The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Holy Communion      1st July 2018
The Deacon and the touch of love
Jeremy Fletcher

Mark 5. 21 - end


An Archdeacon I knew, now I’m sure sorting out the terriers and inventories of the heavens, had a favourite saying. “Constant change is here to stay.” It’s never more true than today, and for Ayla. After a whirlwind few days – never please think that an ordination retreat is anything but gruelling – and a long ordination service Ayla something new - a deacon in the Church of God – a new minister here at what the order of service calls “St John-at-Hampstead (Hampstead Parish Church)”. This is a new beginning for us all.

I’d like to read you what the Bishop said in the ordination service about the ministry of the deacon. Listen carefully.

Deacons are called to work with the Bishop and the priests with whom they serve as heralds of Christ’s kingdom. They are to proclaim the gospel in word and deed, as agents of God’s purposes of love. They are to serve the community in which they are set, bringing to the Church the needs and hopes of all the people. They are to work with their fellow members in searching out the poor and weak, the sick and lonely and those who are oppressed and powerless, reaching into the forgotten corners of the world, that the love of God may be made visible.

Deacons share in the pastoral ministry of the Church and in leading God’s people in worship. They preach the word and bring the needs of the world before the Church in intercession. They accompany those searching for faith and bring them to baptism. They assist in administering the sacraments; they distribute communion and minister to the sick and housebound.

Deacons are to seek nourishment from the Scriptures; they are to study them with God’s people, that the whole Church may be equipped to live out the gospel in the world. They are to be faithful in prayer, expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.

What is Ayla called to, and what are we here to help her do, and do ourselves?

Bishop Sarah was keen to stress the ministry of the deacon as one who reaches into “the forgotten corners of the world.” This ministry is personal, practical, physical, pastoral, proclamatory. It is sleeves rolled up, hands dirty, time consuming, committed. Deacons teach us to be out there. In some traditions it is always the deacon who reads the Gospel, because they show us how to be proclaimers of the word. In some traditions deacons also lead the intercessions, because they are the ones, out and about in the community, who know who’s ill and who’s suffering. Deacons sort out, assist, make sure everything is OK. That’s you’ll often find the deacon setting the table for Communion, letting the president have some space.

Ayla will be about all these things. There will be some practicalities, in learning how we do it here, and how the C of E does it generally. Ayla is here to learn her trade, to serve her title, and that means we must let her out occasionally to learn elsewhere. She is to be God’s gift to us, and to his wider church. I hope, though, that through being with her in this we will learn our own diaconal ministry: serving each other; taking a towel rather than the place of honour, standing aside, recognising leadership and assisting it, and, above all, carrying the Word and serving the needy.

Our Gospel reading gets to the very heart of this. All of Mark is about the God you can touch, the God who is ‘out there’. Love, if it is love, needs to be real, and to be real it should be touchable. It needs to get its hands dirty, to be in the hustle and bustle of a crowd, to give tangible signs of itself. Just reflect on how much sensing, how much jostling and grabbing and holding there is in today’s passage.

Jairus falls at Jesus’s feet, the crowd presses in, the woman touches his cloak, he looks carefully at the people around him, he hears the noise of the professional mourners wailing, he has been asked to lay hands on Jairus’s daughter, but in fact gently takes her by the hand, and finally asks for food for the girl he has raised. The Jesus Mark tells us about gets involved with people at the point of their deepest need, and at the most practical and intimate of levels. Here it is a woman who has exhausted medical science with her bleeding, who is not only ill but religiously unclean (and therefore permanently outcast), and in a place of total despair. Here it is a child who has died, also therefore unclean, with a family utterly bereft.

These are people in the forgotten corner, the outcast, the beyond hope. That’s where Jesus is. That’s where deacons go. That’s where we all should be. The touch of love here conquers even death, as a foretaste of Christ’s own victory which is our Easter song, the proclamation of the deacon’s gospel.

The reality of the love of God is that it embraces even our death, and as we respond to the touch, so our death is turned to life. That is a light which breaks through the blackest of nights.

Ayla, we look forward to what you will teach us about offering the touch of love, the grace of God, the word of life. We look forward to seeing in you the love of God in a gesture, a word, a presence, a shared silence, an act of service. This Jesus touches and is touched, speaks and listens, embraces the unclean and is not dragged down by them but lifts them up, makes them clean. Deacons show us that in action.

That’s for Ayla, and us, as we join in that call, in the words of the ordination service, to be “expectant and watchful for the signs of God’s presence, as he reveals his kingdom among us.” We will see that in you. May you see it in us, that the world may believe.

My favourite phrase about deacons was in an ordination service a few years ago. “Deacons are containers for combustible material. Please ignite.”

Amen.

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