Service in Jesus Christ
T. F. Torrance
The Scottish divines of the sixteenth century used to distinguish between what all Christians should do ‘of their charity’ and what some have to do ‘of authority’. That was a distinction regarding not so much the kind of service as the mode of service rendered. All members of the Body of Christ are constrained through love to bear witness to Him and to pray for others, but some have this ministry laid upon them as a special task, so that they fulfil it not only out of love but in obedience to a specific commission from the Lord and with the definite authority of that commission behind them. It was this authoritative ‘sending’, they held, which distinguished the ‘solemn’ preaching of God’s Word, accompanied by the divine ‘seals’, from the service of all the faithful in their proclaiming of Christ and His Gospel. While that is no doubt a valuable distinction, it would be wrong if it were interpreted to mean that, in contrast to the special ministry within the Church, the service of all members of the Body of Christ is to be referred back only to the free movement of their love and to be understood as its spontaneous expression. The great characteristic of all Christian service or diakonia is that while it is certainly fulfilled under the constraint of the love of Christ it is a service commanded by Him and laid by Him as a task upon every baptized member of His Body.
We must not forget that even love is commanded by God. As Jesus Himself taught us, the love of God and the love of our neighbour are the supreme commandments upon which all the others depend, and in our love to Him we are bound in a relation of unconditional obedience to His commandments, among which is the specific commandment to love one another. This is the context in which diakonia is to be understood. Christian service is commanded of us. It is to be referred back to the Lordship of Christ and diakonia is to be understood as the pure service rendered to the Lord by those who are His servants. In the New Testament two principal terms are used to speak of the servants of Christ, douloi and diakonoi, slaves and waiters. The former refers to status rather than function and describes the relationship that determines the very structures of existence in Christ. The doulos lives under the total claim of God and is completely subordinate to Jesus Christ, to whom he belongs body and soul. The latter refers to function rather than status and describes the service of those who exist in an absolute relationship to Christ as Lord. The diakonos is one who has been given a task by his Master, and who does only what is commanded by Him, not what he thinks out for himself. The servants of Christ (whether we think of them as douloi or diakonoi) are not their own masters, for they belong to Another. They do not carry out their own wishes or minister to their own glory, but they do only what they are told and serve only the glory of their Lord. The way in which the New Testament uses doulos and diakonos lets us see that Christian service or diakonia is not something that is accidental to the Christian, but essential to him, for it is rooted in his basic structure of existence as a slave of Jesus Christ. It is a form of service in which he is not partially but completely committed in the whole of his being before God, and which he discharges not occasionally but continuously in the whole of his existence as a follower of Jesus Christ.
We would misunderstand this servant-existence of Christ’s followers if we did not see that their servitude in the Lord is the mode of their freedom, and their service of the Lord is the movement of their love, the true freedom and true love into which they have been redeemed. It is Christ’s to command and theirs to obey, but both commandment and obedience are modes of the divine love in Jesus Christ in which service and freedom are the obverse of each other. But we would also misunderstand Christian service if we construed it simply as the expression of Christian love, intrinsically intelligible in its own requirement and inherently compelling as an end in itself, for then we would detach Christian service from its heteronomous ground in the Lord Himself and give it a basis in the autonomous existence of the Christian; we would think of it as arising out of himself and explain it as the Christian’s self-imposed way of life in which his existence comes to its truest self-expression. Christian service is not the service of love for love’s sake, but, service of love though it is, the duty rendered by servants to their Lord in obedience to His commandment. Hence while it is fulfilled in the form of service to others in the world, it is not fulfilled as something they have freely chosen for themselves but as a task which Christ has laid upon them in the entirely new situation that has overtaken them in Him. Faithful servants do not arrogate to themselves the authority for their actions, nor do they assume responsibility for the results of their service. They act simply as servants who live in subjection to their Lord, but who are free from the necessity, and the anxiety, of having to justify their service. They act responsibly by doing obediently what He commands, and act freely in leaving to their Lord alone the responsibility for the consequences of the service He has laid upon them. Obedience is demanded without any secondary motive, and likewise service is rendered without secondary motive, without any thought of claim upon the Lord and without any thought even of thanks from those to whom service is rendered.
Diakonia is pure service fulfilled in accordance with the requirements of an external Authority, that of the Lord, yet diakonia is intrinsically related to that Authority through its content of love. The content of the commandment and the content of the service in obedience to it derive from the self-giving of God Himself in Jesus Christ the Lord. He gives what He commands and commands what He gives. He commands a service of love, and He gives the love that empowers that service. It is this inner relation between commandment and love, or between ‘authority’ and ‘charity’, that is so distinctive of service in Jesus Christ.
Diakonia of this unique kind is possible only because the Lord Himself has come in the form of a servant, incorporating our servant-existence in Himself and incarnating among us the self-giving of God in sheer love and compassion for mankind. He came not to be served but to serve, to live out on earth the life of unconditional obedience to the Father in heaven and the life of pure love poured out to all men in unrestrained mercy. He was Himself the complete embodiment of the commandment of love and of the love commanded within our human existence, and as such He constitutes in Himself the ultimate source for the inner relation between commandment and love and the creative ground of all true Christian service. This is particularly apparent in the Sermon on the Mount, which is at once the self-portrait of our Lord in His life on earth as Son of Man and the promulgation of the will of the Father as unconditionally binding on all men. This is the life of the Servant: ‘Be ye therefore perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect.’ This is the service of the Lord: ‘Be ye therefore merciful as your Father also is merciful.’ It is only in this Jesus that we learn what diakonia really is, the loving service in mercy that looks for no reward beyond the knowledge that we do what is commanded of us and looks for no thanks from those to whom mercy is extended, but it is only because this Jesus has made our cause His very own, sharing our existence in servitude and sharing with us His own life of love, that we may and can engage in this kind of diakonia in Him.
Our particular concern here, however, is not with the structure of the Christian’s existence as doulos of Jesus Christ and therefore with the general ethos of life in Him, but with the form of the Christian’s service as diakonos of Jesus Christ and therefore with the specific function of life in Him. That is to say, we are concerned with diakonia in its concrete sense as deaconing, both as the charge which Christ lays upon the Christian community and as the office to which some are called within the community. Diakonia describes not only the relationship of service to which the whole membership of the Church and specific individuals within it bear to Jesus Christ, but the form which that relationship takes in the mutual service of members to one another and in their service to their fellow men in the world. It is natural that at this point the spotlight, so to speak, should fall upon the deacon himself, for it is his specific office, as a humble representative of the people of God, to prompt them in their response to Christ and His Gospel and to seek the fruit of that response in their life of deaconing toward their fellow men, and thus in his special vocation as a deacon to fulfil in an exemplary way the kind of diakonia we are all called to exercise in Jesus Christ. It was for this reason that the Early Church saw delineated in the deacon’s office more than anywhere else the likeness of Jesus Christ the Servant of the Lord.
Before we consider this diaconal ministry we must examine its source and ground in Jesus Christ, for it was the kind of person He was and the kind of ministry He undertook that determined the form and mode of all Christian service. He was sent by the Father to carry out the redemption of human existence, not by dealing with it from the outside but by operating from within it, not by the sheer fiat of divine power but by humble acts of service in all the weakness and frailty of human creaturehood, i.e. as a Man among men, holding messianic office and exercising ministerial function. And so He came qualified by His incarnation to act for the human race within its structures and limitations, and consecrated in His capacity as a humble representative of the people for messianic office within their conditions of alienation and subjection. Hence His mission took both a human and a menial form, the ministry of the Son of Man and of the Servant of the Lord, the Christos. Now, we have been accustomed to expound this ministry of Christ in terms of His threefold office as the anointed Prophet, Priest and King, but this has tended to obscure or to discount two essential aspects of His ministry: (a) that He fulfilled His ministry as a human office within the conditions of the community which He served and sustained by direct personal and individual acts on His part; and (b) that He gave this ministry content and pattern by deeds of love and compassion in the healing and succouring of sick and suffering and outcast human beings. That is to say, the diaconal nature and significance of our Lord’s ministry of mercy have tended to fall out of the picture, so that the Church throughout history has had great difficulty in relating to their proper source and ground not only the diaconal office within the Church but the deaconing of the whole community.
It is to this neglected aspect of Christ’s ministry that we turn our attention in order to lay bare its permanent significance for Christian diakonia. Christ was Himself the diakonos par excellence whose office it was not only to prompt the people of God in their response to the divine mercy and to be merciful themselves, not only to stand out as the perfect model or example of compassionate service to the needy and distressed, but to provide in Himself and in His own deeds of mercy the creative ground and source of all such diakonia. He was able to do that because in Him God Himself condescended to share with men their misery and distress, absorbed the sharpness of their hurt and suffering into Himself, and poured Himself out in infinite love to relieve their need, and He remains able to do that because He is Himself the outgoing of the innermost Being of God toward men in active sympathy and compassion, the boundless mercy of God at work in human existence, unlimited in His capacity to deliver them out of all their troubles. Thus through the Incarnation it is revealed to us that God in His own Being is not closed to us, for He has come to share with us the deepest movement of His divine heart, and so to participate in our human nature that the heart of God beats within it. We know that in the springs of His own eternal Life God is ever open and ready and eager to share the weakness and sorrow and affliction of others and to spend Himself in going to their relief and in saving them. It is the very property of God’s nature to be merciful, and in mercy it is that nature that He has come to share with men in Jesus, that they, too, may be merciful as He is merciful.
This is mercy that is quite limitless in its extent, mercy that will not stop short at any point in being merciful. It is not just mercy to man in his creaturely weakness and abject need, but mercy freely and unstintingly extended to him at his wickedest and worst, in his revolt from the divine love and his opposition to the divine grace; mercy that regards man’s resistance to God’s mercy and man’s inability to be merciful as his most desperate affliction and his greatest need. It is in man’s proud contradiction of God’s love and in his contempt of mercy, in man’s sin and guilt, that the real sting of his misery lies, but it is precisely at that point of ultimate extremity, in the terrible sharpness of his distress, that God’s mercy is extended and refuses to be limited even by man’s arrogant scorn and refusal of it. But this is mercy that operates by stooping to suffer all the worst that man can do and be, by entering into his revolted and alienated existence and by dealing with sin from within the depths of human life, by attacking and vanquishing guilt from the inside of its own movement, imparting itself where there is no mercy, until it begets mercy even where it has been scorned.
Now, what distresses God so deeply as He looks upon man in his fearful condition is not simply his sickness and pain, nor even the torment of anxiety that gnaws at his inner being, but the fact that in his hostility to God man has become possessed of sin in his very mind and is caught in the toils of a vast evil will that extends far beyond him, and what vexes God also is that man’s existence breaks up under the pressure of his guilt in it all and under the threat of the divine judgement upon him. In view of this tragic state the mercy of God takes on a dynamic and creative form in miraculous acts of grace and power in which He allies Himself with man against the evil that has entrenched itself within him and against the threat of demolition that has come upon him. That is what we see actually going on in the miracles of Jesus in which He was at work reclaiming lost humanity, not by accusing men in their sickness and sin but by shouldering all their astheneia upon Himself, i.e. not by throwing the responsibility back upon them but by taking their responsibility on Himself. That is surely the most miraculous thing about the healing acts of Jesus, the fact that in Him God has come into our enslaved existence in such a way as to make Himself responsible for men and even to assume their sin and culpability upon Himself. That is why there took place in Jesus such a struggle with evil, a struggle that was waged between God and evil power not only in the heart and mind of man but in his bodily and historical existence, and a struggle to reclaim the existence of man as human being from its subjection to futility and negation.
That is the pitiful condition of man that lies at the root of his anxiety, for his deepest being is menaced by chaos and slips away from him into corruption and destruction, since his existence is subjected to vanity in its contradiction of God and in its judgement by God. Here God’s mercy takes a real form, for it is of the sheer mercy of God that He enters into this very being and existence of man under the dominion of evil power and under the doom of unavoidable destruction, and takes this human being and existence upon Himself. That is to say, God penetrates into the very negation of evil as it is entrenched in man, suffers it in Himself, and so, as it were (how can we find words to express what is so unutterable here?), ‘hazards’ His own existence and being as God for the sake of man. Moreover, He enters into this banned and sentenced state of man to live in it precisely as man under all the assaults of evil, within the entire limitation of the creature exposed to evil power and to the judgement of divine Holiness, in order to struggle with evil and vanquish it just where it has dug itself in so deeply, in the self-will and resistance of the creature toward God, and in the obdurate and brazen character of its hostility gained under God’s rejection.
That is the meaning of the incarnate life and ministry of the Son of God and the whole passion of His existence as Man among men, made under the Law, and obedient unto death, where evil pays its fullest wages and delivers its ultimate assault upon God’s creatures and where that assault gains its fateful force from the very judgements directed against it. No wonder St Paul insisted that our sin gains its strength from the very Law of God! That is why the ‘hazard’ to which God submits as He stakes His own being on our behalf and for our salvation comes not from the attack of evil itself by itself but from the judgement and negation of evil—it is that fact that makes the Cross and its Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani so indescribably terrible, the sheer anguish of God bowed under His own judgement on sin, a judgement not mitigated in the slightest but utterly fulfilled. Thus the existence of man into which God enters, and within which He lives as Son of Man, is a lost existence that is already breaking up and crumbling away not only under the negation of evil but under the negation of the divine judgement, where the rejection of evil serves to harden and make final the threat to demolish human being. It is into that dark and doomed existence under the divine judgement and into its corruption and destruction under negation that God enters in unutterable mercy in order to save mankind.
Now we can grasp something of the extreme gravity of man’s plight, and the nature and extent of his need in the inseparability of his spiritual and physical existence and in the disintegration of his whole creaturely being as man before God. Now we can understand also something of what lay behind the Cross and the descent of the Saviour into our bottomless pit of evil and guilt and death, and so of what was involved in every act of healing and mercy in which Jesus through sharing our human existence sought to release distressed humanity from its subjection to evil and vanity, from its imprisonment in chaos and disorder and disintegration, and sought to restore it to the truth of God’s creation, in which God affirms as good that which He has made, and so makes good His own Word in the creation of man.
The miracles of Jesus were concerned, then, with the saving of creation. In them God asserted His claim over the human beings He had made and proclaimed His will to maintain them in integrity of being in face of everything that threatened their existence and to restore them to natural life in the freedom and joy of His creation. The miracles reveal not only that the salvation of man involves a total negation of all that is opposed to God’s creative purpose but that it can take place only within the healing and remaking of a human being in his actual physical and spiritual existence. Only through the Creator’s full participation with us in our human life on earth can atonement for sin and redemption from evil power issue in the actual restoration of what God has made. The miraculous acts of Jesus are thus the luminous points in His ministry, proleptic to His resurrection from the dead, where it is disclosed that the whole life and sojourn of Jesus Christ among us is the absolute miracle within which and through which the New Creation takes place.
Without the Incarnation of the Creator Word the fallen world would crumble away finally and irretrievably into nothingness, for then God would simply let go of what He has made and it would suffer from sheer privation of being. But the Incarnation has taken place—once and for all the Creator Word has entered into the existence of what He has made and bound it up for ever with His own eternal being and life, yet the Incarnation had to mean, in this union of the Creator and the creature, the final negation by God of all that resists His creative will. That is the stupendous and bewildering miracle of Jesus that just because in Him divine nature and human nature are united in the unity of His one Person, the judgement and expiation of sin had to take place as an inner determination of the life He lived among us from birth to death (and how He was straitened until that inexpressible agony was accomplished!); and the new creation took place in the healing and sanctifying and regenerating of the human nature He assumed from our fallen and corrupt existence (and how joyful and radiant was the fulfilment in His resurrection from the grave!). It was through the sovereign parousia of the Creator Word within our flesh at the points of enslavement and disintegration that the integrity and wholeness of man in his spiritual and physical being was restored and that human nature was reclaimed for the heavenly Father. That is what Jesus was in His healing and helping acts. He was the Redeemer at work serving the creature from below and from within his broken and divided existence delivering him from inner bondage, redeeming him from deeply-rooted tension and anxiety; the Creator Himself at work re-creating what He had made by sharing in its humble creaturely existence in all its distress and trouble and futility, and sharing with it the healed and sanctified humanity in the perfect life of the Son of Man.
This work Jesus Christ fulfilled from two sides: from the side of God toward man, and from the side of man toward God. He came as God Himself, drawing near to man in all His sovereign freedom and grace, bringing His Kingdom to bear directly upon human life and history. He came as the mighty Son breaking into the realm of darkness to deliver men from their thraldom and shame, and to redeem them from the whole power of evil in triumph over sin and guilt and death and hell itself. Yet, Son of God though He was, He came among us as an infant of days in great humility within the darkness and helplessness and poverty of man, in order to work out through His own human life and deeds among us the faithful answer of man to the saving grace and power of God. Hence He came issuing out of human history as a son of Adam, of the seed of David, in order to wrestle with our perverse human nature from within our disobedient life until He had converted it back in obedience to the Father and offered it to Him in the perfection of filial trust and love.
Within this twofold work Christ came identifying Himself with man in his hopeless misery and abject need and making man’s cause His very own. By incarnation and atonement He who had been the ground of man’s existence from beyond his existence now forged such a bond of union between man and Himself that He became the ground of man’s existence in his existence, undergirding and sustaining it from within and from below, overcoming its vanity and privation of being and giving it meaning and reality in Himself. Hence Christ is to be found wherever there is sickness or hunger or thirst or nakedness or imprisonment, for He has stationed Himself in the concrete actualities of human life where the bounds and structures of existence break down under the onslaught of disease and want, sin and guilt, death and judgement, in order that He may serve God in ministering His mercy and realizing His relation toward man, and serve man in re-creating his relation to God and realizing his response to the divine mercy. It is thus that Jesus Christ mediates in Himself the healing reconciliation of God with man and man with God in the form, as it were, of a meeting of Himself with Himself in the depths of human need. And it is thus that the Father looks upon every man in his need only by looking at him in and through the atoning presence and suppliance of His incarnate Son that meets Him there, for the incarnate Son is the outgoing of His own divine being toward every man and the pouring out of His own eternal love upon him in unrestrained mercy and grace.
As we have already seen, Jesus ministered this divine mercy as a humble representative of the people into which He had incorporated Himself and within which He had been consecrated to the vocation of the Messiah, the Elect One, the Servant. This office of Christos He fulfilled as Man, not therefore by a compelling display of mighty power, but by meek and personal service as He went about doing good, helping and healing others, and so through fellowship with men in a shared existence. That was His diaconal ministry to men in their enslavement and disintegration which gave meaning again to human life and sustained it in such a relation to the Father that within it atonement could issue in communion and redemption in new creation. It was indeed only in continuous fulfilment of this diaconal ministry that He went forth at last to offer Himself in sacrificial expiation for the sin of mankind, so that when His atoning work was accomplished in death and resurrection and ascension and the message of reconciliation with God through Christ was freely proclaimed, it could be heard and received by men whose very existence was sustained in its relation to God by the hidden presence of the incarnate and crucified and risen Christ within it. That is the permanent and immense significance of His humble diakonia in the flesh, which has been given continuing effect through the pouring out of Christ’s Spirit at Pentecost, for it is that diakonia in the flesh that gives material content to His presence through the Spirit.
Now, in the fulfilment of His earthly ministry Jesus drew to Himself a company of disciples whom He formed and instituted into one Body with Himself as the inner nucleus of the Church, incorporating them into His messianic mission and sending them out to exercise His own diakonia in helping and healing, in preaching and forgiving. He set Himself in their midst as their Lord and their Example in the service of mercy. Through their union and communion with Him in His mission He gave structure to the Church He founded upon them and shaped its ministry of the divine mercy in His Name. That is to say, in constituting them as His Body, baptized with His baptism and partaking of His cup, He so assimilated them into His own diaconal life and service on earth that He made diakonia an essential mark of the Church redeemed by Him and built up round His own Person as the Christ. They were in Him a messianic community anointed for service, through sharing in His own anointing and His own self-consecration for mankind. It cannot be doubted that this diaconal character of life and service in Christ is a basic and permanent sign of the Church sanctified in Him, for it is here that Christ’s own image and likeness most clearly appear: in the diakonia of the divine mercy within the spiritual and and physical existence of man. The Church cannot be in Christ without being in Him as He is proclaimed to men in their need and without being in Him as He encounters us in and behind the existence of every man in his need. Nor can the Church be recognized as His except in that meeting of Christ with Himself in the depth of human misery, where Christ clothed with His Gospel meets with Christ clothed with the desperate need and plight of men. It is never the diakonia of the Church to be itself the Christ, but through its humble service to Christ clothed with His Gospel and its service to Christ clothed with the misery of men to seek and to pray for their meeting and so to be in history the bodily instrument which Christ uses in the proclamation of the divine mercy to mankind and in prompting their responses to that mercy.
Diakonia in this sense is not only the charge which Christ has laid upon the whole membership of His Body but an office to which some within it are specially called and for which He bestows through His Spirit the appropriate charisma. Here Jesus stands among us both as the Kurios who gives the charge and as the supreme Diakonos whose example is to be followed in all diakonia of the divine mercy. He would have us minister to one another and to others as He ministered to His fellows in the form of a servant.
What were the distinctive features He exhibited in this ministry?
(i) He served God in His mercy and man in his need with the secret of the Cross in His heart. As He went about doing good, He healed not as a doctor but as a Saviour, and He helped not as a wonder-worker but as the Holy One who absorbed into Himself the affliction of men. Though it was by the Finger or Spirit of God that He brought divine power to bear upon the realm of evil and broke through the thraldom of sin and sickness in miraculous deeds of mercy, He fulfilled His ministry in meekness and lowliness in order to bear the onslaught of evil upon Himself and so to get at the heart of it. It was by living a life of holiness among us in perfect obedience to the Father that He engaged with the inhuman forces of darkness that had encroached upon the bodies and souls of men. Therefore when Jesus healed a man even of a physical affliction He did so only through a struggle with evil will. Nowhere did He heal simply as a kindly physician, but as one who wrestled personally with evil and overcame it through the conflict of His own holy will with the powers of evil spirit. That is why again and again Jesus groaned in agony and grief of spirit as He cured men’s bodies and minds and had to renew His strength constantly through prayer, while prayer itself was a battle with the rebellious will of an alienated creation. This was not simply the service of kindness for kindness’ sake, but a far profounder service of mercy that dealt with the real sting of evil by penetrating into its sinful motion and undoing its guilt in atonement. It was the kind of service which could not be rendered apart from vicarious divine sorrow for the sin of the world.
(ii) He ministered the mercy of God to man at the sharpest point of his need and misery, where he is not only unmerciful but resents mercy, and is therefore bitterly hostile to this ministry. Although it was the mercy of God freely ministered by Jesus that provoked the resistance of man to its sharpest point of hostility toward God, yet in this ministry of mercy Jesus met the hostility of man by making it the supreme object of His compassion, by accepting it and bearing it in Himself and then by making an end of it in His own death, It is easy enough, as Jesus pointed out, to be merciful to others when it meets with some return, but to be merciful without any hope of return and without ever looking for any return, to go on being merciful in the face of unremitting unthankfulness, and always to make every act of ingratitude, no matter how bitter and obdurate, the very occasion for mercy, is to minister a mercy that is quite limitless. That is real mercy, and that is what it means to be merciful as God is merciful. Such was the mercy ministered by Jesus, triumphant mercy which drew out human unthankfulness and resentment to their ultimate point where He limited it by absorbing it in Himself and put a final end to it in the very death which it inflicted on Him—mercy that cannot be defeated.
(iii) Jesus carried out His ministry as a humble servant on earth in utter reliance upon His Father in heaven, refusing to do anything except what He had been sent to do and refusing to discharge His mission except in the weakness and selflessness of pure service. At no point did He seek to change the nature of His ministry as service, and therefore He rendered it only through constant recourse to prayer in order to let it take effect solely through the good pleasure of the Father. The true and faithful servant does not arrogate authority to himself or build up round him instruments of power or even an aura of prestige through which he may exert pressure to attain his ends; otherwise he would betray the essential nature of his service as service. Hence Jesus warned His disciples, as He washed their feet in menial service at the Last Supper, to beware of allowing their service in His name to gather a worldly prestige in which its nature as service would be lost or to take the form of a munificent patronage that could lord it over mankind. Diakonia in the Name of Christ has only one source of power: in prayer and intercession, for Jesus Christ Himself, the supreme Diakonos, will rule over the ages and the nations only through the weakness of the Man on the Cross.
Such, then, is the pattern of service which Christ has instituted in Himself for the Church and for all who within it are called to be deacons. It is a charge to be merciful as the Father is merciful and a call to follow Christ in the form of a servant, that all members of the Body of Christ may be fellow labourers in His work and that deacons, reflecting in themselves the pattern of Christ’s service, may prompt the whole people of God in the ministry of divine mercy.
Without doubt this is a very difficult charge which Christ has laid upon His Church, and one that is desperately hard for the Church to fulfil in its corporate capacity as Church and therefore in the form of a service rendered by the Community as such. How can it render this service as service and render it effectively within the power-structures of humanity?
Here the Church is up against a twofold temptation. On the one hand, it is tempted to use worldly power in order to secure the success of its service. As an organized community within the national, social, and economic structures of human life the Church cannot isolate its ministry of the divine mercy from the organized services of the State for the welfare of its people. The Church knows only too well that the need of men is bound up with the injustices inherent in the national, social, and economic structures within which people live, and is often directly traceable to them, and therefore in order to meet human need adequately and rationally attention must be given to the factors that create it and aggravate it. Certainly as far as hunger and poverty and want are concerned what is required is the application of scientific methods in the production and distribution of goods from the vast wealth with which God has endowed the earth. But how can this be done without economic and political power? And so the Church is constantly tempted not only to institutionalize its service of the divine mercy but to build up power-structures of its own, both through ecclesiastical success and prestige among the people and through social and political instruments, by means of which it can exert pressure to attain its ends and impart power to its service in order to ensure its effectiveness, What church is there that feels deeply the burden of human need, and takes seriously its service of mercy, that does not fall into this temptation?
On the other hand, the Church is tempted to leave the corporate responsibility for the need of men wholly to the State and to restrict itself to the ministry of forgiveness. How can the Church participate in the planned and controlled welfare of mankind without actually compromising its freedom and secularizing its life in the worldly forms of society? And so the Church is tempted to retreat into an area where it could not come into conflict with the power-structures of organized social welfare and where it thinks to avoid the subtle snare of using its success in the relief of human suffering as a means of enhancing its own image or of pressing its own claim upon the people. This could take a quietist and other-worldly form through the restriction of Christian service to inward ‘religious’ concerns, but it could also take the form of a flight into the anonymity of ‘religionless’ behaviour or the so-called ‘meta-christianity’ of the ‘new man’. But in either case the Church would decline the burden of human need at its sharpest point and deflect the real force of Christian witness, and so run away from the agony of being merciful as God is merciful.
Whichever alternative the Church chooses, on the one hand or the other, it contracts out of the actual charge Christ has laid upon it and betrays the essential nature of Christian service as service. Can the Church engage in the pressure groups of organized society in order to ensure the success of its own enterprise, and so suffer assimilation to the forms of this world, without compromising its real nature as the Body of Jesus Christ? Can it hide its light under the natural forms of man’s cultural and scientific development without losing its soul? Can it follow Christ, the Servant of the Lord who steadfastly resisted every temptation to use compelling demonstrations of glory and power to fulfil His ministry, without like Him suffering the hostility and ridicule and ignominy that are heaped by the world on powerless and selfless service of God’s mercy? Can the Church really fulfil the charge Christ has laid upon it and therefore take up His Cross without renouncing itself for Him, without, as it were, hazarding its life or losing its identity in recognized historical existence for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s? Can the Church go forth from Christ clad with His image in the form of a servant without laying aside the pride and glory and power of the nations, and without taking into its own mouth in triumphant agony His cry before the judgement seat of Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not of this world’? And how can the Church go forth from Christ to engage in authentic service in His Name without immersing itself in the need and misery and desperate plight of men in complete solidarity with the world under the judgement and grace of God, without participating deeply in the divine mercy that has put an end in the crucified Body of Christ to our restless striving for power and vain snatching at glory, and to our resentment of meek and humble reliance upon the heavenly Father?
Difficult though it is for the Church as such to carry this burden and fulfil the role of a servant, God in His mercy has instituted within it special ministries to dispense to it the Word of Life and to seek the fruit of it in the lives of its members, to guide the Church and to prompt it in its service. This is the two- fold ministry which we may speak of as ‘the service of the Word’, and ‘the service of response to the Word’. The service of the Word is the ministry of Word and Sacrament through which Christ is pleased to be present, offering Himself as Saviour and implementing His salvation by the power of His Spirit. But it is a service, a diakonia, in which ministers only serve the proclamation of Christ and cannot make that proclamation effective by imparting to it their own strength, and in which they only dispense the Sacraments as stewards of the mysteries in utter reliance upon Christ to fulfil His own ministry of Himself in Word and Spirit, in Grace and Power. The service of response to the Word is the ministry of the divine mercy to the people in which Christ Himself is pleased to be present, acting as their Representative in lifting them up to the Face of the Father in thanksgiving and worship and in making them His fellow labourers in the pouring out of the divine mercy to all mankind. But it is a service, a diakonia, in which deacons only prompt the people in their responses of prayer and praise and do not act on their behalf, and in which they guide them in their service to mankind and do not undertake it for them, but in which they remind the people of Christ’s own promise to meet them in all their deeds of mercy to the hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and imprisoned, and so to give effect to their service in the depths of human need.
These two ministries are essentially complementary and are mutually dependent, since each requires the other for its proper fulfilment and one is obstructed by the lack of the other. It is through that double ministry that Christ communicates Himself to man by bringing God’s presence to bear upon man and by bringing him in his need to receive that presence, by ministering the mercy of God toward man in his guilty estrangement and by freeing him in his desperate need for the response of faith and trust in God, and He does that by incarnating God’s love in Himself for man and by sustaining through His own presence the existence of man for fellowship with God. It is thus that Jesus Christ mediates in Himself the healing reconciliation of God with man and man with God in the form of a union of His own presence in the Gospel with His own presence in the depths of human need. The service of the Word serves Christ clothed with His Gospel, so that through it He draws near to man with forgiveness in unconditional grace; and the service of response to the Word serves Christ clothed with the misery of man, so that through it He sustains and upholds man in unutterable compassion until He finds the sheep that is lost and counts that He has found it when it hears His voice and follows Him.
Now, while the New Testament uses the term diakonia both for the service of the Word and for the service of response to the Word, it is especially used and indeed technically used for the service of response to the Word, that is, for the ministry of the deacon. We may thus distinguish between the two forms of ministry as the presbyteral ministry through which the Word and Sacraments are dispensed and the diaconal ministry through which the responses of God’s people in worship and witness or intercession and mercy are guided and prompted. The term diakonia is peculiarly appropriate to the latter ministry, for while the presbyteral ministry is one in which the ministers act not as representatives of the people but only as those sent by Christ and commissioned by Him with authority to dispense His Word of forgiveness, in the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, the diaconal ministry is one in which the deacons act as representatives of the people and as examples of the way in which Christ identified Himself with their need, and therefore as sent by Him to engage in a ministry of pure, unassuming service without any commission to exercise authority or pastoral control. They are as necessary and as indispensable to one another as husband and wife, and father and mother, in the same family.
It is an immense tragedy that throughout its history the Church has so often lacked a proper diaconate to guide it and prompt it in the ministry of the divine mercy, and to seek the full fruit of that mercy in the activities of the community and in the lives of its members. This has had disastrous consequences for the ministry of Word and Sacrament, for left on its own, without its other half, it has succumbed to the temptation to arrogate to itself a false glory and to fulfil its authoritative commission not by obedient service but by usurping control and mastery over the Lord’s inheritance. But it has had disastrous consequences also for the service of the Church in its corporate capacity, for without the example of pure service, which it is the office of the deacon to set forth, the Church has fallen into the temptation to give itself out as the patron of goodness and welfare and to assume worldly powers in order to achieve success in its works of relief, and thus has betrayed the very nature of its ministry as service of divine mercy to mankind. This has also meant that the ministry of Christ clothed with His Gospel has been kept apart from the ministry of Christ clothed with the need and plight of men, with the result that the ministry of the Gospel has so often lost its relevance to men in the concrete actualities of their existence, and the ministry of the divine mercy has lacked its penetrating power to strike into the deepest root of human need in man’s guilty estrangement from God—thus grave disorder has appeared in the life of the Church and its mission is often fraught with a deep sense of futility.
The Church needs today a massive recovery of authentic diakonia if it is to hold forth the image of Christ before mankind and is to minister the mercy of God to the needs of men in the deep root of their evil and in the real sting of their misery. Such a recovery would go far to heal the breaches in the life of the Church and to supply what is lacking in its mission. Three areas in particular call for drastic amendment and far-reaching reform.
(i) Intercession. There is no more basic form of the Church’s ministry than prayer, for it is in prayer that it renders its supreme service of worship and thanksgiving to God, and it is only through prayer that the Church can engage in the pure service of divine mercy in utter reliance upon God and in the renunciation of every attempt to put the Word of God into effect through its own cunning or strength. The Church does not minister through the power of its own action but only through the power of its Lord, and therefore it cannot fulfil its diakonia on earth without continuous engagement in intercession through its great High Priest at the right hand of God Almighty. The frantic attempts of the Church in modern times to find ways and means of making its message relevant to men, of clothing its ministries with worldly power, or of evolving methods and instruments which will ensure the popularity and success of its enterprise, are open admission that the Church has ceased to believe that the Gospel is really able to effect what it proclaims and of tragic disbelief in the power of intercession, i.e. in the active intervention of the Church’s heavenly Mediator which is echoed through the Spirit in the Church’s stammering prayers on earth. The intercessory prayer of the Church is direct engagement in the mighty apocalyptic battle between the Kingdom of Christ and the kingdoms of this world and in the triumphant reign of the Enthroned Lamb over all the forces of evil and darkness in history. The Church’s greatest need is to believe again in the intercession of Christ and to find through prayer the sole source of power in its mission. Nothing can ever take the place of this basic service, the diakonia of intercession.
(ii) Witness, Witness is the form which service takes as it moves from worship and intercession in Christ toward men in their estrangement and separation from God. It is open and transparent witness to Jesus Christ as the incarnate love of God, the Lord and Saviour of men, and witness directed above all to the deepest point of man’s misery in his guilty alienation from God and to the sharpest point of his need in his hostility to God’s grace. It is thus witness in the face of resistance and even persecution. The Christian Church is under constant pressure by the world to conform to its ways and thoughts, to adapt its message to its desires and ambitions, and thus the Church can only bear witness by entering into affliction. It is because the Church is a servant of Christ and is assimilated to His mission in its essential life that it suffers the same hostility as He suffered and shares with Him the weakness and helplessness of His passion. It is because Christ crucified and risen again dwells in the Church and makes it the earthly and historical form of His Body that He leads it into the unavoidable conflict between the mercy of God and the inhumanity of man and between the holiness of God and the sin of mankind. The Church cannot withdraw from the affliction and suffering which this conflict brings without contracting out of its witness and betraying its Lord. Yet this is the very point where the Church today in its faint-heartedness and scepticism seems to have lost its nerve, and where under pressure from the world it makes its message easy and acceptable to human hearing, adapting the Gospel to modern man instead of bringing modern man face to face with the Gospel. But the actual point of relevance and communication lies at the point of offence where the real hurt of man is exposed and divine healing takes place. It is a betrayal of diakonia to heal the hurt of God’s people lightly, saying peace, peace, where there is no peace. The Church cannot discharge the task which Christ has laid upon it without offering unadulterated witness and engaging in pure evangelism, cost what it may in scorn and ridicule or oppression. If at this point the Church seeks to save its life it will lose it, but here if it is ready to lose it for Christ’s sake and the Gospel’s it will find it. It still remains true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church, and that it is through bold and suffering witness that men and women serve Christ most faithfully.
(iii) Reconciliation. The Church that is committed to the diakonia of the divine mercy must live the reconciled life. It cannot proclaim reconciliation to the world without standing in solidarity with the world under the total grace and judgement of God and without carrying within itself a solidarity of communion in the redemption through the blood of Christ. It cannot offer healing to mankind without being healed in its own body. It cannot minister reconciliation to humanity in its bitter divisions and hostilities without being reconciled in its own membership and purged of its internal bitterness and strife. What can obstruct or damn the service of the Church more than to act a lie against what it proclaims and by perpetuating division within itself to blaspheme the blood of Christ shed to make men at one with God and at one with each other? What is demanded of the Church by Christ is that it should serve the divine mercy in the actualities of physical and spiritual existence where the bounds of human life break up under the divisive forces of evil, and that instead of allowing the divisions of the world to penetrate back into the life of the Church, to make it equivocal and futile, it should live out in the midst of a broken and divided humanity the reconciled life of the one unbroken Body of Jesus Christ—that is diakonia.
Until the Christian Church heals within itself the division between the service of Christ clothed with His Gospel and the service of Christ clothed with the need and affliction of men, and until it translates its communion in the body and blood of Christ into the unity of its own historical existence in the flesh, it can hardly expect the world to believe, for its diakonia would lack elemental integrity. But diakonia in which believing active intercession, bold unashamed witness, and the reconciled life are all restored in the mission of the Church will surely be the service with which Jesus Christ is well pleased, for that is the diakonia which He has commanded of us and which He has appointed as the mirror through which He reflects before the world His own image in the form of a Servant.
Readers of Karl Barth will be aware of how much this essay owes to him and not least to the last volume of his Church Dogmatics, 4.3. It is highly appropriate that Diakonia should be the theme of this tribute to him, for rarely has any theologian so consistently directed his theological work to stimulate and prompt the diakonia of the divine mercy as the charge which Christ has laid upon the Church as a whole.