Diakonia

One of my grandmas, my Nanny Nunn, was in service. That was what a great many girls did in the early part of the last century.  School would have ended at around the age of 14 and then a family, or someone who needed a maid, would have taken the girl in.  They would have left home and began some years ‘in service’. Nanny was evidently good with a needle so she ended up as a sewing maid, working for some Lord and Lady who had a castle in Scotland but kept an apartment in Whitehall Court on the banks of the Thames close to the centre of power. The maids all lived in dormitories in the top floors of this apartment block.  Her employers were kind and bought her her wedding dress from Liberty of London when finally she left their service to become the wife in her own home.

Maids

Girls dressed for service

 

Not all her employers were as good.  She used to tell me about working in a Vicarage where both the Parson and his wife drank rather too much for everyone’s comfort.  But she generally had a good time and on the stairs hung miniature portraits of two of her employers, Judge and Lady Matthews, a fine looking Edwardian couple who looked sternly at us children if we dared to go upstairs in the house without permission!

As fans of ‘Downtown Abbey’ became aware it wasn’t all bad ‘below stairs’ but it is a side of life that has now all but disappeared.

Last week I was preaching at the ordination of priests in the Diocese of Southwark, this week I was welcoming to the Cathedral the supporters of the 13 women and men who were to be ordained deacon.  These are weeks when the church really thinks about what ministry and especially ordained ministry means.

Everything we think about ministry, the ministry of deacons and priests, really finds its source and focus in the Upper Room on the night before the crucifixion. There at table Jesus breaks the bread and shares the cup and gives us the Eucharist at his priestly hands. But it is around that same table, in that same room, that he takes the bowl, takes the jug, takes the towel and washes the feet of his disciples.  If saying to them ‘This is my body’ as he held up the bread, broke it and gave it to them, was shocking, even more so, I think was the Master taking the tools of the servant and washing the feet of those who followed him.  Jesus, as on so many occasions, reverses the roles and the expectations, subverts peoples understanding.  In Acts 17 the disciples are accused of being people who

‘have been turning the world upside down.’ (Acts 17.6)

They were, and they were taking their lead and their example from Jesus, who turned their world on its head as he knelt before them and gently, and with a servants devotion, washed their feet and dried them on the towel.

I was watching the Bishop of Southwark carefully vest in preparation for the ordination in the Cathedral. Before he put on the chasuble he placed over his alb a thin, silk dalmatic, the robe of the deacon.  It could not be seen by the congregation, but there it was, close to his skin, close to his heart.  It was a reminder to him and to me, that we are all deacons, that we are part of a servant church.

As Jesus put his clothes back on and took his seat as the Master at the table he said to his stunned friends

‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’. (John 13.14-15)

Whoever you are, whatever ‘robes’ you wear, beneath it all you are ‘in service’, part of that diakonia. ‘Never forget it’ says Jesus to us, ‘I have given you an example’.  But not just those to us who are ordained but to all of us.  Just as priests are set apart on behalf of the whole priestly people of God to offer the sacraments of the New Covenant, so deacons are set apart on behalf of the whole servant church, not to do it for us, but to do it with us.

In these last few, challenging months, we have seen people of faith ‘in service’ to their communities.  The fantastic example of the Parish of St Clement and St James, the church for the Grenfell Tower community, has been exemplary.  I see from their website that they describe themselves as

‘Breaking bread, sharing God’

This is the Upper Room church at which, the broken bread and the sharing of the God who is the servant God of a servant people, make real the nature of the kingdom that breaks in around us.  And when it is needed that means doing precisely what that community has been doing, along with so many from other churches and faith communities and people of no faith but of good will, being the servants of others and, sometimes literally, washing feet.

washing_feet

‘I have set you an example’.

 

Brian Wren’s great hymn, ‘Great God, your love has called us here’, that we often sing on Maundy Thursday, sums it up for me

Then take the towel, and break the bread,
and humble us, and call us friends.
Suffer and serve till all are fed,
and show how grandly love intends
to work till all creation sings,
to fill all worlds, to crown all things.

There is a lot of serving to be done and Jesus hands on to us the bowl and the towel and we simply get on with it.

Lord, you wash my feet;
may I have the humility and love
to wash those of my neighbour.
Amen.

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