCA’s Region 9
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who came not to be served but to serve. Amen.
On Maundy Thursday, 2013, Francis, then the newly elected Bishop of Rome, celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. The time came for the foot-washing rite, and the new pope removed his chasuble before adjusting his stole, setting it on his left shoulder, crossing his chest, and hanging at his right hip. (I would say that the symbolism was obvious, but I didn’t notice he was essentially vested as a deacon until Deacon Adrainne Gray posted about it on social media.)
More than the stole, Francis also dramatically expanded the ritual to include women for the first time in the Vatican’s recorded history. Both of these are habits Francis developed during his time as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and every year in his papacy, he has extended the rite to include more and more people on the margins of the Church: women, inmates, home-bound elders, and even Muslim refugees.
In Francis’ action, there is a reminder that historically, deacons were the first order – not only the first mentioned by name in Acts but also the one to which all presbyters and bishops would be ordained first. In this ancient understanding, every pastor and bishop is first and forever a deacon, a servant of the Most High God. Even the Pope, with all of the wealth, political power, pomp, and circumstance of the Vatican, is first and foremost called to be a servant of all, exemplified by the washing of feet.
Or, as theologian and Catholic deacon William Ditewig puts it in his 2014 reflection on Maundy Thursday:
In this act of washing feet, we are imitating Christ the Servant, Christ the Deacon, who was pouring out his life for others just as he was pouring out the water over the feet of his disciples. It’s all about diakonia.
And in this way, the deacon’s particular liturgical role reflects the vocation of the entire Church: that we are charged with bearing the Gospel into the midst of the people, bringing Christians into the Body of Christ through the waters of Baptism, carrying that same Body into a world that hungers and thirsts for righteousness, and sending the assembled saints out in peace to love and serve the Lord. And it is this vital liturgical role that informs the work that many of y’all lead the Church in performing outside the Divine Service: putting into action the Good News of liberation through Christ, of being the Body of Christ for the sake of the world, of serving the Lord our God through serving our neighbors.
The Church’s entire ministry is one of service because our ministry is rooted in Christ, who, though he is God-Made-Flesh, emptied himself out. Our Lord is the Servant King who condescends to take on human form, to wash his disciples’ feet, and even to suffer death on the cross.
But the story doesn’t end there. If it did, if the Gospel were all about servitude and our bondage to the powers of sin and death, then we are most to be pitied.
No, the Good News we have been called to proclaim is that Christ has shattered the tombstone and rent the chains of sin. In the glory of Christ’s Resurrection, Jesus has set us free for diakonia to God, to neighbor, to one another, to those we would rather push to the margins, and even to our enemies. United into new life with Christ through the waters of baptism, we are perfectly free, no longer subjugated by sin or death. Liberated from deathly sin, we are free to be perfectly dutiful servants of all.
We are free to pour ourselves out, knowing that we will be replenished by the infinite grace of Christ our Risen Savior. In Word, in Sacrament, even in Elijah’s “sound of sheer silence,” our Risen Lord is coming to us, strengthening us and sending us out like the apostles before us.
During this long Lenten pilgrimage, when the days grow longer, the work hours stack up and the time off is hard to come by, when the printer breaks at just the wrong time, when everything seems to be going wrong, when a virus sews chaos in the world, when storms ravage neighborhoods, when the hospice visit and the funeral fall in the middle of Holy Week, when the budget is shrinking almost as fast as the needs are multiplying, when it would just be easier to keep quiet about racism and misogyny that infests our pews and even our colleagues, when we face the temptation to rule rather than to serve,
when we want to simply wash our hands of this whole sinful world, remember who you are: beloved children of the Triune God set free for loving service. And take heart, for the Incarnate Word is pouring himself into us, strengthen us with grace that we might endure.