We continue to wade through the characters in the Bible who seem to have little bit-parts in God’s story. We focus on Phoebe.
Paul wrote, in his letter to the Romans, an introduction to this woman: ‘I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea, so that you may welcome her in the Lord as
is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.’ Romans 16:1,2
The term Paul uses here is the Greek word diakonos; ‘deacon’ derives from it and means servant. In 2018 I was first ordained as a deacon, not a priest. Such fine distinctions in the Church are not necessarily important and, in fact, Bishop John says that he remains a deacon, always, for he a servant of God. Servanthood is at the heart of our calling, whatever our duty, great or small, in his Church.
Now, even though Phoebe was a woman of wealth, I can visualise her in a servant role easily enough, largely because most of the women in the Bible seemed to wear this mantle of diakonos. These days too we can all think of (or we are) women in church, welcoming people, making food, serving tea, cleaning, doing the flowers, praying and teaching. These women are utterly indispensable and churches could not function without them. How easily do churches follow this model? I know that in this parish we have men in the kitchen, doing an excellent job in our food ministry, and I am blessed indeed to be a priest here among people who embrace women in holy orders. Yet for many churches, traditional roles are retained, and are the poorer
Women with a more feminist approach are inclined to be a bit wary of Paul because of some of his teachings, and yet Paul called all Christians to maintain a serving attitude to one another: ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…taking the form of a servant’. Philippians 2:5-70.
One could say he practiced what he preached, for Paul also appointed men as deacons, and did not confine Phoebe to a supportive role in his ministry. The reference to her in his letter to
the Romans reveals that Phoebe held a position of responsibility, for she was the one entrusted with carrying Paul’s letter from Cenchrea, in present day Greece, to Rome, a six-hundred mile journey over land and sea. One wonders if the folk in that embryonic church in the male-dominated environment of Rome were surprised, sat up and took notice. Then, as now, actions spoke louder than words.
Looking back, we see men and women together being the diakonos, serving a loving God who sees whatever we do in his service of equal value, and gives us all the distinction of being his family.
I end with a short verse from Margaret Bailey:
God, give me sympathy and common sense
and help me home with courage high.
God give me calm and confidence
and please, a twinkle in my eye.